ECNL all-stars’ England trip breaks new ground for elite girls’ soccer

By Chris Hummer

With three convincing wins by a combined 18-3 margin over top non-professional teams from Bristol Academy, Chelsea and Aston Villa on their trip to England earlier this month, the 2011 ECNL/id2 International Tour — the first-ever ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) team to assemble for a competition as an all-star team — clearly caught their hosts by surprise.

In fact, those teams never really had a chance.

Rarely, if ever, has such a talented squad that was not an official national team been assembled and sent on a fully funded trip like this. So dominating was this team’s performance, not even coaches Jay Howell or Chris King likely understood just how well their group would perform, given that most of the players had only met barely 24 hours before the first kickoff on August 10 in Bristol.

The opponents in England were not bad in any way, either. This ECNL team would likely have run roughshod over any Under-17 club team in the USA in similar fashion, the same as it should be assumed the full U-17 U.S. National Team would.

Rather than condemn girls’ youth soccer in England as a result of this trip, the takeaway rather should be a ringing endorsement of the talent identification process undertaken by the ECNL and their sanctioning body, U.S. Club Soccer. To pull together a team for the first time in history that clearly would stand toe-to-toe with most youth national teams or European professional sides is a clear sign the league is already delivering on the promise of its name.

Am I biased? Maybe a little, as I do coach for an ECNL club (but not an ECNL team at the moment). But it’s hard not to be impressed from any perspective. And of course the league itself did not make these players from scratch. In speaking with each player at length about their backgrounds, most have been involved in ODP at some point in their soccer lives, and already played for top club teams.

However, to a player, they each credit the advent of the ECNL with ‘increasing the seriousness of their training,’ and providing a format where ‘every game we play means something, and is against a great opponent.’ That was the vision of the founders of this league – to provide an environment exactly as these players described.

Regardless of how the team found its way to England, or where they came from, the verdict on their quality was universal from some of the best women’s soccer minds in England. After each match, the opposing coaches and fans stood in awe of the physical dominance and conditioning of the ECNL players, and in shock that they had all just met and were not in the middle of a competitive season as a regular club team.

For all involved, it certainly seems clear the only way a team like this in the future will find appropriate levels of competition will be to go up against the full Women’s Super League teams (England’s WPS equivalent) or national teams.

The selection of this team began last fall, when coaches from ECNL teams took turns scouting matches at ECNL events. Each club is assigned a scouting schedule where they have to staff at least three games throughout a three-day play date, ranking players and providing feedback. Of course, they cannot scout a match involving their own club. After each match, coaches of those teams also nominate their own top players. All of that feedback is then combined with other scouting reports and public id2 national camp nomination forms submitted to U.S. Club Soccer, and an invitation list for national ECNL/id2 camp goes out.

Last February, over 80 players attended the camp, which was staffed by U.S. National Team and ECNL coaches, and heavily attended by college scouts. Over the summer, invitations when out to the 17 top players, and every single one of them accepted the honor.

The momentum and credibility built on this trip should be another big feather in the caps of all the coaches who had the vision to begin the ECNL, and all the clubs who have signed on since. The relatively new league, with the support of U.S. Club Soccer and Nike, has clearly established itself in record time as a premier talent identification and development program, and one which finally removes the financial wherewithal of families from factoring into the advancement of the players to the next level.

And so the process begins again. Another season of ECNL play kicked off last weekend with the first-ever regional games, with most clubs scheduled to see their first action this coming weekend. With an expanded schedule format, more age groups, and 14 new clubs, the 2011-12 ECNL season will include over 5,000 games.

It’s a demanding schedule that has caused many of the member clubs to skip their State Cup competitions and other traditional showcase tournaments or regional leagues for the first time. That shift will likely change the competitive landscape in the USA for girls in a similar way to what the boys experienced with the advent of the Development Academy. If so, could the U.S. Soccer Federation be far behind? Or might they allow what looks like a good thing to keep right on going on its own?

Time will tell, but wherever the future lies, look for another elite group of players to make another trek overseas next summer. And if the quality of those players keeps increasing at the same rate year over year as this summer’s group, look for similarly lopsided results against any opponents other than full professionals or national teams.

[ +Click here for more coverage and information on the 2011 ECNL/id2 International Tour of England ]