It was first raised as a possibility by president Sunil Gulati & Co. nearly a year ago, it’s been grinding through the rumor mill for months and now it’s apparently a done deal.
The U.S. Soccer Federation will launch a girls’ equivalent of the Development Academy, the nationwide youth league of top clubs intended to groom future professional and national-team players.
Multiple sources have confirmed to SoccerWire.com that U.S. Soccer is preparing to launch this new initiative in the fall of 2017. An official announcement could come as early as next month, when most of the U.S. soccer world gathers in Baltimore for the NSCAA Convention.
As of Tuesday afternoon, USSF officials had not responded to requests for comment. ECNL president Christian Lavers declined to comment on the subject when reached by SoccerWire.com.
This development has major implications for the nation’s youth soccer landscape, on a level that is comparable in scale to the rise of the Development Academy – yet different in significant ways.
The Elite Clubs National League has grown into a competition of similar size, scope and quality to the DA since its founding by a group of ambitious youth clubs in 2009. Though it receives no funding from the federation, the ECNL has provided much the same service to U.S. Soccer as the DA: It’s become the most competitive league in the country, home to the densest collection of talent from the Under-14 through U-18 age groups and the main source of personnel for U.S. youth national teams.
The ECNL is led primarily by its member clubs and the DA – which debuted in 2007 – is run in a top-down fashion akin to other USSF projects. But in many other respects, the two leagues are mirror images.
Both are highly selective, fiercely competitive on all levels and standard-bearers of the “club-centric” model of development. Both provide players with unparalleled exposure to recruiters from leading NCAA programs (and on the boys side, a growing number of players are finding more direct routes into the professional game).
Strangely enough, both leagues even have 79 member clubs at present.
The ECNL has long cultivated a collaborative relationship with the women’s side of the federation, guided by complementary values and leadership personalities and girded by the strong financial support of Nike, a leading sponsor of both organizations.
Yet sources tell SoccerWire.com that USSF has yet to communicate its plans to ECNL leadership, or explain why it feels compelled to build a completely new league from scratch when ECNL has been working hand in glove with federation coaches to improve the developmental pathway for talented young female players.
One source said that the federation envisions ECNL as the second tier of national girls’ competition, one rung underneath the new initiative.
At the moment it’s unclear how far along the federation’s plans are for this new league, or whether its name, competition structure and membership have been determined. Another source suggested that the girls DA may be built on the rapidly-growing youth systems of the National Women’s Soccer League, the professional league founded and operated by U.S. Soccer. But there are still only 10 clubs in the NWSL, and large swaths of the nation’s talent pool fall well outside their reach.
USSF executives are deeply proud of U.S. women’s success on the world stage, most prominently the reigning World Cup champions of the senior national team. They’re also sensitive to charges of gender inequity, and the widespread perception that the United States is frittering away its longstanding global superiority in the women’s game.
The federation’s leadership may have felt compelled to create their own league in light of the keen rivalry between US Club Soccer, the sanctioning body of which the ECNL is a member, and US Youth Soccer, the larger incumbent which is home to most of the country’s recreational players but also offers elite competitions like National League and the “premier leagues” of its four regional subdivisions.
These are just a few of the many questions that hang over the federation’s new project, and the clock is already ticking down towards its fall 2017 debut.