U.S. Soccer quietly weighing youth development overhaul as USWNT eye future
The U.S. Soccer Federation might put in a residency program for talented youth players, similar to but not exactly like the boys’ Under-17 program at Bradenton, Florida. They might form a Development Academy like the one they operate on the boys’ side. They might be able to switch college soccer to a fall-spring season and work out ways for college players to be in NWSL environments in the summer.
Or they might not.
U.S. Soccer floated these changes, which stemmed from a task force that met for four years, on a recent media conference call. They also released the U.S. Women’s National Team schedule for the six months leading up to the Women’s World Cup, including the fan-pleasing development that all of those games will be televised. But the bulk of the questions were about Hope Solo’s suspension and other current issues with the national team.
The media can’t really be blamed for focusing on Topic A. It’s every other actor in the rich pageantry of American soccer — the ECNL, the W-League, the WPSL, U.S. Club & Youth Soccer, ODP, even the NCAA — who needs to focus on the trial balloons being tentatively released into the air. They’re the ones who need to speak now or forever hold their peace.
In the short term, the only certainty is uncertainty. In the long term, the USSF looks poised to take on a greater leadership role, laying down mandates for player development and imposing some order on a chaotic youth soccer landscape.
If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over. – Jill Ellis
“For us to continue to compete for world championships and Olympic medals, we have to continue to evolve,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said in the conference call. “If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.”
And U.S. Soccer certainly isn’t sitting still. The federation has been on a five-year hiring binge, raising the number of full-time youth national team technical staffers from zero to 11.
Some of the initiatives on the table simply mirror what’s going on with boys’ soccer. U.S. Soccer and MLS club Sporting KC have partnered on a new National Coaching Education Center, they’re upgrading coaching license standards, and they’re launching an online initiative to spread coaching education through the grass roots.
The USSF is stepping into college soccer to see what can be changed, especially spreading out the games through a longer playing season rather than cramming 20-plus games into the fall.
“On the girls side, college soccer is going to continue to be a very important piece of development,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said, noting that only one notable player (Lindsey Horan) has skipped college.
The Development Academy would look the same as the boys’ program. The residency program wouldn’t be exactly the same as the boys’ program in Bradenton, focusing on more players in more age groups and not focusing specifically on one tournament. Summer play for college players, perhaps in conjunction with the NWSL, mirrors a program U.S. Soccer is discussing for college men.
“I think it’s quite likely that at least a couple of those programs will be implemented relatively shortly,” Gulati said.
So as tentative as these initiatives seem now, the momentum is clear. The landscape of elite youth and college play will change. It’s a matter of how and how much. Then it’s a question of how effective it’ll be in comparison to the well-organized German system, a recently revitalized Chinese program and evolving development schemes around the world.