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Commentary Jan 07, 2016

Guest Commentary: U.S. Soccer will have to get girls Development Academy perfect in order to improve on ECNL

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By Skye Eddy Bruce, SoccerParenting.com

Editor’s note: Skye Eddy Bruce is the founder of The Institute for Soccer Parenting, a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. Skye holds her USSF “B” License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is a parent and coach educator. She has coached at all levels of youth sports from Under-5 recreation to the U.S. national team programs and currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club. She can be contacted via email ([email protected]) and her Twitter feed can be found here

When U.S. Soccer launched the Development Academy for boys in 2007, many people questioned the lack of gender parity involved in NOT also launching a girls Development Academy. At that time, U.S. Soccer said they decided not to simultaneously launch a girls version of the DA because of the fact that the U.S. Women’s National Team had long been ranked among the top five in the world.

Simply put, U.S. Soccer didn’t find it necessary.

Observant and acutely aware of deficiencies that the federation didn’t recognize or acknowledge in the structure of the nation’s youth development model for girls, a handful of experienced youth club directors created the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL).

+ READ: Find more ECNL news on SoccerWire.com

Much credit goes to the leadership of the ECNL for being willing to do what U.S. Soccer wasn’t willing to. Although certainly not perfect, since its inception in 2009, the ECNL has established a league where 80 to 90 percent of U.S. youth national team player pool competes, where the practice-to-game ratio is in line with Development Academy standards and where, importantly, every single game is ferociously competitive.

If you attend an ECNL National Showcase Event, you will be witness to a professional environment for the majority of our nation’s best female youth players and coaches. Hundreds of college and U.S. Soccer scouts are in attendance, just like you would witness if you attended a boys Development Academy national event.

Given the ECNL’s success, why does U.S. Soccer want to launch a girls Development Academy? Could the money be better spent elsewhere in the girls youth game?

U.S. Soccer is an organization known for its narrow, top-down approach to management. There is an underlying culture of plausible deniability at the federation, where officials talk about decisions that “U.S. Soccer has made” but no one is willing to claim responsibility. For instance, no one specifically could be contacted about the recent birth-year changes, and no one I have contacted with U.S. Soccer seems to know details about the girls Development Academy decision.

April HeinrichsAll we know about the girls DA launching is that just before the 2015 U.S. Soccer annual general meeting — shortly before the budget was approved — a line item for a girls Development Academy was added to the budget.

The recent reporting by SoccerWire about the launching of the girls DA is surprising because of the strong and collaborative relationship that currently exists between the ECNL and U.S. Soccer. Here’s what April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, said about the ECNL in a TopDrawerSoccer.com interview:

“[The] ECNL has been a great partner for us. They are very open to feedback from us, and our interaction with scouting players, coaching education initiatives and that kind of thing. They basically took a great model [Development Academy] and mirrored it, without any of the resources that U.S. Soccer puts toward the DA. They’ve mirrored it with some good leaders who believed it was the right thing to do, and in a short time they’ve built it into something very good to compete in. We want to continue to interact with them.”

So, why the sudden and seemingly veiled change of heart?

From a strategic and managerial perspective, having similar organizational structures for the boys and girls programs makes good sense. Additionally, it’s important that U.S. Soccer continue to lead the world by providing comparable opportunities for our boys and girls national team programs. With so many instances of the lack of gender parity amongst the men and women – the USWNT having to cancel a recent game in Hawaii due to poor field conditions, or the Women’s World Cup being played on turf, for example – adding a girls DA is a good move.

+READ: Lingering questions link U.S. Women, Aloha Stadium and Aerosmith

If the establishment of the girls Development Academy is simply a move along U.S. Soccer’s path to gender parity, U.S. Soccer must step back and evaluate the move closely.

THERE MUST BE A PLAN, AND IT MUST BE EXECUTED TO PERFECTION.

The girls deserve it.

While the news of a girls DA elicits a sentiment of “finally” on one hand, it elicits a sentiment of “oh no” on the other. A viable and successful league of that sort is already in place via the ECNL, so if they’re bound and determined to disrupt that, U.S. Soccer must be thorough and thoughtful in their planning to ensure an equally competitive environment. Additionally, there is an “oh no” sentiment created by the fear that the end result of introducing a girls Development Academy will be two weaker, watered-down competition platforms.

richmond-united-ecnl-jeffcupUnsettlingly, there are many indications that the U.S. Soccer’s introduction of a girls DA is a haphazardly approached project.

Just 18 months away from kickoff and:

  • U.S. Soccer has not had any communication with the ECNL
  • No public communications have been regarding a girls Development Academy, or its relationship to the NWSL
  • When top U.S. Soccer coaches and scouts are asked about the girls  DA, they have no information to provide because, as they put it, they have not been informed of anything from the administration of U.S. Soccer as to the specific plan.

If there is any dropoff in competition level with a transition from the ECNL to a girls Development Academy, it will be a further demonstration of U.S. Soccer’s pattern of lacking a thoughtful strategic process when making big decisions. Once again, it will cause people to question the quality and capacity of U.S. Soccer’s administrators.

The ECNL is already a close partner with U.S. Soccer and is, accordingly to their leadership, “open to more collaboration with U.S. Soccer.”

Why not create a league that is a U.S. Soccer and ECNL collaboration, put in place some new policies and programs if necessary, and establish a U.S. Soccer Girls ECNL Development Academy?

+READ: ECNL releases 2016 postseason overview, competition structure

With U.S. Soccer’s financial resources growing but inherently limited, and with the quality of the ECNL already established, would the money that was allocated in the 2016 budget be better spent developing more players and coaches and supporting families, rather than essentially re-creating the current ECNL infrastructure and possibly weakening the overall level of competition for our most talented girls?

WAGSQUAL-Broll-parentsI would imagine the parents of our best female youth players would MUCH RATHER U.S. Soccer use the money allocated in the budget to supplement their children’s travel expenses to ECNL Championship Events, to pilot an extensive educational program for female youth coaches – or even to create a model similar to the federation’s Bradenton Residency Program for the U-17 boys squad in Florida – rather than run the risk of a dropoff in competition level.

While U.S. Soccer’s move towards gender parity on the Development Academy front is commendable and welcome, if they are going to do this, they must DO IT RIGHT.

The nation’s most talented girls deserve the top-quality competition and the exceptional culture of player development and engagement they have become accustomed to through the ECNL. Anything else would  be a fiasco of epic proportions.

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