Women aim not to get run over


By Paul Kennedy, @pkedit

U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis has a warning: “If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.”

The USA has won two Women’s World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals — including the last three in a row — and it puts more money behind women’s soccer than any other country in the world. But that won’t be enough to keep the USA on top for very long.

In the last youth cycle, the U-20s did not make it past the quarterfinals and the U-17s did not even make it to the world championships. The USA will head to the Women’s World Cup this summer in Canada as one of six seeds. Sure, it will be one of the favorites, but a case can just as easily be made that all the other seeds except for the host Canadians are as good or better than the USA.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is not about to let the results of recent years, good or bad, cloud the big picture. That’s true for the senior national team, beaten finalist on penalty kicks at the 2011 Women’s World Cup yet the gold-medalist a year later, and for the two young teams, who both exited in shootouts in the last cycle.

“On the youth side — it’s true on the men’s side and women’s side — it’s very hard other than looking at a specific tournament in a cycle to evaluate the program beyond that group of players,” Gulati said in a conference call to update reporters on women’s initiatives. “So while this last under-20 team lost in the quarterfinals, the previous under-20 team won the world championship. The team before that lost in the quarterfinals, I think. Prior to that we won it. So there is no long-term trend there. The long-term trend is that there are a lot more teams around the world, a lot more federations spending a lot more time, money and resources on the women’s program. That’s a positive thing, so achieving the sort of results like winning every time is not practical.”

April Heinrichs, the U.S. women’s technical director, says the goal of the women’s program is still to win at every level, but U.S. Soccer is putting a new emphasis on development in an attempt to stay ahead.

“The expectations in terms of our community and our fan base and even U.S. Soccer is to find ways to win,” she said, “but we want to make sure that along the process, we are not sacrificing development pieces, like playing time, opportunity to play different styles of play, different opponents.”

As a means of evaluating the women’s program at the youth level, U.S. Soccer is tracking the number of players it is sending through to the next level — a key component for the U-20s — and emphasizing other less tangible things at the younger levels — style of play, quality of coaching, the quality of the training sessions.

Of the 28 national team players Ellis brought into January camp, 19 played for the USA at the U-19 or U-20 World Cups. Of the nine who didn’t, six finished their youth careers before the first youth world championship for women was held in 2002. That leaves just three players — Whitney Engen, Ali Krieger and Christen Press — who came through the ranks without going to a world championship.

U.S. Soccer is exploring three initiatives that it hopes will strengthen the women’s program:

— residency program for girls;
— development academy for girls; and
— summer program for college women.

“I think it is quite likely that at least a couple of those programs will be implemented relatively shortly,” said Gulati, “and we’ll look at all three.”

The most ambitious is a residency program different from the under-17 boys program that has been operated in Bradenton, Fla., since 1999 with a new cycle of players coming in every two years after the Under-17 World Cup.

“On the girls side,” Gulati said, “what April and others have come to us with is a program that would not be tournament-focused with a specific age group, but development-focused. So players in multiple age groups playing a lot of competitions, as much competition as we can get them. Really very much development-based with no specific event at the end of that process.”

For Heinrichs, the emphasis would not be on one age group.

“One of the biggest differences between girls soccer and boys soccer is girls can and should and need to play up,” she said. “You don’t often hear of a kid from Colorado playing up four birth years at the national team level on the boys side. But on the women’s side it’s needed.”

(Heinrichs was referring to 16-year-old Mallory Pugh, who started for the USA at the 2014 Under-20 World Cup.)

“We need girls to play up more often, push them more, challenge them, to get them out of their comfort zone,” she said. “We still need more international games. As much money as we’ve put toward the national team program, we need more international games because we are lagging behind top teams in Europe in terms of the average number games their young players play.”

The measuring stick, Heinrichs says, would be the number of players the residency program pushes up to their next age group. But there is also a more intangible goal: creating a greater soccer culture and better playing environment for younger girls to thrive in.

The other two women’s initiatives are more straightforward.

U.S. Soccer works with the ECNL, the 77-club circuit operating nationally in five age groups, in terms of player development. The next step would for U.S. Soccer to operate an academy-like setup like it does on the boys side with the Development Academy with its own rules for monitoring player development. To provide more opportunities for college players, U.S. Soccer is looking into launching a summer program perhaps in conjunction with the NWSL, the women’s pro league it manages. (Gulati reiterated that U.S. Soccer is also considering operating a summer league on the men’s side.)

He stressed the difference between the men’s and women’s game in terms of the role of college soccer.

“The third piece is recognizing that it is still the case that on the girls side college soccer is absolutely going to continue to be a very important piece of development,” Gulati said. “Over the last 25 years, I can name certainly only one top player [Lindsey Horan at Paris St. Germain] who’s chosen to opt out of college initially and play professional soccer. With that being an important piece, how do we supplement the program, how do we make it better in the offseason?”

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