USSF's Girls' Development Academy Has It All Wrong
March 01, 2016
LAST TUESDAY the United States Soccer Federation announced the launch of a Girls' Development Academy, slated to begin play in 2017.
As expected, this new initiative included a ban on high school soccer for those girls participating in the academy, stating in a press release, “The players in the Girls' Development Academy clubs will play exclusively within the Academy program and will not play in any outside competition, such as ODP or high school.”
This latest move is only one of a number of foolhardy steps youth clubs have taken over the past decade to weaken the game at the high school level.
Fifteen years ago, the move toward full-year club soccer began in earnest as a number of self-designated “elite” clubs began to offer that option. Then, in 2007, U.S. Soccer launched the Boys’ Development Academy, which went to a year-round model in 2012.
Built on a series of misconceptions, these actions have put players in a difficult position, and at the same time ignore the many benefits that often accompany high school play. (Full disclosure: I have coached 19 seasons at the high school varsity level—my bona fides are listed here.)
MYTH OF THE “FAILED AMERICAN SYSTEM”
One myth popular with those who criticize high school play and the American youth system is that the U.S. cannot grow into a leading soccer nation without year-round club soccer. However, a quick look at the roster of the 2015 World Cup-winning United States women’s national team dispels that notion. Of the 23 players on that roster, 21 played high school soccer. And anyone who thinks that this stat only represents an older generation of players is ignoring the facts.
The U.S.’ current roster is full of young, technical players who played high school soccer—and other sports. The vast majority of those players did not play full-year club soccer and many even played multiple high school sports.
Morgan Brian, who won the Golden Ball at the 2016 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, played high school soccer. So did Christen Press, who over the past year has scored some of the most technically impressive goals in U.S. soccer history.
Tobin Heath and Lauren Holiday, widely regarded as the two most technical players in the last World Cup cycle, both played high school soccer. So did Becky Sauerbrunn, who many regard as the best defender in the world.
For good measure, add in American stars Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd (the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year), Ali Krieger, and Kelley O’Hara—all of whom played at the high school level. Mallory Pugh, the 17-year-old phenom who recently broke into the national team, plays high school soccer, as did Emily Sonnett, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NWSL draft.
To produce world-class players, the American system does not need to be a year-round club system. Nor does it need to be a soccer-only system.
Abby Wambach, the world’s all-time international goal-scorer, built a career on her aerial prowess. However, she doesn’t credit that success to her youth soccer days—she says it came about from playing basketball. “Learning the timing of your jump, learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim, all those things play a massive role,” Wambach told USA Today during the 2015 World Cup.
Brian played four years of high school basketball and won All-State honors on the hardwood. Press lettered in track and tennis. Morgan ran varsity track and played volleyball.
Lauren Holiday also played varsity basketball. In the same USA Today article, Holiday added this: “Having that variety is an awesome thing and I would encourage any young athlete or parent not to restrict themselves. Doing different things develops different parts of your body. It can help prevent injuries and definitely help prevent burnout.”
THE LIE OF THE COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIP
One benefit U.S. Soccer is touting with the new academy system is the “college track”—the same “advantage” elite clubs have pushed for years. However, that argument has many flaws.
First, anyone associated with the current process of college recruiting knows it is deeply flawed. The process starts entirely too early with players commonly being recruited—through surrogates to avoid NCAA restrictions—when they are 15 years old. Top players commonly make their verbal commitments as sophomores. In 2014, The New York Times published a terrifying piece detailing how the recruiting process is now beginning with eighth graders. In the article, even the coaches themselves conceded the process is broken.
This tendency presents a number of problems. Colleges have no idea how these players will develop—or worse, regress—during the next two years before they ever step onto a college soccer field.
Schools also completely miss out on any late bloomers, or players they missed who didn’t happen to have the right club pedigree. Top schools often completely ignore players who have breakout seasons as seniors because they are already finished recruiting that class. It’s impossible to imagine that scenario in a sport like football or basketball, but in girls’ soccer, it happens every year.
Worse yet are the players who skip high school completely only to find no offers coming their way via the club route. Many club players, who mistakenly believe they are Division I prospects, end up at DIII schools (which can’t offer athletic scholarships) they could have easily played at even if they had played at the high school level.
In recent years players have gotten around the high school ban—it already exists in the boy’s academy and many clubs either explicitly or implicitly prohibit it—by playing high school soccer during their senior year when the club no longer holds anything over their heads.
In some unfortunate cases, Division I-quality players go completely unnoticed, either because they didn’t start for their respective clubs, or play with the club’s “B” team. (Another dirty little secret of many clubs are their “C” and “D” teams, where they will gladly dump less talented players if their parents are willing to write a check).
Ironically, some of these same players would have had a better chance at a scholarship had they played high school ball, instead of exclusively focusing on the club game. Although rare, some players with nothing greater than recreational club experience end up securing Division I scholarships solely through their high school play.
Even scarier are the vast number of players who quit the game entirely by the time they graduate high school because they are burned out from a half decade of specialization. And many who do start their college careers don’t finish it (47 of my former players went on to play collegiately—18 finished a four-year career, 20 quit or transferred—nine are still active).
Often, it is parents pushing their children into the idea of playing in college. In almost every case, 13- or 14 year-old kids don’t realize what they are getting into. Interests change as children go through their formative teenage years, but the academy system still begins at the U-14 level. Most elite clubs start even earlier than that.
Additionally, most players have no idea what playing in college is really like, especially at the Division I level where it is basically a full-time job that must be done in addition to their studies.
When a 15- or 16-year-old does finally commit, they are essentially saying they already know what they want in college two years down the line. To expect any kid to make a well-informed decision at that age is just plain crazy.
Parents also don’t realize the enormous financial costs of the whole process. In their minds, they are thinking of full-ride scholarships like the ones they see in basketball or football. In reality, these are virtually non-existent in the college soccer world. Most players are getting a few thousand dollars a year to help with tuition. Stacked next to the thousands of dollars spent for six years on club fees; flights; hotels associated with “showcase” tournaments; gear; commutes to daily practices; and weekend ECNL or MRL games—the margins disappear completely.
In reality, parents would be much better off spending those six years putting that money into a mutual fund to pay college costs down the line.
Still, it’s not as if anyone should expect parents to know better. Most of them have no experience in the process and, like most parents, they fear inaction on their part will leave their child behind. This is a fear U.S. Soccer is counting on when U.S. women’s technical director April Heinrichs says things like this: “They’re still going to have that choice [to play high school] if they want to, but girls that want to play on a college track aren’t going to be able to do that.”
For whatever reason, the United States is in a massive rush to develop child soccer prodigies without thinking about the thousands of players they will sacrifice to the scrap heap in the process. Skip high school, forego all other sports, dedicate your life to this—maybe it will all work out.
Many HIGH SCHOOL COACHES are good
Closely tied in with the myth that playing high school stunts player development or will cost girls a scholarship is the idea that high school coaches—who are mostly teachers—are tactical Neanderthals, espousing a “boot it forward, athleticism above all else” mentality. That presumption ignores the vast majority of high school coaches who dedicate a significant amount of time to honing their craft, attending clinics, reading books, reviewing film, working on tactical evolutions, and becoming students of the game.
Many elite club coaches and college coaches are the ones embracing this direct and regressive style, basing their entire strategy on winning with athleticism and set pieces. Winning then gives them legitimacy in the eyes of parents and the uninformed. Top Drawer Soccer’s Will Parchman examined this phenomenon among Division I coaches in an excellent piece published just last week.
The coaching myth also ignores the many benefits of having teachers acting as coaches—the first being that they are professional educators. Their job, and life experience, is teaching concepts and skills to youngsters, and then getting those children to implement those concepts and demonstrate those skills.
Interestingly enough, The Atlantic recently shared a wonderful piece on U.S. Soccer’s effort to bring famed educator Doug Lemov into the fold. Why? Because U.S. Soccer realized its coaches needed to know how to be better teachers.
The article quotes Dave Chesler, U.S. Soccer’s director of coaching development, on the fundamental reason teachers make great coaches: “For 20 years, we had focused almost exclusively on closing our global gap in the technical and tactical components of the game. In doing this, perhaps we had lost perspective on the quality of our delivery—aka the essential mechanics of teaching. ”
It’s hard not to appreciate the irony.
In most cases, teachers functioning as coaches boast decades of experience working with kids—and are professionally trained to do so. Worrying to many teacher-coaches are the standards of respect often lacking in the club environment. Coaches throw temper tantrums on the sidelines, verbally abuse referees and belittle their own players. Sometimes the players mimic the behavior of their coaches and miss out on scholarship opportunities as a result, misbehaving in front of college scouts.
And that’s just what happens on the field. Over the years, stories have circulated about club coaches acting inappropriately with their players at out-of-state tournaments, and even having sexual affairs with the parents of their players. Some egomaniacal coaches destroy clubs and move on to form their own—leaving the children they coach, painfully, in the lurch.
Not surprisingly, the new academy specifically mentions coaching behavior in its new plan, saying the new program will have “zero tolerance for poor behavior from coaches.”
Finally, most teachers realize the long-term end goal of the process is developing world-class human beings, not soccer players. The lessons soccer should be teaching children have nothing to do with tactics, or techniques. Those lessons should be about perseverance, team work and sacrifice—lessons that will serve players the rest of their lives.
Anson Dorrance, the legendary coach at the University of North Carolina who also coached the U.S. women to a World Cup title in 1991, recently shared a story that epitomizes this view. Amos Alonzo Stagg coached football at the University of Chicago at the turn of the century. Upon winning the 1913 national championship, a reporter asked him, “Coach, what did you think of your team?”
Stagg replied, “I’ll tell you in 20 years.”
THE SCRAP HEAP OF BROKEN DREAMS
U.S. Soccer has stated that it is building its academy system “in an effort to accelerate the development of world-class female players.”
Besides the fact the United States are the reigning World Cup and Olympic champions and already producing world-class players, there seems to be little concern about the thousands of academy players each year who won't reach "world-class" status.
Sold a bill of goods, they forego the high school experience and dedicate years of their lives and thousands of dollars for a chance at a partial college scholarship. They do so at 15 years of age, having no idea what they will really want two or three years from now.
Some players skip all four years of high school to focus on preparing for collegiate play and the recruiting process. Too many quit the game completely before ever stepping onto a collegiate field.
For those who do make it through the system, playing professionally is only a reality for a select few. In the 2016 NWSL draft, teams drafted 40 players from the college ranks—even fewer will make their teams’ regular season roster. Achieving national team status is far more difficult than even those limited odds.
Everyone also seems to ignore the role of money in this system. Most club coaches are well paid, but their reliance on that income leads to many problems. Winning takes precedence over development because wins are required to sell the club to parents looking for the “best” clubs. This competitive environment also leads to unethical behavior like player poaching, prioritizing recruitment over developing the players already on the team (the ones who are already paying customers), and coaches exaggerating their ability to get players scholarships.
Meanwhile, parents are too willing to gobble up this narrative, fork over their hard-earned cash and walk down the primrose path—one that ends with a cliff for far too many families.
High school programs, on the other hand, are free or accessible with a small fee participation fee—most schools include uniforms, coaching, practice facilities, referee fees and transportation in the cost.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME EXPERIENCE
The club-only route also takes away one of the most formative experiences of high school, namely sports. Playing with one’s friends and for ones’ school is a missed experience that club soccer players will never get back. Most former athletes are still friends with their high school teammates and anyone who has experienced it will tell you there is something special about game day on a school team. Teachers throughout the day wish the athletes good luck. Friends and classmates come to the games. Rivalries and tradition abound. Most schools go out of their way to celebrate special victories and championships. Trophies and banners are displayed forever.
Eric Wynalda, certainly no friend of the “American system” of developing soccer players, shared this at the 2016 NSCAA Convention.
Eric Wynalda, one of biggest critics of the American system, said this in January. pic.twitter.com/tTCdFHkVdm— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) February 23, 2016
The club experience often feels like a sanitized version of high school sports. Friendships exist, but players tend to shift rapidly among clubs from year to year. Club athletes go about their school day without their classmates, teachers, or friends knowing about games occurring that afternoon or weekend. Parents are usually the only spectators at sparsely attended games. Rivalries and traditions are invariably short-lived. No one outside of the players and their parents know, or care, about successes or failures. Clubs are formed, switch locations, and are sometimes dissolved. Players are worried about exposure; coaches are worried about bottom lines.
WHERE THE ACADEMY GETS IT RIGHT
None of this is to say the academy system, or club soccer, are without benefits. Nor is it to say that America’s current system doesn’t have flaws. Nor is it to say high school soccer is perfect.
In addition to the positive coaching initiative, the academy has the potential to reduce prohibitive club costs through scholarships—a feature already in place among some academy teams on the boy’s side. How fast that happens and how broad that financial aid might be is anyone’s guess.
The academy system is also proposing a “no re-entry, limited substitutions” model that should force teams to rely less on their depth and more on possession. High schools allow free and unlimited substitutions—placing an emphasis on more participation—while current club models and the college game rely on no re-entry for first-half subs and one re-entry for second-half substitutes.
It’s also difficult to argue that the concentration of talent in a club model doesn’t force players to get better. It does. However, that doesn’t mean club soccer needs to be year-round, or that a soccer-only model is best.
The high school season represents a much-needed break for many players from the unrelenting pressure of the club environment. Many club players remark how much “fun” they have playing high school soccer—an idea of just how badly some clubs have missed the original purpose of youth sports.
Younger players also benefit from playing varsity soccer as a freshman or sophomore, essentially “playing up” against girls bigger, faster and stronger than they are. Heinrichs herself indicated the advantage of this when she recently said, “Playing up is a really important part of development.”
In some cases, the club environment does serve players better than their high school program will. As much as this piece details the bad behavior of club coaches, there are bad high school coaches. There are coaches who scream too much and teach too little. Not every girl who plays high school has a good experience.
There is also a greater disparity between teams in high school play, lowering the level of competition throughout a season. It’s understandable why a top player with an ultra-competitive mindset might not want to play for their high school club if their team is downright terrible.
There are also great club coaches, ones who place life lessons and development ahead of a “win-now” mentality. Many of them are good people who do things the right way and have the best interests of their players at heart.
The academy system, however, has taken away that choice and banned high school soccer. Many current clubs do the same, whether explicitly or implicitly. In both cases, they are forcing players into the “one system fits all” mindset.
Heinrichs—a two-time All-State selection at Heritage High School in Colorado—claims that players don’t really want to play high school soccer, but are being pressured to do so.
She then seemingly ignores the fact that the academy system does the exact same thing when it takes the choice away from players.
Heinrichs also sees the academy program as the future of the national team program, stating, “The [academy] games will be scouted by U.S. Soccer and the program will serve as a pathway to U.S. Soccer's Youth National Teams.” She also indicated 80-90% of youth national team players will now come from U.S. Soccer’s internal system.
Two questions emerge from those statements:
1. How well has that system worked out on the boys’ side—which has had an academy system in place for nearly a decade and where U.S. youth teams continue to perform poorly in international competitions?
2. Why on earth would anyone want to limit their player pool in this manner?
Don’t take the decision away from the kids; don’t limit their freedom of choice. As they’ve done for years now, if given a choice, some players will go year-round club, some will play both club and high school.
The trick isn’t to create a single path to a college scholarship or the national team. The trick is to scout the various pathways that are in place and find the talent that already exists—as the U.S. has done in winning three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals.
The current system, and high school soccer, helped develop Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, Christen Press, Ali Krieger, Lauren Holiday, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett.
It would be foolish to change it.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.