When the newfound girls Development Academy was officially set in stone earlier this year, there was a thin, barely concealed line scrawled in the sand.
U.S. Soccer entered into a club space with an already operational girls club league, the ECNL, and clubs suddenly had a decision to make. Some are big enough to have offerings in multiple leagues – PDA, for example, has 41 different girls teams, and obviously not all of them play in the ECNL – but some smaller clubs would have to choose between the two leagues outright.
The lines, it would appear, have begun to form.
On Thursday, U.S. Soccer announced the first batch of entrants to its new league, which doesn’t start play until the fall of 2017. The training requirements are a bit more rigorous than the ECNL, which has historically prided itself on being a bit more hands off in its top-down approach than what U.S. Soccer has done with its boys DA. It plans on porting that philosophy to the girls side, which will have things like training requirements, staff licensing thresholds and heightened scrutiny on club leadership.
These are those clubs. Twenty five of them, to be exact.
One thing you’ll notice straight off is the targeted inclusion of professional NWSL clubs. The Orlando Pride, Seattle Reign, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, Portland Thorns and Boston Breakers are all represented. That’s 60 percent of the league in just the initial wave of teams. The four holdouts so far: the Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, FC Kansas City and Western New York Flash. For all its success, the ECNL largely failed to court these NWSL-connected academies and had none on its 79-team roster for the 2015-16 season. We’ll see if the remaining 40 percent of the league follows suit in the months to come.
The other interesting wrinkle is the addition of club partnerships, something that largely was not done in the ECNL. Cincinnati-area clubs Kings Hammer and C.U.P. are joining forces into one girls DA conglomerate, while Slammers FC (LAFC), Orlando Pride (Orlando City) and PDA (Sky Blue FC) are each teaming up with professional clubs for a single DA entrant.
The PDA-Sky Blue partnership is perhaps the most interesting. U.S. Soccer is following the track it took with its boys academy and only including three age groups to start: U14, U16 and U18 (the ECNL has five, bridging each with dedicated U15 and U17 ages). In those age groups alone, PDA has 19 girls teams currently competing in a variety of leagues, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one each allocated to the DA.
Still, hooking a club like PDA off the bat is a huge coup for U.S. Soccer, which needed to bring a heavy hitter on board to lend an air of legitimacy to the endeavor. There probably won’t be much out-and-out animosity between clubs that choose to stay in the ECNL, those that choose to leave and the larger entities who play both sides. But U.S. Soccer certainly hoped to pull an impressive catch on board early to sway some clubs on the fence. And that’s PDA, unquestionably the biggest name here.
And there are others, to be sure. The Michigan Hawks are a planetary presence in the ECNL, and they’re moving at least a few teams to the DA without a partnership. Crossfire, De Anza Force, So Cal Blues. All big names.
But there are plenty who’ve still yet to commit, which makes the coming months interesting in the framework of will-they or won’t-they. Mega-clubs like Eclipse Select, Dallas Sting, and FC Virginia are still waiting in the wings in a figurative sense. Will they opt to stay or go?
The ECNL’s final unchallenged season as the head of girls soccer development in the U.S. kicks off at the end of the summer. After that? Anyone’s guess as to what happens next.