The second U.S. Soccer officially announced a girls Development Academy earlier this year, you could almost see the soft battle lines forming.
When the boys version was started in 2007, it was dropped into a soccer landscape desperately pleading for a single, unified national league. The men’s game needed a quality underpinning it patently did not have, and the DA was an answer to a market that actively asked for its help.
The girls DA has basically gone about establishing itself in the same way, which is problematic for some clubs. The ECNL, the national league of record and the girls DA’s immediate competition, can claim it’s doing the hard work of producing quality national teamers already. Around 90 percent of almost every YNT camp over the last few years has been made up of ECNL players, including Mallory Pugh, who moonlighted for the full USWNT while still being a part of Real Colorado’s U18 side.
There’s an argument to be made that the girls DA will be better than the ECNL, but will the margin be large enough to justify an all-out split among the nation’s best clubs? And will all of them even join?
On June 30, U.S. Soccer unveiled the first 25 clubs who came forward to join the new league. Among the entrants, PDA and So Cal Blues led an impressive contingent fringed with the surprise inclusion of 60 percent of the NWSL. It was an impressive haul and confirmed that U.S. Soccer’s resources will simply not allow the league to fail or even falter. Whatever it looks like, it’ll succeed in some measure.
A day later, Cincinnati-based club Ohio Elite offered its response. It is not joining the new girls DA.
An ECNL member since the league’s launch in 2009, Ohio Elite’s U17 side notably found its way to the U17 Champions League playoffs this year in Oceanside, Calif., and it boasts an impressive alumni roster of national teamers. In its position letter, OESA noted five points upon which it is abstaining.
On a basic level, it doesn’t see a benefit as it pertains to producing college players, it feels restricting high school soccer is unnecessarily draconian, it feels attached to the ECNL after seven years, it doesn’t believe in the U.S. Soccer mandates (playing style, training schedules, etc), and finally, it simply doesn’t see the need.
The same day, the ECNL released a statement essentially doubling down on its mission. Here’s the critical thesis paragraph.
The ECNL’s fundamental mission is not impacted or changed by external factors, or by other leagues and platforms. The ECNL mission represents a focus on constant improvement, objective assessment, and a push for continual innovation in programming and development. The ECNL mission reflects a total dedication to both support and challenge the member clubs, coaches, and players of the league in the pursuit of being better.
There is no Dardanelles Cannon firing from one line to the next in an effort to break down walls, but you can see a bit of a defensive crouch from the ECNL. It has worked hard to carve out a niche for itself, and U.S. Soccer is coming for it. Or it already has, really. It’s only natural to see it throw up a curtain wall around its gains in hopes it has as few defectors as possible.
Ohio Elite’s last point, this one, is the one I suspect will resonate most with the clubs currently on the fence about joining the girls DA by the start of the 2017 season.
5) End Game
With the vast experience our staff has coaching youth soccer at the highest level we were forced to ask ourselves; what are we doing this for? It is important to us that our players have a strong desire to be the very best they can be. It is also important to us that our players are without mandate and free to make choices. Soccer and sports are a very important part of all of our lives. They require great commitment and sacrifice. It is also a tremendous teacher. Whatever the end game is for a player, history shows we can help you get there.
With the boys DA, there wasn’t much equivocation for the clubs deciding whether to join. The league had more resources, more cachet, more global relevance and met an abiding need to which no other league had yet risen. The jump from what existed to what the DA offered was, even putting it mildly, monumental.
That frankly is not the case on the girls side. The ECNL has its issues, and I think ultimately competition will be good for its ailments.
But ultimately, the question is a clanging gong: Why am I joining the DA?
If most clubs are honest with themselves, there are benefits above and beyond what the ECNL offers. The preexisting league has always been more laissez faire than interventionist, and U.S. Soccer is the exact opposite. Even despite the fact that the ECNL is already producing high quality national team players, and that high school is significantly more ingrained in girls soccer than it was in boys, U.S. Soccer is the FDR to the ECNL’s Ronald Reagan. One wants to stimulate through its own public works, the other to prod by letting the clubs be.
The fact that girls soccer here isn’t really broken muddies the waters. There are plenty of issues – the high cost, prizing of sheer athleticism over technical ability, the ECNL is decidedly top heavy – but were they so bad that another league generating a jagged rift in the middle of American girls soccer development was a necessary step?
Maybe. Maybe not. Ohio Elite would certainly argue not, and expect them to have public backup in the not too distant future.