ECNL seeks balance with USSF in future

by Will Parchman
January 25, 2016
ECNL seeks balance with USSF in future

On Dec. 29, dropped a bombshell report on girls soccer development in the U.S. Citing multiple sources, the site claimed the U.S. Soccer Federation has plans to launch a girls’ equivalent of the Development Academy in time for the fall of 2017.

U.S. Soccer confirmed to that the program announcement is coming soon, perhaps as early as this week.

While America waits to see what the program entails and how it takes shape in the firmament of American girls soccer, one organization waits with particularly baited breath. How exactly would the ECNL, the current forerunner of the ‘girls Development Academy model,’ fit into a landscape with another league for top girls players?

Since flinging open its doors for the first time in 2009, the ECNL has gradually developed into a force in women’s soccer development. At the 2014 U20 Women’s World Cup, 18 of the U.S.’s 21 players had direct ties to an ECNL club. At a recent U14 GNT camp, 28 of the 35 players called in were ECNL players. A recent January U15 camp (19 of 24), a February U16 camp (20 of 24) and a February U17 invitational (16 of 21) were brimming with the league’s products.

But the news U.S. Soccer has its own girls programming planned leaves things in a precarious place. If the federation blazes its own path, the ECNL - which has an established nationwide infrastructure and developed championship-level U14 to U18 age groups among clubs all over the country - will have to find out where it fits. And fast.

“The ideal would be to have a program that does a great thing for the federation’s national teams, for the pro teams and all of their impact on development, and also with this hugely successful club structure we have that’s represented by the ECNL,” said ECNL president Christian Lavers. “It seems like there should be plenty of ways to put those things in collaboration together and kind of rises the water for everybody.”

In 2014, a task force finished a run of meetings that had been brought together for some of the top decision-makers in the country to discuss, among other topics, how the girls development apparatus can improve to help the U.S. Women’s National Team win World Cups. With a broad range of members discussing what amounted to an open-ended question, the group met a handful of times before dispersing after the last meet-up in October 2014.

Among the task force’s conclusions was that a Development Academy answer for girls soccer wasn’t necessary, mostly because of the strides the ECNL had made since 2009. According to Lavers, that was the last piece of formal communication the ECNL and U.S. Soccer had on the matter. On a conference call four months later, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati floated the idea of a girls Development Academy-like operation on a conference call to the media.

Turns out it was a forerunner for the future.

The ECNL has been deliberate in cultivating a professional, positive relationship over the years with U.S. Soccer. After all, the vast majority of the top girls youth players in the U.S. Soccer youth national team pipeline right now either did most of their development in the ECNL or are still playing in the league today. The most visible public face of that bond on the club side was, for years, longtime ECNL commissioner Sarah Kate Noftsinger. Before the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Noftsinger was bullish on the relationship between the two organizations.

“In the six years the ECNL has been around, that relationship with the federation has become stronger and stronger, and it’s very collaborative,” Noftsinger said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re not the federation, but we are here to support them and help them be the best in the world.”

Noftsinger left the ECNL in November to take a front office role with the new Atlanta United FC franchise beginning MLS play in 2017, leaving former top assistant Jen Woodie as the acting commissioner for now.

As far as the ECNL is concerned, the issue of redundancy is particularly problematic. If U.S. Soccer opts to bring its array of resources to bear on a youth league that looks like the ECNL model, that presents players with a choice that will inevitably leave one league in the lurch over time. That would essentially pit U.S. Soccer’s resources against the ECNL’s already established reach in its communities.

The hope among ECNL administrators is a more collaborative model that allows both to exist with unique, distinct benefits for players that don’t necessarily overlap.

“If you start from, ‘How do we make what’s out there better,’ I think you come to a very positive place,” Lavers said. “Because it’s not 2007. It’s not the same environment that existed when the Development Academy was created for the boys, because at that point there was no organization, there was no real national league that provided the meaningful competition... The boys DA was designed to fix, in 2007. You would say, I think, that many of those things have been solved very positively.

“But it’s not 2007 anymore. The ECNL was created to fix a lot of the same problems that the DA was created to fix on the boys side, and I think quite honestly a lot of those problems have been fixed.”

Given the lack of communication with the ECNL since the task force dispersed 15 months ago, it seems unlikely the two are merging outright, which gives the federation’s announcement a heightened glow of anticipatory radiance. However dramatically, the state of girls soccer development in the U.S. is about to change. We're about to find out how much.