April Heinrichs is leaving her position as the Youth Technical Director for the U.S. Women’s Youth National Teams at the end of the 2018. U.S. Soccer announced the news on Monday, which marks the end of a tenure that began in 2011. The curtain descending on the former U.S. player is the end of an era for the former player and for the U.S. Women’s National Team program.
As a player and coach, Heinrichs has been involved with the U.S. program for three decades. She was a player from 1986 to 1991 (46 appearances, 35 goals), she coached the national team from 1995-2000, and then took charge as the Youth Technical Director in 2011. It’s been a long time for the U.S. Soccer and April Heinrichs to be intertwined at the highest level.
Her lasting legacy though will come from the changes she has shepherded in over the past five years. Heinrichs was instrumental in bringing forward a youth national team for each age group between U14-U20. With gaps between the key age groups, players were lost in the shuffle if they were not born in the right year. Her drive to get every age group into the National Team programing helped expose more players who were late developers and elite prospects to the potential of playing up age groups.
With the added coaching positions, she brought in full-time coaches for each age group as well. She put the women’s youth program in equal footing with the men’s side of the program. She brought in coaches who she believed could push the youth teams forward to advance the game.
Her hires helped shape the next generation of the U.S. Women’s National Team. Mallory Pugh, Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle, Tierna Davidson, and many others are the product of Heinrichs’ work from the top of the pyramid over nearly the last decade. In a time when the U.S. team was beginning to become stale, Heinrichs was instrumental in providing (daresay building) a path for the elite player to make it to the international level.
Her tenure was not always sunshine and lollipops though. There has been plenty of criticism about her coaching hires especially at the U20 level. The youth teams did not enjoy as much success at the international level as many expected given the resources of the program. And there has been some growing concern that Mexico’s youth program has emerged as legitimate challenger for regional supremacy during her reign as Technical Director, an idea that would have been laughed out of the room just five years ago.
The growth of the women’s program is only one part of the big picture for her lasting legacy. Her larger influence on the state of the game is the Girls Development Academy. Heinrichs’ push for introducing the Federation-run league was met with mixed reviews, and it has continued to push through skepticism following the inaugural season in 2017-2018.
The Girls Development Academy will affect more players in club soccer than anything else Heinrichs did during her time with U.S. Soccer so it would do a considerable disservice not to mention the league. She tried to bring the elite girls club soccer game to the same level as the boys game. U.S. Soccer started the Boys Development Academy in 2007, and had the girls follow suit 10 years later.
Concerns about why it took a decade for a girls league to be introduced was the initial skepticism of the league. That quickly took a back seat to other issues that emerged (coaches’ salaries, high school soccer, and many others). It has been a long year of growing pains for the Girls Development Academy, and the foreseeable future looks to be met with a number of other concerns following the exit of a few marquee clubs from the league.
Heinrichs’ intentions were always for the betterment of the player. She believed that improving the training improvement at every club would help increase the player pool for the National Team. She laid the groundwork for that, but she won’t be in a position of power to see the idea through.
Heinrich leaves behind a massive legacy. She had her hiccups along the way, but she brought in a new era of U.S. Soccer. In terms of meaningful moments in the world of soccer, selecting Heinrichs’ successor is very high on the list of hires that actually matter. It is a position of power and influence with relatively little oversight. The future of the program is dependent on the decisions of the individual as the current trajectory has been directly influenced by Heinrichs.