How the USWNT’s pipeline got fractured by a youth soccer turf war


The panicked voices crackled through Zoom well past 10 p.m. on the night the girls soccer pipeline crumbled.

They’d been primed by swirling questions about the future of the Development Academy, a national league that U.S. Soccer had championed as the primary pathway to its national teams. But still, some were blindsided by the tweet. It struck on April 15, 2020, to announce the DA’s termination. Coaches at its member clubs felt “stabbed in the back.” Thousands of aspiring teens wondered: “Where are we gonna play?”

They’d been “dropped and kicked to the curb,” says David Robertson, a director at Michigan club Nationals.

“Kids were crying,” says Sophia Schevers, a director at Lonestar Soccer Club in central Texas.

They’d been sold on a vision, a platform, a concept that first transformed the U.S. men’s national team. In 2017, U.S. Soccer launched the girls DA to kick-start a similar overhaul. It was “an effort to accelerate the development of world-class female players,” to reshape their day-to-day environments, and to keep the U.S. women’s national team atop the sport.

But it met fierce resistance. It sparked what one prominent coach called a “civil war.” Less than three years later, the entire DA abruptly shuttered. U.S. Soccer cited COVID-19 and its resultant “financial situation.” What the national governing body didn’t do, though, was offer an alternate plan.

“There was no bridge,” Schevers says. “We were just left to figure it out ourselves.”

In the messy aftermath, Major League Soccer immediately stepped in to preserve the boys’ pathway. “There was a parachute there,” Robertson says. “But on the girls’ side, U.S. Soccer destroyed some clubs. It created an absolute disaster in the youth space” — a void chock-full of uncertainty.

“But on the girls’ side, U.S. Soccer destroyed some clubs. It created an absolute disaster in the youth space.”David Robertson, a director at Michigan club Nationals

And so, throughout that whirlwind week, dozens of officials from top youth clubs jumped on Zoom — first to vent, then to scramble for stability.

Some soon filtered back into the Elite Clubs National League, an established youth soccer platform that had warred with the DA. Others worked 90-hour weeks, hopping from Zoom to phone call to Zoom, to form a new league, the Girls Academy. By the time COVID relented, they’d largely restored relative calm across the landscape.

But it’s a “fractured” landscape, several youth soccer officials tell Emox News. They described a system that defies common sense, waters down competition and no longer controls the day-to-day environments that play outsize roles in molding future pros.

“And oh my gosh is it getting complicated,” says Jared Spires, a longtime executive at Real Colorado, an ECNL club that has produced multiple USWNT stars. “We have five different ways that you can supposedly make the U.S. national team. Why?

That national team, meanwhile, has continued to win. It enters the 2023 Women’s World Cup as a favorite. But beneath the surface, cracks are crystalizing. The pipeline, some stakeholders believe, is faulty. And the bigger picture, with European powers investing and improving, is the vulnerable balance of power in international women’s soccer.

“I do believe it’s going to change,” says Miriam Hickey, a longtime youth coach who ran the girls DA until its dissolution. She doesn’t know when, exactly, but “going forward,” she says, “the Frances, the Englands, the Spains … will go past the U.S.”

An attempt to expand opportunities for girls soccer

Hickey was born in Holland and raised like millions of other European girls last century: without opportunities in soccer. England had outright banned women from playing the game for five decades. Other countries did so implicitly. Hickey loved the sport and dreamed of going pro, so she snuck onto an all-boys team around age 9. But then her hair got long. Referees noticed and booted her from matches. “There were no youth teams for girls,” she says. So there was virtually nowhere to go — except to America.

“The U.S. system,” Hickey says, “was the gold standard at that time.”

She eventually enrolled at an NAIA school, where she found good fields and daily training. And that alone, throughout the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, allowed the U.S. to boast the premier developmental system in global women’s soccer. Title IX had effectively mandated it. Colleges launched programs. Among parents, demand for girls soccer soared — and clubs sprung up to supply it. They multiplied throughout the ’80s and ’90s, completing a pathway that didn’t exist anywhere else around the world.

Team USA women’s soccer players during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The U.S. soccer system was the “gold standard” for women in the 2000s. (Bill Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Collectively, though, they also became an unchecked industry whose primary purpose was not to develop international players; it was to serve customers and make money. And those perverse incentives created defects.

The industry was so defective that, in the mid-2000s, U.S. Soccer officials intervened. They concocted the Development Academy — a regulated network of top clubs who’d compete weekly — and willed it into existence. They budgeted millions of dollars to run a league for those clubs and ensure training sessions were conducive to learning and growth.

But only for boys; not for girls.

When asked why last week, then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Emox News in an emailed statement: “We discussed an equivalent girls program but our technical leadership on the girls side believed that it wasn’t the best developmental option at that time.” They considered the “very different” men’s and women’s “professional landscapes.” And at that time, few questioned them — largely because, while the USMNT was lagging behind the rest of the world, the USWNT, with two World Cup titles and two Olympic golds, was already far ahead.

But not because the girls’ pipeline was any less defective. Elite players were waltzing through too many non-competitive games. Fruitful training sessions were no less scarce.

Those were the two core problems the DA solved for boys. And in its absence on the girls side, a few dozen clubs joined hands to partially solve one of them.

The cost of creating the best against the best

The Elite Clubs National League entered the fray in 2009 as precisely what its name suggested, a superficial DA replica that achieved one desirable tenet of any youth sports pipeline: best against best.

“It helped clean up our pathway,” says April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s women’s national team director from 2011-18. That pathway, she explains, “used to be spaghetti.” It was a convoluted web of leagues, cups and sanctioning bodies that rarely brought together an age group’s top talents. The ECNL did that more frequently.

But it came at a cost — literally.

Annual fees for parents skyrocketed, eventually by thousands of dollars. The surge priced out millions of sub-middle-class families, exacerbating the sport’s long-standing socioeconomic and racial diversity problems. (Nowadays, several officials said, playing elite soccer can cost $5,000-$10,000 per year.)

The fees, in some cases, went toward professionalized daily environments. But they also went toward travel and “showcase” events, a proliferating function of youth soccer’s capitalistic core. Showcases placed kids in front of college coaches, and therefore in line for scholarships. Scholarships equated to returns on investment. This — more games, more exposure — was precisely what many parents were paying for.

And it’s the opposite of what U.S. Soccer’s developmental gurus craved.

An Elite Clubs National League team plays in a 2022 tournament at the San Diego Surf Soccer Park in Del Mar, California. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

They wanted “standards,” four quality training sessions per week and one meaningful game. They wanted licensed coaches and periodized developmental plans. They wanted all sorts of things that didn’t quite jibe with the average club’s business model. The ECNL, a club-run entity beholden to those business models, didn’t mandate any of it. And so, in 2016, U.S. Soccer decided to launch the DA and take matters into its own hands.

It’s unclear, though, how forcefully and extensively the federation pushed the ECNL to adopt those desired standards before attempting to usurp it. Multiple people, including two formerly affiliated with U.S. Soccer, told Emox News that the ECNL was willing to adopt certain guidelines, though perhaps not all. For years, Heinrichs says, she and Jill Ellis — who held various U.S. Soccer roles before becoming USWNT coach in 2014 — “were working alongside the ECNL folks pretty well.” ECNL officials did not agree to interviews, but girls commissioner Ralph Richards said in an emailed statement through a publicist that “the ECNL worked collaboratively with U.S. Soccer prior to the founding of the DA, sharing information and discussing league structure and other topics.”

After the founding of the DA, however, behind the scenes, the ECNL dug in for a fight.

The rise and fall of the Development Academy

Emboldened by the bubbling success of the boys DA, U.S. Soccer designed the girls DA as a near-exact replica. It built conferences that spanned the country; it required teams to train four times per week, 10-plus months per year; it forced most teenage members to shun their high school teams, and adhere to a litany of other rules that amounted to hefty commitments.

And what it seemingly overlooked was that, although men’s and women’s soccer are very similar on the field, their landscapes — and therefore their incentives for 14-year-olds — were vastly different.

“People tend to lump them both together,” says Lesle Gallimore, a longtime college coach and inaugural Girls Academy commissioner. “But there’s just a different dynamic — the end game being one.”

That end game, a potentially lucrative career, justified hefty commitments and personal sacrifice for many boys; but for girls, with pro infrastructure nascent and meager, the calculus was different. For most, soccer was necessarily a means to an end, not life’s final destination. And the DA leap — from two practices per week to four, from school friends to exclusively ambitious club teammates — was steep. A decade earlier, the boys DA’s early leaders had phased in rules on training frequency and high school participation; but for the girls in 2017, there was little leeway.

“It was a lot at one time,” Gallimore says.

Hickey, who was hired as the girls DA director as it took shape, agrees. “The beginning of the Development Academy, in my opinion, it was forced,” she says. “Too much, too quick.”

There were also pro-style substitution rules, with no reentry, which theoretically aided player development but drew coaches’ ire. And crucially, for anybody who hated any of these rules, there was a viable, entrenched alternative. Back in 2007, the boys DA also met resistance, but it quickly became the destination for scouts and the pathway to scholarships or the pros. In 2017, in the ECNL, girls already had that.

So their clubs, intent on retaining them, had a choice.

Many thought long and hard about whether to join the girls DA once invited. They convened families and players to talk it through. Some ECNL clubs ultimately did make the leap. But others stayed put, and the pipeline splintered in two. This “turf war,” as some called it, plagued the girls DA throughout its existence. The ECNL, multiple officials said, exerted pressure on top clubs to spurn the DA — and some did jump ship after one season.

In Chicago, at Soccer House, some federation officials bristled at the ECNL’s self-interest. “In the end, it’s either power or money that those people are about,” Hickey says. “Sometimes both.” But the DA’s leaders largely opted against tweaking rules to better accommodate clubs and players.

By the fall of 2019 and winter 2020, top talent had dispersed somewhat evenly between the two leagues, weakening both of them — and that’s when the ominous rumblings about the DA’s future began. Club directors would call Hickey to inquire. She’d refute any rumors of impending doom because, she says, her bosses hadn’t told her anything. In fact, several of her superiors had left U.S. Soccer in recent months, for a variety of reasons. There were apparent leadership vacuums, and Hickey says: “Late 2019 and early 2020, U.S. Soccer was a s***show.”

“Late 2019 and early 2020, U.S. Soccer was a s***show.”Miriam Hickey

The rumblings crescendoed in February 2020 when North Carolina FC Youth — a club that employed then-U.S. Soccer vice president Cindy Parlow Cone — joined the DA exodus. The following month, two more prestigious clubs pulled out and recommitted to the ECNL. And a month after that, with Parlow Cone now president, U.S. Soccer pulled the plug.

The federation’s announcement led with the “extraordinary and unanticipated circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic,” but to Hickey, April 15 had been coming long before the world shut down. Multiple people with second-hand knowledge of the DA’s downfall claimed other key factors, from Parlow Cone’s preferences to the ECNL’s pressure, predated the pandemic. And so did the economic concerns. The federation had budgeted around $10 million to operate the DAs annually. It was a sizable expense, especially for a program that MLS, on the boys side, seemed ready to take on.

But on the girls side, its demise created a “panic,” multiple coaches said.

And although it could have undone the fracturing, any potential reunification rested with the ECNL — which, as Schevers explains, “wanted to maybe remain committed and loyal” to clubs who’d helped the league persist. Her club, Lonestar, reapplied to the ECNL; but to faithful ECNL members in central Texas, Lonestar would have represented in-market competition for consumers (players). “I think everyone explored ECNL,” Schevers says; but some suddenly former DA members weren’t admitted.

Richards, the ECNL commissioner, in his statement through a publicist, said “the ECNL added as many clubs as possible on both the boys and girls side without overwhelming the competition structure and calendar creating an unmanageable number of clubs or reducing member service, and without reducing the quality of play for existing clubs.”

But others, like Schevers, felt “the ECNL really missed an opportunity to bring the country together, … to get the best clubs that had established histories of developing players over time back into the ECNL.”

Instead, some branched off to create the Girls Academy, pulling non-DA clubs with them. And U.S. Soccer’s grand plans for both a streamlined pathway and enforceable standards, three years later, yielded neither.

Exposure, branding now what drives clubs

The girls DA legacy lives on in fragments, in learnings and enhanced environments across the ECNL and GA. Some standards, from the presence of athletic trainers to the education of coaches, have stuck. Some aspects of the player experience have improved.

“But a lot of it has fizzled,” Hickey says. “Because if there’s nobody who is actually holding you accountable, then why?”

U.S. Soccer paid the Belgian consultancy Double Pass to essentially audit DA clubs; it employed regional DA managers to support best practices and police noncompliance. And that now is what the ECNL, GA and others lack. They all profess to have standards that facilitate player development — Richards said in his statement “all full-time players in the ECNL are expected to train a minimum of three times per week” — but “enforcing them is an entirely different issue and is an extremely heavy, if not impossible, lift,” Gallimore admitted in a May interview before leaving her post as GA commissioner.

In reality, “each club decides what’s best for them,” Robertson says.

“The only way that we can actually really influence them is by education,” says Mirelle van Rijbroek, U.S. Soccer’s director of girls talent identification. “I mean, I can’t tell ECNL or GA, like, ‘You need to have those standards.’” Both leagues, she says, are at least talking about beefing up standards, but she calls it “the biggest challenge.”

Unbound by mandates, some clubs have regressed to their more primitive business plans. Many prioritize winning games, which sometimes elicits ugly soccer and doesn’t promote long-term technical development. But it helps promote the club, which helps recruit talented players who help win games. And the self-propelling cycle spins.

They also rely on polished branding and marketing. “The ECNL’s done a really good job of [that],” says Robertson, who leads a GA club. “I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s almost like a cult following that they have. It’s not just the kids that wear the sweatshirts. You’ve got, like, grown adults that spend $100 to wear ECNL hoodies.”

But a cult following, of course, doesn’t produce creative midfielders; there are “some really good ECNL clubs, some really worse ECNL clubs,” van Rijbroek says. And also “some really good GA clubs, some really good USYS [U.S. Youth Soccer Association] clubs,” and so on. For parents and players, van Rijbroek and others say, sifting through the alphabet soup to find good clubs has become difficult.

They often default to the ones who offer exposure, but exposure often requires taxing travel and an overload of games. It can turn girls into “80-year-olds by the time they’re 22,” Gallimore says. Robertson coaches teens, and he agrees: “It’s like watching grandmas walk sometimes.” It can sap joy and hinder personal growth, too.

“Ultimately,” Robertson concludes, “and I’ll get a lot of people that hate me for saying this, but 95% of clubs rely on, ‘Hey, we have this patch, so we have an exclusive pathway.’ So they don’t have to really focus on actually developing players.”

Spain celebrates after winning the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup over Japan at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica on Aug. 28, 2022 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The U.S. failed to make it out of the group stage. (Photo by Harold Cunningham – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

How the world overtook U.S. youth academies

Amid all these head-spinning changes, the turf war and the muddled aftermath, American soccer has watched as the global landscape evolved. European soccer federations have upped investment on the women’s side; they’ve also coerced or incentivized clubs to follow along. Their century-old soccer ecosystems have anchored them atop the men’s game; they’re now leveraging much of that same infrastructure to develop female players.

“They have this deep culture to support football; now they’re embracing women’s football,” says Heinrichs, who now works in youth development at FIFA. “So I think they are closing the gap.”

Their progress has begun to seep up to senior levels. But it appears most menacingly at Under-20 World Cups. The U.S. won the inaugural edition in 2002 (when it was an Under-19 tourney); it won again in 2008 and 2012; but it has failed to advance from its group at the last two tournaments, in 2018 and 2022.

“It’s clear that even at the Under-20 level, we’re not there anymore,” Hickey says. “And we [once] were.”

Van Rijbroek notes that, “in our youth teams, we’re not focused on the results”; U-level competitions can be deceiving. But, she adds, “there is also a very clear explanation.” American 19-year-olds are often in college, having come up through this faulty system; their peers in Spain or France, meanwhile, who were once dissuaded from even playing the sport, are now mastering it in youth academies at the world’s most famous clubs.

“If you look at the countries in Europe or Japan, those players, where they play, … the number of games that they play, the number of training sessions — compare that with all our players that are in college,” van Rijbroek says. “If you’re four years in college or four years in the youth academy of Barcelona or Olympique Lyon, that’s a huge difference.”

At Barca, England defender Lucy Bronze told ESPN last year, “there are just like clones and clones and clones of these amazing, technical, intelligent players.”

Van Rijbroek and others remain semi-optimistic about the USWNT’s future. “There’s so much potential here,” van Rijbroek says. “And there’s so many players. If they could get the right programming, oh, they could be so good.” In the meantime, even a malfunctioning pipeline can produce world champions if it ingests millions of athletic girls, and if it’s fueled by a $23 trillion GDP.

“I mean, you can throw a lot of eggs against the wall and some of them aren’t gonna break,” says Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “You can fail massively and still succeed at the very highest level, with the kind of population we have, the investment and resources.”

For all those reasons, plus the decadeslong head start due to Title IX, plus a burgeoning pro league (the NWSL), nobody believes that the USWNT will suddenly tumble out of the sport’s top tier.

But eventually, Hickey predicts, perhaps as soon as 2027, “I think it’s gonna be clear that we have to do something in this country to make sure that girls have better environments.”

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