Why USA's Girls' Development Academy is long overdue

Edward Little's Morgan Knowlton fights for control of the ball

U.S. Soccer's Girls' Development Academy program next year is aimed to standardize coaching and develop highly-skilled players for the next level.  

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As chief architects of women's soccer development in America, Jill Ellis and April Heinrichs share a lot of the same philosophies and phrases. It gets that way after you've coached together at Division I powerhouses like Maryland and Virginia and, later, charged with player development for the United States women's national team.

"Jill has a favorite quote and I tell her, 'Hey, you stole that from me!' But it's true. She says: 'Even if you're on the right track, if you sit there too long, you're going to get run over.' This is the mindset,'' said Heinrichs, technical director of player development for the U.S. women's national team.

Since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup, Ellis was named the FIFA Women's World coach of the year. Heinrichs, meanwhile, announced on Tuesday that U.S. Soccer will launch a Development Academy for U.S. girls starting in 2017. The momentum continues, which is good when the goal is to not get run over.

"Having won the World Cup has been a gift to our country. We are going to be one of the best soccer-playing nations in the world. This has reinvigorated the support and resources by U.S. Soccer into the women's program. Nobody said after we won the World Cup, 'We won so let's take a break.' We are aligning our plan for the next 10 years. There's much more equitable brain power at U.S. Soccer working on women's soccer than ever," Heinrichs said.

The new national development program will enlist youth club teams around the country through an application process. The aim is to standardize coaching and development in order to push the best players up through a system that can feed the national team with highly-skilled players.

What U.S. Soccer hopes to mitigate are the uncoordinated ways in which the best American youth soccer players are coached. There's too much screaming on the sidelines and too much emphasis is placed on winning while development of individual talent of the best players is secondary. This move is overdue, since U.S. Soccer has been doing that for 10 years for boys. But at least this will now be put in place.

Five years ago, Heinrichs and Ellis said they "flipped the model upside down" about what kinds of players they wanted to see come through to the senior women's team. Instead of merely seeking out the strongest, biggest, fastest and most athletic players, the new emphasis was on tactical and technical ability. The new academy will standardize practices to make sure the best young players get consistent coaching and training.

In other words, it's a pretty big piece of Ellis' and Heinrich's plan to make the U.S. women's national team the best in the world and, as they say, not get run over. The renewed efforts should also help tamp down taunts like what Canada coach John Herdman leveled after the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship final Sunday in Houston.

"Well considering that they put about $20 million into the program and they've got four time the talent pool than any other country, they're ahead, but are they really ahead when you look on the pitch? That's a reality you've to deal with. Paper for paper, pound for pound, who's the better team tonight. Paper to paper, yeah, they were better but pound for pound, I don't know,'' Herdman said.

Nations like Canada are at least 10 years behind in building a women's soccer program, so they measure in some way against how the U.S. has done it. Meanwhile, countries with naturally rich soccer cultures accelerated their women's national team development. France in particular saw fantastic gains after it started spending money and adding top-notch coaching and training. South American countries, long battling stereotypes about women's soccer, are seeing their best players head off to U.S. colleges and bring added depth and dimension to their national teams.

But after a few years in which the U.S. national team saw foreign-born coaches like Pia Sundhage and Tom Sermanni try and tap into the DNA of the U.S. women's soccer talent pool, Ellis has direct knowledge and input into not just how to coach the senior national team, but what it will take to create a national talent pool from the ground up. It is a very important distinction, especially given the current payoffs.

Anyone taking stock of the U.S. national team right now will plainly see that a new day has dawned. The U.S. side won the 2015 Women's World Cup. They have just secured a berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics. One of their best players is Mallory Pugh, a 17-year-old high school senior who, after big-time performances in important matches, has probably played herself onto the Olympic team.

More telling, however, is the swift shift in style that has suddenly, but finally, taken hold. The U.S. women are free from the longball and the direct style of play that characterized their identity going back to 1991, when Michelle Akers and the other famous U.S. national team pioneers put soccer on the map not just for girls, but for U.S. Soccer.

"The U.S., they've definitely under Jill have changed their style. For sure. It used to be very direct. They used to work off of Wambach. They're using other strengths,'' Herdman said after the U.S. women defeated Canada, 2-0, Sunday in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship final.

Suddenly, instead of long services to Abby Wambach's head, the U.S. is playing the beautiful game with both feet and at 360 degrees. In addition to Pugh, Ellis has brought Lindsey Horan back from the French first division. Horan partners in the U.S. midfield with Morgan Brian, a former Virginia standout who was named the best player at the five-game CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship in Texas. Ellis' evaluation of Brian cracks the code on what it takes now to be seen as a key contributor to this new version of the U.S. women's national team.

"She solves pressure, connects passes, can help us in build-up, can get forward, she's just so versatile and comfortable. She changes our game in terms of tempo. I think her and Horan are building a good relationship. She had a great tournament and in terms of (the final on Sunday), I think you saw her class in terms of how she can play and move the ball. She helps us get through the lines very well. A tremendous tournament for her,'' Ellis said.

These partnerships are as critical to the success of the U.S. national team as are the individually talented players now at Ellis' disposal. Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan are a tandem that has started to click up top. Pugh and Tobin Heath have also paired for goals this year. Meghan Klingenberg on the flank alongside Pugh is working, while Crystal Dunn and Lloyd link up well on the attack. Horan and Brian are central to the U.S. success.

In spite of a labor dispute that no one wants to get in the way of the U.S. national team's progress, there's an undeniable feeling among the national team players that, suddenly, the U.S. women are truly on the verge of raising the level of their play to something not seen before.

"Sophistication, is it. I'm talking about taking care of the ball, I'm talking about tempo. Runs off the ball, runs with the ball, teams that we play through, runs in the box, all sorts of things. I think we're just scratching the surface on a lot of areas we can really master,'' U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "We're constantly evolving and we can all see it. There are moments ... when we play some amazing soccer and we don't want it to be just every other minute but we want it to be every single play that something amazing is happening.''

By any measure, winning a third World Cup after 16 long years was important for the U.S. women's program. But given the ground-up development, the new players in the pipeline and the ability of this team to play tactically and technically proficient soccer, the future looks bright, too. In other words, there are more Mallory Pughs ready for the close-ups.

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