2016 | Sports

Launch of U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy Raises Concerns for County’s Elite Players

Girls who choose to participate will not be allowed to play high school soccer

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Churchill's Frannie Phillips (in the blue uniform) competing for Bethesda SC in an ECNL game against the Ohio Elite.

Buck Phillips

The upcoming launch of a girls’ soccer development program by the U.S. Soccer Federation will mean Montgomery County’s top players will face a tough decision—those who sign up will be prohibited from playing for their high school teams.

In February, the federation announced its intent to launch in fall 2017 a Girls’ Development Academy Program (DA), designed to maximize the nation’s female youth player development.  The Girls’ DA will closely follow the structure of the Development Academy Program for boys introduced by U.S. Soccer in 2007. As with the boys program, girls who participate will no longer be allowed to play for their high school teams so that players can be fully committed to the academy program.

The application process for Montgomery County’s top travel soccer clubs to earn Academy status begins May 2 and runs through July 1. According to U.S. Soccer’s website, applications will be selected on a rolling basis for the remainder of the calendar year—Bethesda Soccer Club is among those local clubs prepared to apply.

The result could have an immediate impact on the landscape of high school soccer in the county. And the academy’s proposed launch has raised concerns among local coaches and parents about the implications for female youth soccer players. 

“It makes no sense, from a development standpoint, from a burnout standpoint, from an injury standpoint [to be] giving up high school [soccer], which [provides] so much more than developing a soccer player,” said Becky Wiese, whose daughter Morgan was a starting freshman defender at Walt Whitman High School in the fall. “You’re developing other things. On your high school team, you’re learning to be a leader, you’re learning how to get the best out of every kid on the team. You learn to all pull together in one direction. To strip a kid of that opportunity is a huge mistake.”

Walt Whitman girls soccer coach Greg Herbert and Haroot Hakopian, the Winston Churchill coach, said they expected U.S. Soccer to introduce an elite program to match the boys’ development academy, if for no other reason than to achieve equality, but are concerned about the impact on local players.

“You have some of the most prominent names in [women’s] soccer, like [former women’s national team coach] Tony DiCicco, saying there’s no reason girls shouldn’t play in high school—that it’s important,” Hakopian said.

The coaches say the launch of the girls’ development academy could undo years of progress in achieving countywide parity among high school programs. Though programs like perennial powers Churchill and Whitman will be hit the hardest due to the high percentage of elite players on both rosters, they will also be least affected.

Hakopian said he cuts players from varsity every year who would likely be starters elsewhere. But take one or two academy-level players from a middle-of-the-pack high school team and the gap between the county’s top tier and the field will be even more dramatic.

Per U.S. Soccer, the guidelines for DA members “will feature increased training requirements (a minimum of four times a week), with fewer, but higher quality games,” which is in the interest of the athletes, Hakopian said. And clubs will be able to work directly with U.S Soccer and Youth National Teams.

The overall aim of the DA program is to support the U.S. Women’s National Team by “developing world class players, coaches and referees by prioritizing training and player development within the team concept.”

But that’s what’s confusing about the idea, according to local coaches.  While the U.S. Men’s National Team has been unable to compete at the top of the international game, the women’s national team is ranked No. 1 in the world and in July 2015 won a historic third World Cup championship. In the months following, the team’s stars, including international soccer’s all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach, preached the importance of playing more than one sport rather than giving in to the recent trend of sport specialization at increasingly younger ages.

“Isn’t our women’s team No. 1 in the world? Clearly the system in place has been successful,” Herbert said. “I understand wanting it to be universal between men and women but, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And I don’t know that the boys’ academy has necessarily generated that next level player. I don’t know that we’ve seen someone on an academy team become the world’s best player.”

There are two other major distinctions between boys and girls—and men’s and women’s—soccer in this country that make implementing identical programs seem counterintuitive. First, there is already an elite girls soccer league in place that was missing on the boys’ side. The Elite Clubs National League Inc. (ECNL) was founded in 2009 and provides the opportunity for the country’s best talent to train with and compete against each other. According to the nonprofit organization’s website, ECNL players make up 80 percent to 90 percent of the total U.S. Soccer Youth National Team player pool.

In addition, men are afforded many additional, and more lucrative, opportunities to pursue soccer on a professional level. While the National Women’s Soccer League just began its record-breaking fourth season—none of its predecessors made it past a third year—most high school student-athletes still see NCAA Division I soccer as their end goal, Hakopian said.

“On the boys side of it, [the Academy] is good, the level’s better; when you watch a game there are no weak players,” said Brian Wiese, father of Whitman freshman defender Morgan and Georgetown University’s men’s soccer coach. “It’s improved the quality overall of American soccer players in a few short years.”

But it’s difficult to understand why U.S. Soccer would create its own developmental program for girls when ECNL already serves the purpose, he said.

High school soccer provides invaluable life experience, Brian Wiese added, from learning time management necessary to balance academics with competition, to instilling leadership qualities and the ability to perform under pressure. Academy soccer is played in a sterile environment, he said, and recruits may not want to focus on developing leadership skills and other qualities he’s looking for.  

Hakopian, who is an ECNL coach with Bethesda Soccer Club, said he would have hoped for an alliance between ECNL and U.S. Soccer. He said he may begin to feel more like a college recruiter in the next year as he will have to sell to his elite players the benefits of playing high school ball—though he and other coaches agreed that given the choice between playing on a high school team and at a high level for ECNL or trading in high school play for the Academy, most top student-athletes most likely will choose the former.

“It’s definitely going to be a tough decision, because club soccer is developmentally so valuable and you play against the best competition in the country all the time,” said Morgan Wiese, Whitman’s freshman defender. “But on the other hand you have all the social and leadership aspects of high school soccer.”