US Soccer To Make U-17 and U-20 WNT Head Coach Positions Full-Time

Somewhat out of the blue, US Soccer announced last weekend that the head coach positions for the two main youth women’s national teams, the Under-17s and the Under-20s will be full-time, starting after the two youth Women’s World Cups later this year.

Also, a “development coach” will be hired to focus “on enhancing the player development environment for young players” across the USA and to oversee the Under-15 Girls’ National Team program. In other words, this sounds as if the U-15 GNT head coach position will also be made a full-time job, but with broader duties.

These decisions were based on recommendations made by the Women’s Player Development Task Force, which was organized in early 2011 and is chaired by USWNT alumna and current Navy coach Carin Jennings-Gabarra.

* * *

There is not a whole lot more to the announcement, other than the above lede.

But, for those who want additional perspective on how US Soccer came to this decision, here is some background on youth Women’s National Teams situation, specifically:

  • The Technical Director Position
  • An Overview of the Youth WNTs
  • A brief look at player development
  • More on the Women’s Player Development Task Force, including a list of known members

And, finally, analysis of the announcement, plus some other minor bits of information that came out during a brief press conference with Sunil Gulati, April Heinrichs, and Jill Ellis.

* * *

BACKGROUND: The Technical Director Position

Summary: Since at least the end of Tony DiCicco’s tenure, US Soccer has preferred that the USWNT head coach oversee the youth WNTs by also serving as a technical director. This was the case under both April Heinrichs (2000-2004) and Greg Ryan (2005-2007), but Pia Sundhage (2007-) did not want the additional administrative duties, and thus only wished to be a head coach. Apparently, from late 2007, until the hiring of Heinrichs as technical director in January 2011, the USWNT did not have a true technical director.

Under Greg Ryan and April Heinrichs, and probably under the later part of Tony Dicicco’s tenure, the USWNT head coach essentially oversaw all of the developments aspects in the USWNT system, including the hiring of the youth WNT head coaches, as each had the dual positions of head coach and technical director (hiring announcements for Ryan and Heinrichs).

US Soccer’s preference for the USWNT head coach to also serve as the technical director continued to be the case after the dismissal of Greg Ryan in late 2007: In discussing the process for the new hire, Sunil Gulati is quoted as noting that “[i]n the short-term, the person that we hire as National Team coach would be technical director.”

However, Sundhage did not want the additional administrative and organizational duties associated with the technical director position as she preferred to be only a head coach. This translated quote is attributed to her: “I want to do what I’m good at, work with the players on the field.”(Source: a summary translation of a Swedish article). And, she apparently got her wish as the hiring and contract extension announcements only describe her as the head coach, and not also the technical director.

During the early part of Sundhage’s tenure, press releases announcing the hiring of youth coaches did not specify who made who made the hiring decision (see e.g., DiCicco’s U-20Ellis’ U-20).* In August 2011, the announcement of Swanson and Montoya as coaches of the U-20s and U-17s, respectively, noted that Heinrichs made the announcement, although it is does not concretely spell out who made the decision.

*This brings up the question: Who actually made the youth WNT hiring decisions from 2008 through 2010?

Meanwhile, under Ryan (e.g., Schulz’s U-20, Ellis’ first U-20) and Heinrichs (e.g., creation of U-17 USWNT announcement), each was listed as the person making the hiring decision.

So, based on the available information, the USWNT did not have a true technical director for just over three years, from late October 2007  (when Greg Ryan was fired) to…

…January 2011, when April Heinrichs was named the Technical Director and Jill Ellis was hired as the Development Director (US Soccer). Their positions were described as such:

Heinrichs will provide technical direction for women’s soccer in the United States as it relates to the U.S. Women’s National Teams with a focus on the Under-20s and younger, while overseeing the U.S. Under-20 and U.S. U-18 Women’s National Teams. Ellis will be taking the lead on interacting directly with key coaches within the youth club environment while also guiding and directing the U.S. U-17s, U-15s and U-14s.

And:

Ellis especially will focus on the grassroots within the youth club environment to convey the goals and philosophies of player development in order to help produce quality players for the national team level.

In the early part of 2011, Heinrichs actively coached the U-20 WNT, after Dave Chesler became U.S. Soccer’s Director of Coaching Education, until Steve Swanson was hired in August. Similarly, Ellis led some U-17 WNT camps, prior to Albertin Montoya being hired, also in August.

* * *

BACKGROUND: An Overview of the Youth Women’s National Teams

Summary: The youth Women’s National Teams are well-established, with all of the major teams having been in existence for over ten years. One major issue that continues to need improvement is player scouting and identification. The disappointing results by the U-20 USWNT and the U-17 USWNT in 2010 are the latest wake-up calls for improving the youth WNTs.

Currently, the USA has three major youth WNTs: The U-23s, the U-20s, and the U-17s. Only the U-20s and the U-17s compete in major tournaments, the youth Women’s World Cup for their age levels, which are held every two years, in the even years.  The minor youth WNTs, the U-18s and the U-15s, are primarily preparatory teams for the next youth Women’s World Cup cycles. Also, there is a scouting and development pool for U-14s.

With the exception of the U-18 WNT, which was re-instituted in 2008, the overall structure of the youth WNT system has been in place since late 2002. In the mid-2000s, that age structure shifted slightly due to the U-19 Women’s World Cup moving to a U-20 age requirement for the 2006 cycle.

The U-23s used to compete in the Nordic Cup, but that will not be held in 2012, and has not consistently been held since it moved to a U-21 age requirement. Prior to 2007, the Nordic Cup had a U-21 age requirement, going back all the way to the early 1990s.

Note: Depending on the stage of tournament cycle, the names of these teams may not accurately reflect their age requirements. — Unlike youth women’s national teams in federations such as UEFA, where annual U-19 and U-17 women’s tournaments are held.

With the notable exception of the first U-19 Women’s World Cup cycle, when Tracey Leone was named the full-time U-19 USWNT head coach (US Soccer), most, if not all other, youth WNT coaches have been part-time. Typically this meant that the coach also had other coaching duties, whether at the collegiate, youth club, and/or professional levels. These other duties limited the opportunities to scout and evaluate players, as well as to simply focus on their respective youth WNT. Also, this has led to a high turn-over as most coaches only stayed on for a year or two.

Beyond the structure of the youth WNT system, one area that has been a major issue is player scouting and identification, not just at the U-14/U-15 age levels, but also at older age groups. Tony DiCicco highlighted that point in a report he made after the 2008 cycle:

What I realized, and [future] coaches should also understand, is that many of our YNT players are moved from age group to age group with almost a free pass, without looking to bring in other players that may not be quite as good, but have a bigger upside if trained over time. A network of coaches needs to be utilized so that emerging talent can be seen, evaluated and constant reevaluation of current players is utilized. A good YNT player at U15, U16 or U17 does not mean she will be good enough at the U20 level.

2010, The Year of the Wake-Up Calls: The latest wake-up calls for the youth WNTs happened in 2010, when the U-17 USWNT failed to qualify for the U-17 WWC and the U-20 USWNT lost in the quarterfinals of the U-20 WWC.

The U-17 USWNT’s failure to qualify was not for a lack of trying: They scored 32 goals during the three-match group stage and were playing a more technical passing-possession style of soccer because their head coach Kazbek Tambi had his wake-up call in 2008, when tha year’s U-17 USWNT lost to Japan (whom, in 2009, he called the “Brazilians of the Far East”) in their first match of the U-17 WWC.

But, in the critical qualification semifinal, Canada bunkered down and kept the Americans scoreless. After extra time, the USA would lose on penalties (match report). And, with only two U-17 WWC spots available that cycle due to Trinidad & Tobago hosting the U-17 WWC, the USA was out of luck.

The U-20s, on the other hand, were much less inspiring. Prior to the U-20 WWC, they lost to both Germany and Japan in tune-up friendlies. In the U-20 WWC, outside of a 5:0 win over Switzerland, the USA only managed to score a single goal in each of its three other matches (FIFA.com). Again, the USA would fall on penalties in extra time. This was the first time in the history of the U-19/U-20 Women’s World Cups that the USA failed to reach the semifinals.

How the fault for these losses should be allocated to the players, the team’s coaches, US Soccer’s player scouting system, the general development of players, flukey factors outside anyone’s control, et cetera, is certainly up for debate. But, the U-17 loss was a single blemish on an otherwise good year, while the U-20s had a series of poor performances and generally underperformed in the months leading up to the U-20 WWC.

Another wake-up call that put a focus on the youth WNTs also happened in 2010, when the senior USWNT lost to Mexico in the semifinals of CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifying and had to win the third-place repechage match just to get to an inter-continental playoff with Italy.

* * *

BACKGROUND: PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

One factor generally beyond the control of the USWNT youth system is player development, which mainly happens at the club level, but also on the individual level through one-on-one or one-on-few training, either directly by a parent, guardian, relative, neighbor, et cetera, or in an academy setting. In addition, development also happens through expanding soccer knowledge by watching, analyzing, and discussing matches and players, which Tony DiCicco notes as a disadvantage the USA has compared to other, more soccer-centric cultures such as in Europe and South America (Examiner.com interview).

And, there is the classic complaint regarding the emphasis of winning over technical development, especially in the world of for-profit youth club soccer. This also happens on the parental level where parents have taken pre-teen kids out of non-competitive training programs in order to play on competitive teams (2010 interview with Albertin Montoya).

US Soccer has tried more to influence player development, especially on the men’s side, with the Development Academy and a national coaching curriculum.

On the women’s side, the biggest push to influence development had been the hiring of Jill Ellis as development director. In that position, Ellis has been tasked with liaising with the youth club environment (see job description quotes, above). Another major step, obviously, is the creation of the task force.

* * *

BACKGROUND: Women’s Player Development Task Force

The Women’s Player Development Task Force, which has also informally been referred to as just the “Women’s Task Force” was created in 2011, presumably in response to the latest round of wake-up calls that happened in 2010: the U-17s’ failure to qualify for the U-17 WWC, the U-20s’ quarterfinal exit at the U-20 WWC, and the senior USWNT’s difficulties in qualifying for the 2011 WWC.

The task force was officially, yet quietly, announced in February 2011 at US Soccer’s 2011 Annual General Meeting by Sunil Gulati (minutes, PDF). The ultimate objective of the committee is to design both long-term and short-term plans for the development of women’s soccer in the United States.

Carin Jennings-Gabarra, who was on the USWNT from 1987 to 1996 and is the current head coach at the Naval Academy, is the chairperson. As of June 2011, at least eighteen other members served on task force (source, PDF).

The known committee members, grouped by major affiliation:

US Soccer: Technical Director April Heinrichs* (USWNT Technical Director), Jill Ellis (Development Director), Kevin Payne (Chair of US Soccer’s Technical Committee, also President/CEO of D.C. United)

Past USWNT Head Coaches: Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco (also, Heinrichs)

USWNT Alumni: Carin Jennings-Gabarra, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Danielle Fotopolous (also a player scout for US Soccer), Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, (also, Heinrichs)

Youth Soccer: Jim Cosgrove (Executive Director, United States YSA), Bill Stara (Technical Director, Maryland State YSA), Tom Turner (Director of Coaching, Ohio YSA North), Steve Hoffman (Director of Coaching and Player Development, Cal South)

Club Soccer: Christian Lavers (US Club Soccer Executive Vice-President, ECNL President), Clyde Watson (Technical Director, McLean Youth Soccer; former Guyana MNT player; Washington Freedom assistant coach from 2001 to 2010)

Academia: Matthew J. Robinson (Professor of Sports Management, also Director of Coaching Management for NSCAA, has studied player development in other countries, along with Dorrance and DiCicco)

Other: Amanda Vandervort (social media strategist, Social Media Director for MLS, NSCAA Secretary, past head coach at NYU, was with WPS)

* * *

THE ANNOUNCEMENT: Full-Time Youth WNT Head Coaches

As noted in the opening paragraph, US Soccer will be making three youth WNT coaching jobs full-time after the current youth Women’s World Cup cycles end, later this year. Those three positions are the two major ones, the U-20 USWNT and the U-17 USWNT head coaching jobs, along with with a “development coach,” whose duties…

…will include scouting, running U.S. Soccer’s National Training Centers, assisting coaching education opportunities, and liaising with U.S. Soccer’s partners and constituents as it relates to developing players at the youngest National Teams. Additionally, this coach will also oversee the U.S. Under-15 Girls’ National Team program.

In some ways, this description seems to overlap significantly with Jill Ellis’ current position as Development Director, namely the liaising and scouting, and running of the oddly named National Training Centers, which are regional camps held for evaluating U-14 players. However, the responsibility of running the U-15 GNT program would seem to indicate that US Soccer is also making the job of the U-15 GNT coach permanent, while broadening his or her responsibilities.

The current youth WNT coaches are U-15, Damon Nahas; U-17, Albertin Montoya; U-20 Steve Swanson, and U-23, Randy Waldrum. Swanson is expected to remain as head coach at the University of Virginia, at least for the time-being, so that position will probably be open. Nahas, who owns and operates the Next Level Academy in North Carolina, would be the most likely candidate for the development coach position. As to Montoya, he could be a dark horse candidate for the senior USWNT coaching job, especially if the U-17s have an excellent run in Azerbaijan. If Montoya is not the next USWNT head coach, then he could either stay as the U-17 head coach or move up to the U-20 position.

The U-23 WNT position will remain part-time and is not expected to be made a full-time position in the immediate future. One possibility for this position is that, if the “B” team concept is explored, the U-23 helm could be transferred to  a full-time USWNT assistant coach.

This will not be the first time that US Soccer has a full-time youth WNT head coach. In 2000, Tracey Leone was hired as the U-19 WNT in a full-time capacity (US Soccer).

* * *

THE PRESS CONFERENCE

Before the USWNT-China match, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, plus Heinrichs and Ellis, met with the press pool. Official quotes are available on USSoccer.com. Beau Dure also posted some notes. Highlights:

Playing Style Priorities: April Heinrichs noted (emphasis added)–

Jill and I actually talk about our model 20 years ago, which was physical, psychological, tactical and technical. Our goal in our communications has been to flip the model completely and put a greater focus on technique, tactics, the physical piece we will never ignore because the physical piece is where the gap has been closed the last five to 10 years, and the psychological piece we think we’re great at and we will also never ignore.

Discussion on “Elite Women’s Soccer:” When asked about whether there will be a Development Academy for women players, Gulati said –

But we’re also now discussing what are the next steps in terms of what’s called Elite Women’s Soccer. I’m pretty sure in the next 30 to 45 days we’ll have a group session with a number of stakeholders in the game, whether that’s the USL, the W-League and so forth, including some of the teams from WPS that are still operating in a different format, and see what the next steps are there.

Also, he noted that there will continue to be differences in how the development programs for the women’s and men’s side will not mirror each other, which is mostly due to how each side has  different priorities and how money is allocated for those priorities.

“B” Team Possibility: Dure notes that the question was asked whether this could be a possibility. Gulati mentioned that Heinrichs had even drew up a plan.

Bonus — Blind Item:* From the official quotes, “We have an 18-year-old who’s been offered a rather large contract to play in France. She was like, ‘Do I go to college or do I go to France?’” — The most likely candidate is U-20 USWNT forward Lindsay Horan, who just turned 18 last week. Horan trained with Olympique Lyonnais last summer (uslsoccer.com). Dure’s notes even mention Lyon by name. Also, Lyon is about the only French club with money to spend.

*For those not familiar with blind items, see the description on its Wikipedia page.