As 10,000 of the nation's top soccer minds emerged upon Baltimore at the NSCAA convention in January, almost every conversation seemed to lead back to the same topic: Player development. The issue has long been a weakness of the still developing American game, but 2010 showed that the women's game is in particular need of direction at younger ages.
Enter April Heinrichs and Jill Ellis, two women who have been tasked with providing better development for young females in the United States. Ellis will take over as development director after 12 years at UCLA, while Heinrichs, the new U.S. women's national team technical director, returns to the U.S. program for the first time since her stint as the senior national team head coach from 2000-2004. They will work together in hopes of re-establishing the U.S. as a country feared in women's soccer, a characteristic that has gradually slipped away in the 12 years and counting since the U.S. last won a Women's World Cup.
When USSF president Sunil Gulati officially appointed the two women to the newly created positions on Jan. 6 he said that the appointments are not reactionary, but have been in the works for some time. If that is the case -- as overly coincidental as the timing may be -- the changes could not come at a more necessary time.
In many ways, 2010 was a year of learning for the U.S. women's program, but it was also a year to forget. The U-20s were booted from the World Cup in the quarterfinals. The U-17 women failed to even qualify for the World Cup and the global attention that came up on the senior national team's qualification struggles has been well documented.
Clearly, the world has caught up in women's soccer. The first step is admitting that, which U.S. Soccer is collectively doing. Now comes the hard part: Reversing the trend.
It begins at the youngest levels of competition, where too much emphasis is placed on winning matches rather than actually training and giving players the freedom to develop. Both Heinrichs and Ellis stressed that half of every training session should be focused on technical development.
"Now our strengths have become in some ways our weaknesses," Heinrichs said. "So we are tough psychologically, competitively, physically. But when we get into a sticky situation we tend to default to the physical. We can default to the psychological. And now we need to default to a little bit more possession and control the tempo of the game."
The key to that, Heinrichs and Ellis said, is cutting back on the number of games played and focusing on more training. It is a philosophy that falls in line precisely with the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which is the closest thing the women's game currently has to developing an academy system like the USSF has setup on the boys' side.
The ECNL looks to be the best up-and-coming development system for young females with its emphasis on technical training, reduced fixture congestion and national competition among the superior clubs. It is a sign of encouragement for female youth players, but youth is not the only area of focus in this overhaul of the way the women's game is looked at in the United States.
At the highest level -- where money and results dictate day-to-day life -- development is put on the back burner.
"As a college coach obviously you hope that development is a piece, but at the end of the day, college coaches are paid to win," Ellis said. "So, does development happen? You certainly hope that. But the same goes with the WPS coaches. I don't think we can look at those as environments of development. They are professionals and the results matter."
Ellis is pegged with leading this turnaround in female soccer development in the U.S. and openly admits that Women's Professional Soccer is not an avenue for development as much as it is and environment in which wins and losses define success.
That is not to say there is not any development taking place. Coaches such as Tony DiCicco and Paul Riley are masterminds of the game. Players like Amy LePeilbet and Nikki Marshall owe WPS for putting them on the map. But still, an ugly win will be better than a pretty loss on most occasions in a professional league.
No kidding, right? What professional sport is not about winning? Well that argument works in sports like American football where a player's club (his NFL team, in this case) is the highest level. That is not the case in soccer, which every four years features the world's most coveted tournament.
In soccer, there still needs to be continuing development among professional players as they strive toward the ultimate goal of winning a World Cup. That is where the U.S. finds itself in 2011, looking to strengthen a struggling professional league as well as reignite a U.S. team composed almost entirely of players from WPS.
Developing players is certainly a grass-roots effort, but it also has to be implemented from the top, down. With limited WPS roster spots, very good players -- maybe even late blooming women's national team players -- will be forced into the W-League and WPSL. Will they continue to develop there, though?
What needs to happen is harmony must be established among the leagues. It might be a pipe dream, but if WPS -- which stands alone atop the club pyramid -- could get on the same page as the W-League, WPSL and the female youth system to create a unified -- or at least more productive -- system of player development, women's soccer could truly take the direction Ellis, Heinrichs and others are now trying to find for it.
As it is, youth leagues and amateur leagues are working against each other to promote themselves as the "right" way to develop players. The only way everyone will even come close to agreement on defining the correct approach is for the USSF to step in and define exactly what should be happening on a national level. Heinrichs and Ellis will look to do that, but they have their work cut out for them in a U.S. system that still lacks cohesion among its own leagues and clubs fighting for the same goal of developing women's soccer.