We’re thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with U.S. Club Soccer’s Executive Vice President Christian Lavers, who also oversees Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). He is also an assistant coach with the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and is a plethora of information about the beautiful game across all levels and the power of grassroots collaboration to build an efficient system of development.
The ECNL is the best female youth soccer competition and development platform in the USA , consisting of 7 conferences across the United States and 79 member clubs. The ECNL has been around since 2009. ECNL players comprise 80-90% of almost every U.S. Soccer Youth National Team pool. As of 2015, 90% of their graduating class went on to play collegiate soccer. Looking for big names? Of course. USWNT’s Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian, Mallory Pugh (headline grabber for her recent Portland Thorns signing straight from high school) – to name just a few (there will be more throughout this interview). Keep in mind the era of ECNL-developed professional players is just beginning.
Q1: Given the excitement over the Women’s World Cup and the U.S. Women winning big last year, how has that carried over into women’s soccer as a whole from youth soccer to NWSL?
CDL: Almost everyone in the country seemed to watch at least part of the World Cup last summer, and the NWSL saw a nice bump in ticket sales in the weeks after the event. The challenge for anyone involved in the game, as it seems to be every four years, is to translate that short-term excitement into long-term, regular soccer fans.
Q2: Do you think that upward trajectory will last? What are some of the challenges women’s and girl’s soccer will face in the next 5-10 years?
CDL: Growing the audience for the game in the past has been about short-term spikes and then a return to normal – with generally a slight upward trend over time. But in terms of really making an impact in overall audience and attention, the biggest challenge over the next 5-10 years is sustaining and growing the NWSL. The game cannot be driven only by the Women’s National Team and World Cup or Olympic events – it needs to be driven on a weekly basis by teams playing week in and week out, and fans watching their favorite teams and players every week. If that happens, not only do we have more leaders in the game to share opinions, ideas, and experience, but we also have more resources to invest in the game.
Q3: Almost 90% of your class of 2015 went on to play collegiate soccer. That’s incredible! Tell us more about ECNL and its mission. How does it work to develop girls soccer players into competitive college athletes and beyond?
CDL: Without exaggeration, the ECNL is the best female youth development league in the world, formed with a very simple mission – to raise the game. This mission means improving everything about the female youth soccer environment – the competition structure, the player identification process, the level of coaching, the quality of club organization, refereeing standards, etc. The most important factor in moving from this great idea in 2007 to operating the best league in the world in 2016 has been the leadership and governance structure. The ECNL has united the grassroots leaders across the country, taken their ideas and suggestions on what works best and what needs to change, and put them into practice. The ECNL is founded on collaboration and respect for those in the trenches, and is in constant dialogue with these leaders and coaches on how to constantly get better. Ideas and desire to improve have always been there – the ECNL simply helped empower the people that want to make the game better, and then helped develop more of them. There is huge power in transparent, collaborative leadership.
Q4: Can you speak about the relationship that ECNL has with U.S. Soccer right now? Given the recent announcement of a U.S. Soccer Federation girls’ development academy, how do you see your organization working in concert with them? Or are they completely different markets?
CDL: Today, ECNL players make up 80-90% of almost every US Soccer Youth National Team pool. That is reflective of the fantastic job of development done in ECNL clubs, and a competition structure that puts the best of the best on the field against each other every week. ECNL alums are just now coming into the professional ranks and the WNT, and the results are fantastic: Julie Johnston starred in last summer’s World Cup and played in the ECNL, Mallory Pugh just signed a professional contract at age 17 and played in the ECNL almost her entire youth career, Danny Colaprico and Sam Mewis are both currently in camp with the WNT and are former ECNL players, Lindsay Horan was an ECNL star. We are confident that the development structure in the ECNL is fantastic – these players are just the beginning of the next generation of stars that will come from the ECNL. The Federation Women’s Task Force determined in late 2014, after objectively analyzing the landscape with members from a wide variety of backgrounds, that there was no need for a girls Development Academy, largely because of all the things the ECNL was doing. It would be interesting to know when, how and why this decision changed. When the Federation is ready to discuss girls development and what their plans may be, we will be at the table.
Q5: How can girls interested in pursuing a career in soccer get involved? At what age do you recommend they start playing more seriously? With so many choices before them, how can parents help guide their daughters?
CDL: At the youngest ages, 6-10 especially, the most important thing is for players to have a great coach – someone that instills love of the game, and who can teach them the foundations of skill, athletic movement, and insight into core decisions and situations. The ages of 11-13 are the “sorting out” ages, as I call them. These are when players start to decide how serious they are, and how good they want to be. That is when it is important to start to be surrounded by other players with similar goals – but the quality of the coach is still so important. At age 14 and above, it becomes important to be in a really competitive environment where you can be challenged every day and games are meaningful – and the quality of the coach continues to be a key factor. There is so much opportunity for women that want to remain in the game – and a great need for more former players to stay involved in the game in coaching. It is a tremendously rewarding experience to help the next generation of players, and we hope that more and more former players from the ECNL will become coaches to give back.