LA GALAXY ENTERS THE WORLD OF GIRLS SOCCER DEVELOPMENT
Women United FC recently sat down with LA Galaxy’s Zach Wells to discuss their upcoming participation in the U.S. Soccer Girls Development Academy League with the Girls’ Academy, the first and only fully-funded MLS affiilated girls’ academy program. U.S. Soccer announced their Academy earlier this year as an “initiative to accelerate the development of world-class female player” according to their website. This new venture will, in large part, mirror their elite male youth player development model that U.S. Soccer believes has elevated the level of the game on the boys side since it launched in 2007. In total, there are now 74 clubs in 6 divisions spread across the nation, Northeast, Southeast, Frontier, Mid-America, Southwest and Northwest set to begin playing in the fall of 2017. There are 9 NWSL Clubs participating. LA Galaxy’s academy is unique in that it is the only MLS-affiliated club to be offering their program for free out of the MLS teams (LAFC, San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy) joining in the inaugural season.
“Adding an Academy program for girls is a huge step for this club in order to continue that investment. We are thrilled to launch this program and provide a structure for young girls to grow and develop in a professional environment free of charge,” said LA Galaxy president Chris Klein in a statement given by the team.
The Galaxy’s inclusion in the Academy is their way of keeping a promise to their community and their club affiliates to be as involved in the female pathway as they have been in the male player development space, according to Zach Wells.
The Academy will provide clubs a consistent schedule of competitive games that are more meaningful and based on a training-to-game ratio they believe correlates best with building skill. LA’s program will include three combined age groups: U-14/15, U-16/17 and U-18/19, as per league requirements. Each team will have up to 23 players enrolled, all located within a 75 mile radius of StubHub Center.
The Galaxy’s alliance clubs LA Galaxy South Bay, LA Galaxy Bakersfield and LA Galaxy Conejo Valley, will all be included in the roster along with additional community members who are interested, and enrollment has not yet begun. Alliance club LA Galaxy San Diego has already been accepted as a stand-alone member of the Girls’ Development Academy. LA Galaxy are still 10 months away from the beginning of the season and therefore are in the process of building out the logistics and staffing. But one of the things that sets LA’s team apart from many is the lack of a fee for participants. The U.S. Soccer Academy urges clubs that can afford it to subsidize costs for players in financial need, thus differentiating themselves from the current offerings of ECNL. U.S. Soccer also offers a scholarship program, open to any full-time Academy player, to assist players with covering Academy travel cost. The Galaxy took it a step further and removed the financial barrier.
Another thing that sets LA Galaxy apart is their rich history in coaching at all levels. Academy clubs are expected to train a minimum of four times a week and the games will be scouted by U.S. Soccer. Coaches will be encouraged to play their players “up” on an older age team within the club which they believe helps accelerate development. LA Galaxy, LA Galaxy II, LA Galaxy Academy boys and girls teams and the LA Galaxy Blended Learning Program, will all operate within the StubHub stadium facilities. Zach anticipates that eventually the U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy will become the preferred path to both collegiate soccer and the Youth National Team, keeping the U.S. competitive in comparison with the rest of the growing world of women’s soccer.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THE EXISTING GIRLS’ DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM, THE ECNL?
Earlier this year, we spoke with Christian Lavers from Elite Clubs National League, formerly the only female youth soccer competition and development platform in the U.S., which, as of February consisted of 7 conferences and 79 clubs participating in an age-pure leaf. ECNL has been in operation since 2009. As of this year, ECNL players comprised 80-90% of almost every U.S. Soccer Youth National Team pool and 90% of their graduating class went on to play collegiate soccer in 2015. But with the recent uptick in women’s soccer, driven in large part by the successes and media coverage of the growing U.S. Women’s National Team and the fairly stable NWSL, U.S. Soccer officially threw its hat into the ring of girls’ soccer development, citing their successes in the boys’ side and methodology as reasons to believe in the promise of this new league.
“More than ever before, we are seeing the benefits of the Development Academy really come through,” U.S. Men’s YNT coach Tab Ramos said. “For example, this past year we know that about 90 percent of all youth national team call-ups are from Development Academy clubs. That’s already a great thing. We have encouraged Development Academy clubs to play their players up an age group. That gives us an indication of who can be successful at the national team level because the game is faster and the physicality of the game is a little bit stronger an age group up. It prepares them for the international game.” It’s natural to feel skeptical of the success of the YNT at this stage, but also keep in mind, the DA only launched in 2007.
Whether or not the measure of success of ECNL is the near future success of the U.S. Women’s National Team, has yet to be determined, but names like Mallory Pugh, Julie Johnston, Sam Mewis and Lindsay Horan point to a generation of ECNL players beginning to make their mark on U.S. Women’s soccer history. As it stands, the lure of the U.S. Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) has already led to over 20 ECNL clubs applying for and being admitted to the new venture. And, as rules do not permit full-time GDA enrollees to participate in unapproved competitions, the ECNL and GDA are direct rivals for at least a fraction of the best that girls’ soccer has to offer as long as they continue recruiting from the same pools. Both programs offer at least some type of scholarships, though GDA promises a larger scholarship availability based on need, and both are poised to tap from new talent pools if they promote club participation within non-traditional markets, like many overlooked inner-city and urban centers.
A tangible achievement of the boys’ DA, partly due to fully funded MLS academies, is that it gave a larger number of boys the chance to play at reduced or no cost, increasing the breadth of the sport. As more MLS clubs join LA Galaxy’s investment in girls’ soccer, the balance between supply and demand will shift, and more parents will aim to enroll their daughters in the GDA. Still, there are clubs like MatchFit that declined the opportunity to join the GDA and stayed in the ECNL citing reasons such as over-saturation of their division and the no-high school team participation clause which limited their players too much. The differences between the two models will become clearer as the years go by and it will be telling to truly measure them against one another with tangible indicators.
As for U.S. Soccer, they’ve clearly decided the best path to the national team is through their yet-untested waters. “The Development Academy is an important step forward to continue the growth of the women’s game in the United States, and to create the best pathway for players to reach their full potential,” Jill Ellis, head coach of U.S. Women’s National team, asserted, giving her seal of approval to the push from U.S. Soccer to create their complete soccer ecosystem. The basic idea of giving girls and boys the same opportunities is inherently the right thing to do and it’s an adequate starting point. U.S. Soccer’s decision to invest in the future of girls’s soccer is a win, however the reasons for bypassing the ECNL, beyond basic program structure differences, are unclear. How well the Academy adapts its current model to girls and whether the girls’s performance in the GDA equals or surpasses that of the boys’ in the DA is difficult to predict. The ECNL is more of a known player in the area with a history of producing national team players, but it now lacks the direct and guaranteed connection to the national team. Many parents choosing between the two feel they’re throwing the dice with their child’s future. Years from now, parents will have the ability to be more selective in making this decision. As for now, in Los Angeles’ thriving soccer scene, the participation of LA Galaxy (and LAFC) in what is meant to be a highly elite and competitive youth system is a measured step in the right direction towards a lasting professional league.