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U.S. Soccer Press Conference: Sunil Gulati, Jill Ellis and April Heinrichs

U.S. Soccer Press Conference
President Sunil Gulati, Women’s Technical Director April Heinrichs, Women’s Development Director Jill Ellis

May 27, 2012

Opening statement by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati:
“We’re funding and putting in place full-time people on the girls’/women’s side, primarily on the youth side. There’s two things that I want to highlight about that. One is the effort that has been going on for the last couple of years with the review group that’s similar to what we’ve been doing on the men’s side for a few years, and the first part of that was the hiring of these two individuals on either side of me (Jill Ellis and April Heinrichs) to kind of set the overall technical direction for American soccer on the female side. Part two is what you’re seeing today, but these are just two small pieces. They’re important pieces, but there’s a lot more to be done. You’ll see some of those things coming out over the next months and in fact years. Carin Gabarra has been heading up the technical review, with April and Jill very much in the middle of that, and you’ll see a number of announcements. We want to do this in reposition of strength. There were some concerns a year and a half ago when the Under-17s didn’t qualify and the Under-20s lost in the quarterfinals, and we weren’t sure where the women’s team was. Since then, I think some of those concerns went away, but we weren’t complacent then, or when we’re winning. It’s important that this year when the women’s team has swept the tournament and qualifying for the Olympics without giving up a goal – the Under-20s have swept the Under-20 qualifying giving up only one goal and the 17s have swept the tournament without giving up any goals qualifying for world championships. As we reminded all of the coaches, that’s just part A of A-Z. Because winning gold is always the goal of the U.S. We’re not concerned that we’re falling behind. What we really want to do is maintain the leadership that we have on the women’s side of the game and the girls’ side of the game throughout the world. The gap has clearly closed as more countries play, but it’s a doubling down of our efforts when we’re still out in front rather than when we’re trying to come from behind, and that’s critical to us.”

On how training and tactics have changed over the past 20 years:
Women’s Technical Director April Heinrichs: “I think every aspect of the game has changed in the last 20 years. We have recently presented a few concepts to our club coaches in our community and we’ve talked about the last 20 years and what we think will be in the next 20 years. The tactics have certainly changed. I think the women’s game is growing faster than the men’s game. The tactics that are happening in the women’s game are changing very, very quickly. We’re seeing more pressing teams, we’re seeing teams that are fitter, certainly teams that are more creative, dynamic, comfortable and agile with the ball. We’re seeing teams that believe in themselves. In virtually every aspect it’s changed dramatically. So some specific things we were actually talking about this morning is teams are able to press the ball immediately after a loss of possession. Some teams are squeezing in behind that, some teams are dropping off behind that. There’s a different space to be found after you consult the initial pressure. Years ago, teams either sat back in their goal or they tried high pressure. Now there’s this flexibility. We also saw in the last World Cup that teams pressed and pressed in an organized manner in the group play and did something completely different in the knockout stage. We think that was relative to pressure, to fitness, to expectations on certain countries.

“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. But we really need to spend grassroots time and effort in skill acquisition years and developing young players and most importantly resetting the button on our coaches’ focus. Coaches are focused on teams, and we want them to be focused on individual development.”

On the coaching curriculum and how that will fit in to the women’s side:
Women’s Development Director Jill Ellis: “I certainly think that the curriculum that was implemented obviously applies to the women’s game, as well. It’s based in the years of technical acquisition that April was discussing. That gives our coaches of our younger players a template in the types of activities that are age appropriate, the types of activities to even do with young players and when they should be focusing on certain development of the technique. We’re more focused on the elite players once they enter the high school years. But certainly for us, our focus has been in trying to influence the area that has the greatest effect on player development, which is the club realm. We’ve been on the road a lot talking and discussing standards, expectations and what is the modern player. As far as trying to help these coaches understand what we need out of them to help us to continue to develop, and placing high emphasis on technique, on the types of players that we’ve brought in, the coaches we’ve now involved in our programs, everything is about technique. As far as high school being a component of the soccer community, certainly for some players it’s still a very relevant and very important piece. What I tell players at the end of the day is whatever environment you’re in, make sure it’s the most challenging. That way you’re not only getting good competition but good coaching. As far as our scouting piece of that, we’re going to be at every major event, and so it’s really allowing the player to make the decision about what’s the best environment for them. They’re smart kids. They understand where they’re going to get better and develop, so we’re really putting that on them, rather than dictating to them what the decision should be.”

On what the future holds for U-20 WNT head coach Steve Swanson and U-17 WNT head coach Albertin Montoya:
Sunil Gulati: “They’re going to coach the teams through the World Cup cycle. That’s our commitment to them. What it means is that in the future, we may be able to get people to come that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. I don’t think in Steve’s case there’s an immediate plan to leave his university job. As far as I know that hasn’t been discussed. What that means is after this cycle, those positions will be full-time and we’ll be able to rely on them, not just when they’re coaching the team, but 365 days a year to support all these other initiatives.”

On the importance of having a professional full-time environment to develop the next generation of senior team women’s players:
Sunil Gulati: “It’s extraordinarily critical. We’ve been very successful on the women’s side on the National Team level. This year the goal is pretty easy. To accomplish the goal is harder, but the goal that has been set by everyone is to win gold medals in the three competitions (U-17 and U-20 World Cups, London Olympics). What we want to do, though, is make sure we have a broad enough base of players. These positions will not just allow those folks to coach the teams, but to get the message out – whether it’s the curriculum or the technical acquisition about the players’ skill set. Basically, it’s a way to get the message out there and get people who are doing that 365 days a year, whether it’s at the club level, whether it’s at the university at level, whether it’s at high school, or obviously on our youth national teams. Player development is critical. It’s our central mission. This will help is in that area. April and Jill have started that on a full-time basis, and this will continue that process.”

On the benefits of full-time coaches at younger levels:
Jill Ellis: “I think simply time management. The fact that we’ve always been doing things part-time, we’ve had coaches come in that have five other balls in the air when they’re back in their own community and environment, so just their ability now to focus on the players, the age groups, the age group above them and below them, I think that in itself is just masterful in what we’ve determined what we can do as far as time commitment to making it work.”

April Heinrichs: “I think the time is right for U.S. Soccer to lead. What we’re seeing now is a community that is asking for our help. Jill and I heard this about a year and a half ago, and we really were committed to traveling the country, evaluating the state of the women’s game, the girls’ game, getting to know some of the people on the ground, meeting and listening to some of the constituents out there and some of our partners out there to their current issues, to their relevant issues, then discussing among ourselves and with some of them and in partnership with some of the coaches that we have that we’ve been working with discussing some plans, and then partnering with them to lead. ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) is in a really good place. It’s a three-year startup company that has very quickly become this elite environment for our club youth players between the ages of 14 and 18. They’ve been very good about touching base with Jill and me. We have gone out to speak with them, we’ve worked with them, we’ve had some of their coaches in our youth national team camps. The message we hear consistently from them is, ‘Help us. Tell us, help us, give us the view, give us the vision.’ We’ve started to roll that out this year, and they’ve been nothing but receptive. We’re really excited about what ECNL is doing and the task forces explored with what area, much like the men’s task force, what would be the next critical thing? We’ve identified today’s initiatives as hiring support staff to roll out some of our vision and our mission and having the human resources to implement some of our ideas. The next step is to look at potentially a zone three initiative, and that’s players that are 16, 17, 18 and 22 and what do we do with those players. That’s something that Carin is going to continue to lead and continue to explore.”

Sunil Gulati: “One thing we should add, and it’s been the case forever, but we often get asked about it – what we do on the girls’/women’s side and the boys’/men’s side is not always the same. There are reasons for that. When the task force that’s been led by Kevin Payne, one of the early ideas was the Development Academy and we put that in place. People ask why is there not one on the girls’ side? Because it’s not viewed as the No. 1 priority right now. There’s the ECNL that’s in place and so forth. The positions we’re funding today, right now on the boys’ side, the under-20s is not a full-time position. We don’t have a technical director on the boys’/men’s side in the role that April is in. Yet we have other programs on the boys’ side that we don’t have on the girls’ side. We don’t have a residency program (on the girls’ side). All of those things change. We’ve never thought, thinking like an economist for a minute, it’s always been where is that next dollar and what can that best buy you? In terms of points on a tournament, in terms of development, that’s not the same on the girls’ side and the boys’ side. We’ve got the best people in the game telling us that. In this group that Carin has set up, including Jill and April, and Tony DiCicco and Anson Dorrance and club coaches from around the country and some of our former National Team players, it’s a wide spectrum of the best people we’ve got in the game relying on historical evidence and relying on scientific analysis on what we should be doing next.”

On how players are being identified and moved up through the system:
April Heinrichs: “I think that’s one of the things that the task force has had some conversations with – if National Team players are being identified at 12, 14, 15. When our youth National Teams mesasure up against the rest of the world’s 14-, 15- and 17-year-olds, we are really strong. We put a lot of resources toward our youth national team program. We have an incredibly large pool of athletes and players to select from. When they’re 17, 18, 19, there’s maybe still a gap actually. But then the best around the world at 17, 18, 16, 19 – I certainly played up at 14 years of age. I played on a U-19 team, and that doesn’t happen in men’s soccer. We’ve seen a lot of evidence in the value of playing up, and our girls are playing against girls. This is a concern that the task force has been talking about extensively is what can we do to tidy up the environment for our 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, up to 22 years of age players? In Europe, the top 17-year-old playing for their national team is playing for Frankfurt, right next to all of their brilliant national team players. 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?’ That’s a really unique situation and not a typical situation, but what you can see is that players are starting to realize that playing up in women’s soccer is something that we really need to address.”

Sunil Gulati: “I used to ask Anson [Dorrance] this a number of times, I’ve asked April along the way and I’m sure I asked Tony [DiCicco], as well – this was 10 or 15 years ago – saying if UNC [Universithy of North Carolina] was a National Team, would they qualify for the World Cup on the women’s side? Twenty years ago, that level was good enough to prepare our best players. That’s no longer the case. That’s pretty clear. That doesn’t mean we’re going to see large numbers, or any players, deciding to skip college on the girls’ side and go into pro soccer yet. Who knows what happens down the road. But it’s clear that we’ve got to supplement that if there’s not a pro league with a lot of activity. That means more emphasis on our Under-23 program or 21 program, or whatever else we might do. Or have a national B team, which effectively could be an under-23 team. In the absence of a league, we’re going to have to do more, as we’ve done in the past. The activities in the National Team program are very different when we have leagues, including the men’s side obviously.”

On whether the girls’ game will follow the boys in implementing a Development Academy model:
Sunil Gulati: “We’re a little early on talking about this particular topic. We’ve got a couple things coming up with the group that Carin and April and Jill are heading up. We’re at least talking about these issues. 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. But I don’t think we’re in the position to talk hypothetically about what the best model might be going forward.”