U.S. SOCCER’S APRIL HEINRICHS TALKS ABOUT WOMEN’S SOCCER DEVELOPMENT IN AMERICA
May 12, 2011
A CALSOUTH.COM EXCLUSIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH U.S. SOCCER'S APRIL HEINRICHS
Interview conducted by Joe Curley
After several years on the U.S. Olympic Committee, former World Cup-winning striker and Olympic Gold medal-winning coach April Heinrichs returned to U.S. Soccer in January, when she was named the full-time Technical Director for the U.S. Women's National Team. With the FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany approaching this summer, Heinrichs was kind enough to speak to CalSouth.com regarding the state of the women's game in America.
Cal South: What can you tell us about the restructuring within the U.S. Women's National Team and your involvement in the project?
April Heinrichs: US Soccer's commitment to hiring three new directors in January of 2011 was a very positive step for the direction of women's soccer. Dave Chesler [who fills a longtime void as the new Women's Director of Coaches Education] is a real strong leader and visionary for coaching education. We've been without a coaching ed. director for some time and we've hired one who can refine our processes of how we teach players. That's a really positive step.
Hiring Jillian Ellis as Developmental Director is a first for U.S. Soccer. It will be the first time we have a Developmental Director on the women's side of the game. For Jill to come on board, bringing her coaching, her charisma and her perspective on some of the cultural things that have gone awry is important. She'll work with the U17 and U15 teams, the U14 camp, and will be focused on the 16-year-olds and younger that filter through the elite level. She'll be overseeing a new scouting network that we've been implementing… That's a real positive step. We've never had someone just focused on that before.
My title is rather common… Technical Director. We've used that in soccer all across the world. I will focus on the Under-20 and Youth National Teams. I'll also be collaborating with Claudio Reyna [USSF Youth Technical Director]. To a lesser degree, I'll be working with some of the issues that we have on the women's side with players that are over 20 years old, trying to look at the bigger picture.
We do quite well in developing players up until 17 years of age. In terms of all the resources, there's no other country that spends as much money as we do. But development doesn't stop at 17 years of age.
CS: Does U.S. Soccer have to work with the NCAA in that regard?
AH: Jill comes from the college game; I come from the college game. There are a lot of great things about women's college soccer. Players are playing up with and against older players. It is a professional environment. They are training five days a week. There is some moderation. They only play 20 to 25 games a year during a time when some of their peers in other parts of the world may be playing 100-120 games. There are 330 Division I schools with three coaches and 25 players [each]. That is an amazing number of players that are being developed.
CS: So, how is the development of older players being hindered?
AH: We can say that technique and basic tactics are learned between the ages of 8 and 16. It is awareness in the game's advanced tactics that really comes in at 17 years of age and beyond. I think that's where we're failing. The rest of the world has it and we don't.
We've got a women's professional league that going into its third year. We had three years of the WUSA and we're now in the third year of the WPS. By September, we'll have six years of professional soccer, but we had six years in between.
CS: I know there has been some investment in the English league. Are there professional women's leagues flourishing in other parts of the world?
AH: Norway, Sweden, Demark, Germany, France, Italy, although it has faded a little bit. In Japan, they're starting to build a good league. Brazil has a small league, but it has a presence. Meanwhile, we have
We have a couple things we are working on as part of the new initiative in women's soccer. We've put together a task force. We're preparing our second meeting. We are preparing subgroups. One of the things that we will study is that very challenge. We'll make some recommendations on how to overcome some of those challenges. We have to offer more solutions on how to retain more players, how to improve the environment for elite players from 24 or 25 on and how to expand the pool.
There are 20 players on six pro teams. That's 120 players who are being developed in the pro league. Provided the league is sustainable, that's a good situation, but if that league isn't around, then what do we do?
Not only that, but when you look at the bottom of the pyramid, between the ages of 6 to 16 in America, there's no larger pool of athletes in any other country. We know there's a drop-off in every sport at 15 or 16 years of age, but what's happening to them? We're not doing our players enough justice right now. We have to provide more refined opportunities.
CS: Every World Cup seems to define the sport in its point in time. What do you think we'll see this summer in Germany?
AH: I think we can all say that, this summer, we expect the women's game to be played at the highest level it's ever been played… ever. That includes all the teams. The game is faster, more technical, more tactical and more competitive.
CS: It's coming up on 12 years since the U.S. defeated China on penalty kicks in Pasadena to win the '99 World Cup final. What are your thoughts on those "Golden Girls," their legacy and how they continue to affect the Women's National Team program?
AH: The first thing that came to mind, and I don't know who said it, is the quote that "We caught lightning in a bottle." That's absolutely true. "The Golden Girls of 1999," that was a moment in time that may never be duplicated.
If we always say that we can't or it'll be difficult to duplicate that, we're on a negative. The legacy can be that we still have money in the bank. We have iconic women… a generation of women that have inspired multiple generations of young people. It's going to be hard to be measured in the long term. Everything we have today is built from that team. It was a watershed moment. How do you really measure the impact?
It was the day, the month, the year that, literally, women's soccer gained the nation's and the world's attention. What a moment… I don't know that there's been another women's sporting event that's caught the attention of the world in that regard.
Now that golden generation, they've been retired six or seven years. It's also appropriate to say as a director, it's not very helpful to keep looking back. It was a wonderful summer. Now it's somebody else's turn.
I got a lot of calls [in April] asking "Hey, what's your take on the England loss." Who would have thought we'd go 20, 22 years between losses to England? Who would have thought that it would take 20 years for us to lose a World Cup qualifier? But there are certainly some signs that we need to have more urgency in what we're doing.
CS: How has the women's game evolved over the past few quadrennials?
AH: A couple things have happened. The women's game has gone from about five teams being good to about 20 teams. The U.S. once led in terms of social equity. The resources that U.S. Soccer diverted to the women's game were unparalleled 10 years ago. We had a 50-yard head start in a 100-yard dash… Now, 20 years later, some countries have really stepped up their commitment. So no matter who wins the World Cup this summer, it'll be the highest level we've ever seen.
CS: In the past few men's World Cups, we've seen the game evolve tactically from the 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 to last summer, when we saw more teams going back to systems that had three at the back. What are the current tactical trends in the women's game?
AH: I'd be surprised if we saw a three-back system, I think we will see more two fronts than three fronts. Unfortunately, as more money arrives, and more attention and pressure arrives along with it, I expect to see teams will be more conservative. This World Cup has a lot riding on it with Germany hosting. Every European country feels like it's their World Cup. Plus, if the U.S. doesn't win every game 3-0, everyone is really critical. So we also might see some negative tactics.
CS: You've observed a few Youth National Team camps recently. Has anything surprised you about the player pools?
AH: We've got some athletes with some great physical qualities and we've got some smaller technical players. It just depends on what their qualities are. Southern California is such a great contributor to our National Team program. The East Coast is strong, as well. There was talent from Texas and Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. It's the same frontiers. What is new is that there are exceptions. There was a tall, strong, powerful forward from Arkansas that was exciting. Not your typical hotbed for a classical center-forward. There was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfer chick from Southern California who's a physical, biting center-mid, vicious in her tackling presence. That's fun.
CS: How has it been, throwing yourself into your new position?
AH: It's been wonderful. It's been a really fast and furious three months. I've already had five or six weeks of camps and a U-20 trip to Spain. It's not even been three months and six of those weeks have been on the road with players and coaches. It's been very fun.
I was with the [U.S. Women's National] team, on and off, from 1985 to 2005. I stepped away to work with the U.S. Olympic committee for the last four years. It's been very refreshing to see a different world, a different realm. I hope to use some of the lessons learned and have them serve U.S. Soccer. It's been very fun to be back in the soccer community; although, in some ways, I never left. [Heinrichs consulted with FIFA as a technical analyst with the U-20 World Cup.]
The game is faster. The athletes are a little bit more experienced. They're playing 100 games per year at an early age. But there are other, negative by-products like the training-to-game ratio. We're going to have to try to steer them to a target number closer to 40:60.
Ten years ago, I was the only technical employee. Now, to be in a position to collaborate with other people on the game, I'm so excited about growing the next 20 years of the game.
Cal South Soccer Magazine correspondent Joe Curley also covers soccer for the Ventura County Star and the Scripps Howard News Service. Joe lives in Camarillo with his wife, Rian, and daughter, Vivienne.