Our Girls Academy Home: Why We Are Skipping the Club-Hopping Party

THE JOCKEYING HAS BEGUN. It’s the dance that inevitably commences right after New Year’s Eve for soccer parents everywhere when they shake off their proverbial hangovers — only to be only to be confronted with the aching question: “Where should my child play next season?”

Though not unique to the game that most of the world calls football, the phenomenon known as club-hopping is especially prevalent in areas of the country where clubs offering an “elite” soccer experience significantly outnumber the quantity of actual “elite” players available to fill the slots. My daughter could try out for at least 15 so-called travel clubs within an hour’s drive of our house here in Maryland. And even though the next season doesn’t officially begin until August, commitment letters and contracts often go out in March or April.

“We love this team,” a parent told me recently. “But we need to keep our options open.”

Not us, I tell them.

Celebrating a Metro United goal

“We are staying right here.”

THIS IS NOT A DECISION I made lightly. In fact, I don’t feel like I really made it at all. The Girls Academy, and most importantly my daughter, have built a safe, professional, competitive and fun environment together. When she tells me, “I don’t want to play anywhere else,” I can’t fathom a reason other than gas prices that would ever make me want to try to change her mind. Since no other Girls Academy club exists within any kind of reasonable distance from our home, her soccer team is her home away from home. Period.

For the uninitiated to the crazy world of club soccer, you should understand that girls who envision themselves becoming players at the highest levels of the collegiate or professional game typically have limited options for competitive leagues. In the past 12 years, the Elite Clubs National League has emerged as the dominant force in the game in terms of numbers. ECNL, which also offers boys’ leagues, provides local, regional and national playing opportunities. For a few years, ECNL’s main competitor was known as the Development Academy run by U.S. Soccer. The Development Academy offered a connection to the professional teams in many markets and, since it was run by the same people who picked the beloved Women’s National Team (think Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd), the Development Academy also owned a significant psychological marketing advantage.

In other words, if you thought your child was good enough to be chosen as the best of the best, then the Development Academy appeared to be holding the aces.

THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT when I brought my daughter to her first Girls Academy (GA) identification session for the local Metro United club that runs out of northern Virginia. U.S. Soccer had just dissolved the Development Academy for girls and boys at that time, but a committed group of club managers and coaches across the nation moved exceedingly quickly — in less than a month — to re-form as the Girls Academy (On the boys’ side, incidentally, many of the players from the prior Development Academy moved to a new league called MLS-Next). National Teamers, or women and men with professional and college experience, jumped in to help.

“I watched an incredibly dedicated, passionate group of people work around the clock to hold something together and it really tugged at my heart strings,” said Lesle Gallimore, the longtime University of Washington women’s soccer coach who agreed to step up and serve as the national commissioner of the GA.

As I detailed in Raising Tomorrow’s Champions (Inspire Media, 2021), the book of soccer parenting lessons that I co-authored with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, we already knew one of the Metro United coaches from my daughter’s days at her first travel club. My daughter and our family walked away from Jonah Schuman’s team back then because he didn’t care much if the girls won or lost as long as they were having fun and learning. To his credit, he always took the high road, including his parting words to her: “Maybe we’ll see you again, Angie. Let’s keep in touch.” In the end, we realized he was right.

In addition to Jonah, Metro United retained the same coaches from the Development Academy with strong connections to U.S. soccer scouts and colleges. Like the rest of Girls Academy, they also made lemonade out of lemons by instituting a girls-first mentality in their management philosophy, as well as prioritizing family and school time, referee standards, and individual player development. Winning games, especially prior to age 16, still doesn’t matter much, but giving the girls a voice, as young as age 12, is a key part of the culture. All teams in the Girls Academy have a representative on the players’ Advisory Panel that looks at everything from substitution rules, to coach behavior, to unique community service opportunities — our club recently participated in a Menstrual Product Drive, for example — to whether or not teams should ban white shorts outright.

“I think you really need to think first and foremost about the environment you put girls in, how they’re being coached, how they’re being treated, what they’re learning from the game,” said Lesle. “To set those standards within the league and uphold them is challenging because there’s always this pressure on winning from the parents, sort of looking over their shoulder and living in fear of what some other club might have that your club doesn’t.”

I GOOGLED THE PHRASE “GA vs. ECNL” to see what opinions existed on-line about which league represented the best opportunity for girls. A Joe Campos 2020 article, theorizing that the debate among parents about one league or the other is a fundamental problem in youth sports, led me to pick up the phone for a feisty chat with an attorney with strong opinions. Americans, said the former Marine, have it all wrong.

“In Europe and elsewhere, soccer players are developed by soccer clubs,” said Joe, the founder of the Eagleclaw Football Club of Washington state. “Often times, European children stay with the same clubs for most of their youth experience and that’s where the education and nurturing happens. Here, the focus is on what league your daughter or son plays for, so people move their children from club to club. No league has someone who picks up a phone and calls your daughter and says, ‘Hey, how are you feeling today? How’s that ankle? Have you been working on that left foot? Hey, I noticed in that exercise you were doing the other day that you were kind of doing this and maybe you should be doing that.’ No league will do that for you.

“A league is simply a testing hall. You take your education from the club and you put it to the test. If someone comes to me and says, ‘I’m taking my daughter to this league or that league because steel sharpens steel or iron sharpens iron,’ I say, ‘Good luck.’ It comes down to this: if you are happy with your coaches, if you feel your club has a pervasive educational context, then you’re one of the lucky ones. You are at a good club. It is hard to do. And because it's hard to do, it’s even harder to find. So if that’s what you have, then stick with it.”

Amy Griffin, right, with her World Cup legendary teammate, Michelle Akers (from Raising Tomorrow's Champions)

WRITING THE BOOK afforded me the opportunity to speak with more than 100 women who played for the National Team, many of whom shared common experiences and opinions. All of them told Joanna and me of an unrelenting desire to win from a young age, with the recognition that winning a game or tournament at the youth level is of little future consequence. Many of them talked about putting yourself in the most challenging environment that you can handle, but reiterated that none of those challenges should come from dealing with a coach who behaves inappropriately.

Amy Griffin and I have covered all of this and so much more in numerous phone calls in the past two years. A former National Team goalie and former college coach with Lesle Gallimore at the University of Washington, Amy now coaches the U.S. Deaf National Team and serves as national president of the GA. Launching a new league hasn’t been easy, she said, but keeping the focus squarely on what’s best for the girls gives her the confidence that the 80-club league will slowly, but surely, grow into the future. The league total will rise to more than 90 clubs in 2022-23.

“We’re not comparing ourselves to ECNL. Our focus is purely on the environment and standards to uphold that environment to create a safe, challenging, enjoyable place for talented players to continue to improve,” said Amy. “I would say that, to us, success is defined as the girls taking their sport back into their own hands. A lot of the initiatives, from the apparel that's chosen, to advice on logos, a scholarship fund and nationwide community service have been initiated by the players. It’s really cool, yet it’s hard to believe no one has asked them before.”

Among the more difficult subjects Amy and I have discussed previously involve issues of coach abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional or even physical. She said that giving the players a voice in league governance has already produced tangible results that include a partnership with STOPit Solutions, which features an anonymous reporting system.

“Now you see these girls asking tough questions and actually helping drive their league,” she said. “Players have literally called Lesle, the commissioner, and said, ‘Hey, is this right? This is how one of our coaches is behaving and I don’t think it is OK.’ We say, ‘You’re right. It’s not OK. Thanks for letting us know.'”

AT THE END OF THE DAY I have the same goals, and therefore the same anxieties, as every other parent who is spending $8-$10,000 year in club fees, gasoline and hotels in pursuit of my daughter’s soccer dreams. If I’m being honest, I do hope there’s a payday at the end in the form of a college scholarship. “The average parent begins with a question: ‘What does my child need to do to be seen?,’” said Joe Campos. “It’s the question that can drive grown men and women into an absolute panic.”

Even though I now know that’s not the most important reason for my daughter to be playing all this soccer for all of this time and money, I do want to be sure her experience checks the right boxes:

  1. Will my daughter be evaluated by college scouts? The answer is yes. The GA’s regional and national showcase events attract dozens if not hundreds of qualified eyeballs. Eight of the 32 players at the recent Under-15 National Team identification camp came from the GA, which — given the size discrepancy between the GA and ECNL — is a significant achievement.
  2. Is my daughter getting adequate practice time? Yes, again. The team trains four days a week spring and fall, and typically three times in winter, with an adequate balance of fitness, skills and strategy. Her practice sessions are attended by several coaches simultaneously and, even though the head coach has primary responsibility for her team, the other four coaches all know her game and can call out strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Is my daughter challenged? The answer is: Definitely. Playing on age rather than with older girls for one of the first times in her life, she has recognized that nothing about this college and professional soccer dream will be easy. The GA is packed with exceptional players, both on her team and elsewhere in the league.
Joanna Lohman, front and center, offered up a clinic for Metro United in the fall of 2021.

BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY talented players in the country, whether they play for the GA, or ECNL, or any of the other leagues in the U.S., I know that the most important boxes to check have nothing to do with college and professional aspirations. All those interviews with all those National Team players roll through my mind, whether my daughter wins or loses, or scores, or sits on the bench.

“Even if my daughter doesn’t become a super player, I want her to play sports because of what it brought me,” said Shannon Boxx, who was recently elected to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. “Even if she doesn’t get to the level that I got to, it will still bring her joy, it’ll bring her persistence, it’ll bring her perseverance. It’ll bring the teammate relationships, it’ll teach her how to be a teammate, how we can be a good team, how to lose and how to win. And it will teach you to follow your dreams. That’s everything.”

These are the other questions I find myself asking more often than not:

  1. Do the coaches care about her development as a person? Absolutely. As I was preparing to write this article, we told her coach that my daughter would be taking a week off in the middle of the spring season to go see her ailing grandmother. He didn’t hesitate to wish her well. We’ve had the same answer for missing a practice for a music lesson, a school play, or her sister’s cello recital.
  2. Is she in a safe environment? Without a doubt. The GA’s code of ethics and behavior is unassailably well considered and certified health care professionals attend every single match. Our team avoids most tournaments with two-games-a-day formats because of the wear and tear on the players.
  3. Does my daughter look forward to practice? The answer is Every Single Time. And I credit the coaches for that. The GA atmosphere is professional and respectful, but laughter is always allowed and often loud.

“I would say that it comes down to this,” said Amy Griffin as we signed off from our chat. “If your daughter just spent a year at a GA club in an environment with coaches that know what they’re doing, and it suited her, then I think you should really ask yourself if leaving makes sense. I think it’s like a classroom. If you have a methodology and standards and you learn math 101, then the next time you’re at math 102. You wouldn’t necessarily want to move to a new classroom where you’re doing something entirely different every year. True learning requires consistency and safety and care. I like to think that’s what we — the players, the coaches and the league — are creating together and I’m excited for what it will become.”

I plan to keep my daughter around to find out.

The smiles say it all . . .

Sexual Abuse By Coaches: How To Stop it Before it Starts

Sports is supposed to be the sacred place. When we bring our children to sporting events, we think we’re signing them up for exercise, friendship and all the other positive life experiences that should come from kicking, throwing, punting, jumping, passing and team building. We want to trust the men and women who oversee our children in what should be sacrosanct moments — but as National Teamer Cindy Gordon’s story of being sexually groomed and abused by her youth coach showed us, all too often we can’t.

“If Cindy’s story helps one person, one child, one family, then it was worth it,” said her long-time friend and teammate, Amy Allmann Griffin. “My guess is her story will help a lot of people, because there a lot of people who need it, too many women who already lived through what Cindy has endured — due to a lack of knowledge of the risks.”

The responses from Cindy's revelation continue to bear that out. She reported being overwhelmed by the number of women who reached out to her, many of them saying in essence, “Me, too.” I also heard from some of these women, yet I did receive one anonymous on-line comment about how my selection of current headlines, plucked from a selection of the nation’s newspapers, was “sensationalistic.” One organization told me off the record that the issue of sexual abuse of players by coaches was “one-in-a-million,” and not something they had ever heard about in their own club. I’m still waiting for a call back from that club’s president for an on-the-record quote.

I’m sensitive to painting all coaches, especially male coaches, with the same tainted brush of doubt. My eyes tell me that the vast majority of coaches have nothing but the best of intentions; they are out there to help the girls and young women get better at their sport. Often they are fathers of daughters. I know my daughter’s first coach was unhappy with the quality of coaching and lack of resources his own daughter and her teammates were receiving relative to the boys, so he started coaching girls himself to level the playing field. I desperately want to believe — and do believe — that his intentions are pure.

As uncomfortable as it may make us, however, Amy and so many others believe it’s imperative that parents approach the coaching relationship with inherent trepidation. “There are a lot of guys coaching in the in the women’s game and you do have to wonder why they’re there,” said Amy, a long-time National Team goaltender and current coach and senior administrator with the Girls Academy, one of the premiere youth leagues in America. “Is it because they couldn’t survive in the men’s game? Is it because they are hoping girls will fawn all over them? Or is it for all the right reasons, they value the talents and potential the girls and women possess?”

Amy Allmann Griffin, right, with National Team icon Michelle Akers and Michelle's son, Cody, in a photo from Page 236 of the book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions (courtesy of Amy Allmann Griffin)

Amy said she played for many excellent male coaches throughout her life, yet inappropriate sexual behavior among coaches was rampant. “Girls didn’t say anything back then because we thought, ‘Oh, I guess this is what guys do.’ We shouldn’t complain because everyone’s doing it. You think, ‘I can’t go to a different team, because it’s happening on that team, too.’” Amy and Cindy Gordon’s National Team teammate, Emily Pickering Harner, agreed in a social media post congratulating Cindy for her courage: “It was just such an era where ‘pedophile, abuse and predator’ were not terms that we even use to contemplate.”

Amy said Girls Academy coaches now receive training about the issue of sexual abuse and maintaining proper boundaries between coaches and players. She agreed it might be a good idea to consider making this training mandatory for players and parents as well, something that another sexual abuse victim said she would like to see instituted at the highest levels at U.S. Soccer. “I guarantee if I had been told to look out for that kind of behavior from my coach, my life would have turned out differently,” said Amy Carnell, who revealed she had been molested by her youth soccer coach in Washington state. “That was a prime motivator for me to step forward last year and say, ‘Hey, look, this happened to me — and I want to help stop this from happening to others. But we need to do more.”

Both of these women and others helped us draw up a blueprint for parents to follow when trying to keep their children as safe as possible. Here’s the advice:

SET STRICT PROTOCOLS — Clubs, teams and leagues need rules that govern coach-player contact, and then steps must be taken to ensure adherence. “For example, for each team there needs to be two to three designated watchdog parents who are trained to specifically be looking out for signs of grooming, or sexual abuse,” said Amy Carnell.

ANNUAL TRAINING — Part of the orientation for each team each year needs to include age-appropriate information the issue of sexual abuse, including brochures and videos for parents and guardians to follow when talking to their children. 

If YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING — Parents and anyone else in the sports community need to speak up when even the slightest suspicion arises. Signs of sexual grooming include excessive attention to a single player or unusual gifts to one player, but not others.

AVOID ONE-ON-ONE SITUATIONS — Any situations that put a player and coach physically alone and out of view of others should be banned, including car rides home. Any necessary soccer-related individual meetings between players and coaches should be help in public spaces, such as hotel lobbies, team buses, or offices with the door open and, preferably, someone else in the room.

AVOID DIRECT COMMUNICATION — When coaches need to communicate with players about practice or game times, it should be conducted in group settings such as team-wide texts or emails, or ZOOM calls. Parents should avoid commenting on appropriate soccer issues such as playing time or  positions on the field — but otherwise monitor all communications between the players and coaches to be certain no inappropriate lines are crossed.


National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673

United Soccer Coaches course: https://unitedsoccercoaches.org/education/sexual-violence-the-facts/

The official policy of U.S. Youth Soccer: https://tnunitedsc.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/1221/2018/11/USYS-Code-of-Conduct-2.pdf

U.S. Center for SafeSport: https://uscenterforsafesport.org/

Safe4Athletes: https://safe4athletes.org/

Should My Daughter Play Up? The Question Never Goes Away

To play on age, or “up” with girls a year older? That is the question that has dogged my daughter and our family ever since U.S. Soccer’s controversial 2016 mandate that young American soccer players be grouped by their birth year rather than their school year. By then my daughter had already been playing soccer a few years and, because she was born in August and is the youngest girl in her class at school, the new rule would have taken her away from her friends and placed her back with girls primarily in first grade.

Instead, she moved into club or “travel” soccer that fall with many of her friends. My daughter joined a team whose coach promised she could play up if she proved to be good enough and unafraid of taller, faster players. She did and, within a game or two, became a starter who rarely came off the field. In my daughter’s third year with that club, the administrators enforced  a hard-and-fast rule: all girls would play on age and no exceptions were allowed — even though U.S. Soccer’s mandate clearly gives all clubs the latitude to let children play up a year or two, but not down. 

My daughter, Angie, with her older sister, Aimee. Her shirt was a gift from her first soccer coach.

From a purely parental ego standpoint, those fall, winter and spring seasons were great; my daughter’s on-age team went 26-2, she scored goals in bunches and still has about eight trophies in her room from that year. Even then, though, my daughter knew she wasn’t really being challenged — so a year later she returned to her original, older team. The club didn’t like it, but finally agreed to make an exception.

For this coming fall 2021 season, what would be her sixth with the same club, the dilemma has returned; the administrators told us they would prefer to have my daughter to play on age again. Never mind that she is the starting defensive midfielder on the big field, 11 vs. 11, and plays almost every minute of every game.

Because I just wrote a book titled “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, in which we interviewed more than 100 all-time members of the National Team, I already knew how the players felt who had made it to the highest level. “I was always playing up from my actual age,” said Nicole Barnhart, a long-time backup goaltender to Hope Solo, who like Hope, started out as a field player. “You can get a false sense of yourself playing with kids your own age, especially if you’re a bigger person, growing faster or you’re just taller and faster than other children. Age is just a number. Children should be playing where their ability places them, not necessarily their age.”


Partly because this is a hot topic in my household right now, and partly because I knew it might lead to this column, I reached out to the more than 20 college coaches whom we interviewed in researching “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” None of them felt like the playing on age rule should be non-negotiable; all of them agreed, as Barnhart stated, that players should be on the team that’s most appropriate according to skills, development and playing time. In other words, if a child is playing up and is starting, playing more than half the game, that would indicate the proper placement.

I put a lot of stock in the words of Chris Petrucelli, who has been a coach in the U.S. National Team youth program for more than 20 years. The current coach at Southern Methodist University, he was a two-time national champion coach at Notre Dame and has numerous international tournament trophies on his resume. “I am in favor of players playing up if they can handle it physically and can be competitive at the older age group,” he told me. “If your daughter doesn’t yield to the older players, then I think it’s a great idea to play up.”

Some of the college coaches also cited another significant reason to allow children in my daughter’s circumstance to play with her school-age team rather than a birth-year team. As she gets older, not playing with the girls graduating in her same school year could put her a significant disadvantage in recruiting. College coaches focus most of their recruiting efforts one class at a time and will be much more likely to go to a game where most of the girls on the teams are projected to graduate at the same time. “I’ve seen some players get lost a bit,” said National Teamer Sam Baggett Bohon, head coach at Embry-Riddle University. “So, for example, if I’m looking for players for my 2023 class and a team has 12 of them vs. a team that has two of them, I’m more likely to prioritize my time during a busy tournament on the team where I can see more players in the same graduating class.”

Sam also told me that younger players with experience against older players can be a distinct advantage in college, since freshman are inherently playing up in most situations. International players in particular, she said, often come to the U.S. college system with a leg up. “It’s pretty common to find a graduating (international) senior having played with experienced older players if they’re good enough,” she said. “We do value this experience over an American player who’s playing predominantly with her own age.”

THE HIGHER GOAL — If you read the volumes of debate about the playing up topic on-line and in books, you’ll see that U.S. Soccer was broadly criticized. Participation in youth soccer has dropped off markedly since 2016 and some say it’s because children want to play their first games with their school buddies and, if they can’t, they’ll pick a different sport. U.S. Soccer is also criticized because the birth-year rule, while making it somewhat easier for coaches to pick the 30 best players in each age group nationally, results in challenging conversations and circumstances for thousands families and communities all across the country who struggle with this issue. “For the detractors of the switch, it's seen as a move that inconveniences many to serve a few,” said Mike Woltalla of the magazine Soccer America.

That's the opinion of April Heinrichs, a Hall of Fame Player, National Team coach and former U.S. Soccer administrator

If a young player is truly special and stays on age and dominates, an argument can be made that the player will be more likely to be noticed by a scout for U.S. Soccer. No data backs up this thesis; but if it’s your goal to be seen as a someone who might be chosen to be on the U-14 U.S. National Team, then maybe it’s more beneficial to go out and score three goals in a U13 elite tournament game than it would be to, say, be an average starter in a U14 tournament game. “If she’s a U16 thriving amongst U17s, she will be noticed by college coaches,” said National Teamer and soccer Hall of Famer April Heinrichs, who was in charge of the youth programs at U.S. Soccer when it implemented the rule. “If she’s buried amongst all the older players, it wouldn’t be good — it would be better to have her play with her own age-group.”

Given the millions of American children playing the game, however, the odds are about 100,000-1 that any given soccer-playing child will make a youth National Team. Even if a child is playing high-level soccer at age 11 and above, the odds are still stacked mightily against making a national roster. The goal should be solid, incremental development with as little mental and family stress as possible. For children still playing high level club soccer in their teenage years, playing in college, even obtaining a scholarship, is a reasonable goal. Anything more than that is, honestly, a pipe dream for almost everyone. “So many players I ask: ‘Who wants to be a professional?’ They all raise their hands. I say, ‘Do you guys even know what that means?” said National Teamer Yael Averbuch on Page 99 of our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “That means you’re distancing yourself from the rest of this group.”

At age 11, my daughter will still state privately that she wants to make the National Team, but is savvy enough to know that simply making a good college team isn’t a given. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that I’ll nudge her toward the highest quality team we can find that projects her as a potential starter. It’s not fair to limit her long-term development because of some random age rule — and I’m thankful that our club has empowered our family to be part of that decision, even if they don’t always agree with us.