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.
“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.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.