On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer announced the immediate end of operation for the Development Academy (DA) system due to financial concerns caused by COVID-19. The program, which was intended to feed talent into the national team program, was launched just over two years ago on the girl’s side but did not last long.
Soon after the DA system began on the boy’s side 13 years ago, Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) was founded in 2009 as the premier option for girl’s soccer. Since then, the ECNL has risen in stature, and 20 of the 21 domestic recruits on Stanford’s 2019 roster played on a club team in the ECNL.
When the DA opened on the girl’s side, it competed with the ECNL. Real Colorado, where semifinal hero Sophia Smith played club soccer, was one of just a few clubs to play in both the Girls DA and the ECNL. Last year, the club moved to DA-only, but Executive Director of Coaching Lorne Donaldson announced on March 11 that the club would be switching back to the ECNL.
“Real Colorado have played in both leagues,” she said. “The ECNL is a better environment for the overall development of our student athletes, on and off the field, and we are excited to be back.”
On the boy’s side, the MLS stepped in to announce the formation of a new youth competition for the league’s academy teams to replace the now defunct DA. On the girl’s side, the ECNL will be able to move forward without direct competition. Among many others in the Bay Area, MVLA Soccer Club, has teams competing in the ECNL. It just so happens that Stanford women’s soccer head coach Paul Ratcliffe coaches Barcelona White 04G for MVLA.
So Ratcliffe, after capturing his third national championship in 17 years at Stanford, talked with The Daily about what the U.S. Soccer decision means for his team and the future of soccer in America. The conversation was slightly edited for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What were your thoughts on the announcement?
Paul Ratcliffe (PR): I’m surprised that [U.S. Soccer] did it at this time, but not surprised because I think they’ve just been trying to get it going. The men’s side had started a lot earlier — women’s side just started a few years back — so I think they were still trying to find their footing. So I was surprised that they shut it down so quickly because I feel like they were just starting to or just trying to get it going. But there had been a lot of growing pains. So I think, from that standpoint, I wasn’t surprised.
TSD: Where does this leave the ECNL?
PR: I think ECNL does an amazing job. I’m really impressed with how they’ve structured the league and how they’re making it positive for all the athletes that are playing in it…Hopefully a lot of these DA teams will move up to the ECNL and get opportunities to play in that league because it’s a very competitive league.
TSD: How will your recruiting be impacted?
PR: I don’t think it will hurt. I mean, I want to see the U.S. national team supporting and investing in youth soccer. I think that’s really important for the growth of the game in the United States. So from that point, I’m not happy about it. But prior to them stepping in a few years ago, I thought the ECNL was doing a fantastic job in youth soccer. They were doing a great job with the league making it competitive, so we can definitely do well without them, but I hope they find a way to continue to invest in youth soccer in the United States to help the development.
TSD: What will be the effect on soccer in America?
PR: I don’t see any impact…I think they had gotten a little bit heavy with all the things that they had going on, so now I think they’re just cutting back financially — which is not ideal, because I would hope that they invest a lot of money in these games. I think that the foundation for the full national team is youth soccer. If we invest in it properly, then I think we’ll build up and have a very strong national team…We’ll have to see what [U.S. Soccer does] with those resources or how that’s playing out because it seems like they’re realigning things.
TSD: Where would you like to see resources devoted?
PR: I think they could be more focused with how they do things with the youth national team, and it sounds like they’re kind of moving in that direction. Prior to this, they had a youth national team at every age group, which I think can be sometimes difficult to manage. So if they had [a youth national team] every two years and then hire the best coaches and keep it really focused, that would probably be the best way to do it in my eyes. And then just, you know, investing in the youth however they can to develop great players.
TSD: Will this raise the importance of high school soccer?
PR: Hopefully that will be beneficial for us because I think a concern a lot of people had with the DA is they would not allow kids to play DA and also participate in high school soccer, which was very limiting. There are a few outliers out there, they might be a great basketball player and they want to play basketball at their high school and they also want to play soccer. And I think we should allow that when they’re young because you never know that might benefit them; the spatial awareness, there’s different things you can learn from playing basketball and/or playing high school soccer. I think it definitely can benefit that because we want all of the top soccer players to be able to play in high school soccer if they decide to…I’ve seen high school soccer drop over the last few years,…and it’s a shame because I think it’s another great experience for people. They’re playing soccer. If they play with some great players in high school, [develop] and have the camaraderie, the school spirit of playing for their high school team and have another great experience through soccer.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.