May 15, 2009
The Girls Game - Higher Expectations

Anson Dorrance, the USA's first world championship coach, and Pia Sundhage, its latest, share their views on how American girls soccer can keep getting better.

By Mike Woitalla (from the May issue of Soccer America)

When, in 1982, Anson Dorrance coached the University of North Carolina to its first NCAA title, 25 Division I schools had women's soccer programs. When, in 2008, Dorrance guided UNC to its 19th national title, the field had increased to 300 teams.

According to FIFA, the USA leads the world, by far, with the most registered girl players at 1.56 million. So it's not surprising that the U.S. women have been the world's most successful.

Since Dorrance coached the USA to victory at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, it has won four of the following eight world championships (three Olympic goal medals and another World Cup).

Last year, the USA won the U-20 Women's World Cup and finished runner-up at the inaugural U-17 Girls World Cup.

"I think the girls and women's game is wonderfully healthy," says Dorrance. "The youth coaches in the country have done a remarkable job developing our kids. That doesn't mean there aren't things we can do. What excites me is the potential. We're in pretty good shape right now and yet there's so much area for growth in our game."

U.S. national team coach Pia Sundhage agrees that for however successful the USA women have been, their dominance is being threatened by nations with strong soccer cultures that have finally embraced the women's game.

"We have been winning because we have a excellent fitness level, we have the speed and the strength," Sundhage says. "And we have a winning history. Going into a game with an attitude of 'we have been winning a lot, and we'll win today' is very important. But the world is catching up."

The wakeup call came in the semifinal of the 2007 Women's World Cup, when Brazil outclassed the Americans in a 4-0 drubbing. Germany then beat Brazil in the final. Sundhage was hired to replace Coach Greg Ryan with less than a year to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, where the Americans beat Brazil in the final, 1-0, in overtime.

"Because the world is catching up, this is a very good time to talk about player development," says Sundhage.

Moreover, a new women's professional league, WPS, has launched, and its survival depends on women being able to play entertaining soccer. That, most would agree, depends on a high level of individual skill.

"I look at the men's game as the university for the women's game," says Dorrance. "I think what's really cool about coaching women is you've got this standard that's a lot higher and is available to them, certainly to watch, but also to emulate.

"And even though there's always going to be a challenge in strength and power and speed, I don't think technically there should be that much of a difference.

"The skill gap is nowhere near being closed between the boys and girls, men and women."

Sundhage agrees that the emphasis must be on technique. Her exploration into the American youth game has been limited because she's been focused on her team, but she has conferred with 2008 U-20 World Cup coach Tony DiCicco on the state of youth soccer in the USA.

"I think we're on the same page," she says. "There has to be some change and Tony and I are talking about technique. The one expression I use is, 'In order to protect the goal, you should protect the ball.' That means you need to be comfortable with the ball - shooting, shield the ball, bend the ball, etc."

Dorrance says the USSF made an important move on the boys side with the introduction of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. While the Federation has made no decision on whether to introduce the program on the girls' side, Dorrance believes that it would be wise for the girls clubs to emulate its key features. That is, getting away from the "tournament culture" and decreasing the number of competitive games to give coaches more time to train their teams. At practice sessions players get more time on the ball.

"Right now, they're under huge pressure to play an extraordinary amount of games and anyone who has an understanding of player development appreciates that one of the worst ways to develop players is to play 11v11 matches," Dorrance says. "In the course of an 11v11 match, the average player touches the ball for three minutes. Of course, three minutes in 90 is not a good player development platform. It doesn't mean that quality matches can't help you develop. Of course, they can. But you need much more time on the ball to develop technically."

Dorrance says that at UNC, the winter and spring is the player development platform "and all we do is play."

"We organize them in different teams," he says. "We use different size balls on different surfaces with different size goals, different dimensions of the field. By the end of the spring they're playing out of their minds, and the reason they are is because all we're playing is 3v3, 4v4, 5v5, 6v6. We now believe we need to do more of that in the fall."

Dorrance stresses that the USA is producing superbly skillful players, such as UNC's Casey Nogueira and Tobin Heath, but that many more should be rising from the youth ranks. A key to this end is the training environment at the early ages.

"Structuring an environment for player development isn't having you stand there and scream at them for 90 minutes," he says. "It's to set up a structure where they get to play and have fun and basically get maximum ball touches."

Sundhage, who hails from Sweden, says a good youth soccer environment doesn't make winning the main focus:

"In Europe we say, 'Oh, the Americans are so competitive.' When you look at development, it's both good and bad."

On the positive side, the USA produces players with a strong fighting spirit, but when results are emphasized at too early an age it can interfere with technical development.

"One reason you play is you want to win the game, of course," she says. "Everybody has that. But we need to challenge youngsters in different ways. The most important part is to make it fun to challenge them in technical and tactical stuff, and not only to win the game. Do you think you can switch the point of attack? Do you think you can strike the ball with both feet?

"If it's only about winning, then you create a running game. I don't think it is a running game. It is a beautiful game. It is about rhythm and dictating the tempo, and so on. Not only playing forward."

Sundhage and Dorrance also agree that girls need to watch more high-level soccer. In Europe, Sundhage says, children "breathe the game" more because they follow the game on television. Dorrance assigns his players games to watch. He says he's not heavy-handed about it, but does quiz them to check if they've been watching.

He says girls seem much less likely to watch soccer on TV than boys, and that this must change, something the advent of WPS may help with.

"Now, a young boy still has a greater sophistication because he's watching the game," he says. "Young girls have no idea. If we get girls to watch, it's going to make them a lot more sophisticated."

Sundhage says that her main task is to focus on preparing for the 2011 World Cup, but that she expects there to be vertical communication from the top down on player development.

"From what I've heard," Sundhage says, "I can imagine if we turned the direction a little bit when it comes to coaching - just a little bit - and talk about protecting the ball. You will make the difference. Because we have so many players in this country, you can create a certain style of play and that will be very, very powerful. It's very encouraging and inspiring."

(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)