On 3 different continents this week, events in women’s soccer unfolded that re-emphasized to me why if we continue trudging the same path, in ten years, Canada and the US will be trying to catch up to other nations on the world stage in women’s soccer if we don’t get a year-round, top league together.
The Three Events:
Continent 1: Australia
In 2006, I took a trip to Australia for a couple of months, and had the opportunity to train in Melbourne for about a month with the top players in the area. One of these players was a 12 year old named Ashley Brown. Unlike other 12 year olds that can hang with older girls because they can physically match them, Ashley was a scrawny, average sized 12 year old. But her technical ability and her game understanding, and vision were unbelievable. She’s been someone I’ve kept my eye out for ever since, as I was certain then that she was destined to play for Australia. At 17 years old this week, after proving herself against players in the Australian team in league play and winning Young Player of the Year in the Australian League for Melbourne Victory, she made her debut in 2 games against New Zealand and by all accounts put in a performance that left little doubt that she will be a player to watch in the coming years for the Matildas. In Norway I’ve seen the same–young players getting the opportunity to learn from older, professional and national team players and in the words of Eli Landsem, national team coach of Norway, speaking of 2 prodigious 16 year olds who have already broken into the Norwegian senior squad (Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen)–“if they are good enough, they are old enough”. The NCAA obviously makes this difficult to happen regardless of what happens with a pro league in N. America, but we’ll save that for another blog.
With 16 and 17 year olds in other countries now having an opportunity to develop as professionals from their teenage years, one can’t help but think that they will be far further ahead than North American teenagers that are playing against their own age until they head to college. Time will tell.
Continent 2: Europe
On the other side of the globe, Mari Knudsen received her first caps for Norway. Mari is turning 28 this year, plays for LSK in the Norwegian Toppserien, and before this past weekend had never received any Norwegian caps, besides a couple at the U17 level in 2001. She proved her outstanding club form this year could be translated onto the international stage and in her debut for Norway in 2 key Euro match-ups against Bulgaria and Northern Ireland, played 90 minutes in each match as a holding midfield and knocked in a goal for good measure. As a sidenote, she also missed almost all of last season with an ACL tear.
A player such as Mari Knudsen is inspiring for all other players in the Toppserien who now have an example that a “no name” player with hard work and great performances can break into the senior squad. Furthermore, the grit and determination that no doubt played a role in climbing her way into the team will probably play its way into giving her an edge on the field as well. I’m guessing that someone that took that journey to get there won’t take a single minute of her national team experience for granted, no matter how long it lasts for, something that can’t help but positively impact, her teammates around her.
Continent 3: North America
My WPSL Elite team the New England Mutiny had a scrimmage yesterday and with a lot of players rotating in and out, I had a chance to chat to a few of my teammates on the side as the game was going on. Our team has more than held its own this year against teams stocked with WPS and US youth international and full team experience and despite only practicing 2 or 3 times a week and having a different line-up almost every game. My point? There are a lot of fantastic unheralded players in our team, that have proven more than capable of holding their own against the “big namers.” I would bet money that if a player such as our captain, Iowa-born Kelsey Hood was given a platform to develop and consistently show her abilities, that she could perhaps become a “big namer” –amongst others on our team.
I spoke to one of my teammates during the practice, a player that has spent time in the US youth national team system, and who is very talented, and asked her what she plans on doing once the season finished, as she just finished college. And it was a response that I am sure is being echoed through the league, “well hopefully I can go overseas, but if not, I guess I’m going to just head home and coach.” And thus the US loses another pool of players that could potentially push for spots on the full team if they were given the opportunity to continue to develop at a professional level.
Through our lack of a professional league, and the opportunity to play soccer in a top notch consistent environment, the advantage that countries such as the US and Canada have over other countries, because of sheer numbers at the grassroots level is lost. It seems absurd that countries with miniscule populations in comparison, such as Norway and Iceland have a bigger player pool to choose from, from the age of 22 on.
Right now in the US and Canada, a player has to be identified by the time that they are 20 years old at the absolute latest or its game over to play at the highest level. I cannot think of an example of a player in the last 10 years that did not have a second passport, who was able to reach the international level if they hadn’t been identified by the time they finished college.
This is absurd for a few reasons.
1) With the sheer number of players in both countries, and an identification system that is no where close to perfect in either country, there are many players that are not identified prior to 21, who if given an opportunity to develop could become impact players at the international level.
2) Players peak at different points. Everyone know players that were studs when they were 16 who flame out by the time that they are done college, and players that come in unheralded out of high school whose trajectory for improvement is sky high when placed in the right environment.
3.) Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach. 2 of the US’s longest serving and most talented players. Had the opportunity in WUSA to prove their caliber and were subsequently given the opportunity at the national team level to show their ability. Who knows without WUSA where their paths would have led.
4) Complacency: For players that just automatically make youth national team after youth national team, its easy to get complacent. As players I think we’ve all seen it. Where pure talent can get a player onto a youth national team, hard work coupled with the right environment and good coaching are the key ingredients to continue to have a player grow in ability. Unfortunately in North America college graduation signals the end of an environment provided where players can continue to grow and improve, unless they are lucky enough to get a good opportunity overseas and have the desire to uproot their lives and take it.
A player such as Ali Riley is a great example of someone who because of her dual citizenship with New Zealand, was able to garner international experience, which coupled with hard work led her to her growth as a player, and now she is arguably one of the best outside backs in the world. Who knows if her ability would have shone through without the opportunity that her New Zealand passport provided her.
I hope I’m wrong, and that investing in the national team is enough, but there is something to be said for everything that a professional league and environment provides. I hope we figure it out in North America before we are left behind.