U.S. girls youth soccer: Inside the imperfect 'eggs against the wall' system still producing USWNT stars

Olivia Moultrie USWNT 2022
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Exciting young players keep emerging in the U.S., but the girls youth soccer system remains an imperfect place for many families

After the United States women's national team settled for bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, head coach Vlatko Andonovski promised that the future of his squad was still brighter than ever before. He cited youth matches he had witnessed as evidence the USWNT would come roaring back and said "the girls at that level are more complete players than they have been in the past."

Sure enough, the USWNT is now favored to win a third consecutive Women's World Cup this summer, well-equipped with a promising young core Andonovski continues to rave about. Trailblazing teenager Alyssa Thompson is already on the senior roster, while fellow youngsters such as Olivia Moultrie and Jaedyn Shaw are expected to add to the cause in future tournaments.

But the U.S. girls youth soccer system still faces criticism on several fronts. Families of children unable to earn treasured college soccer scholarships or preferred college admission, let alone international consideration, are frustrated by a lack of quality team options beyond expensive, hard-to-join travel clubs. Standout players, meanwhile, say they get frustrated when teammates don't share their level of commitment to soccer. There is fear that an ACL injury crisis is linked with coaches who want kids to win at all costs and force overexertion in adolescence.

“It's a little bit like throwing eggs against the wall and seeing which ones don't break,” said Tom Farrey, director of the Aspen Institute's Sports Society Program, of the USWNT’s success in the current landscape. “In a nation of 330 million people, you can have a bad system, but as long as you have as many fields as we have, as much money as we have in this country, you can consistently get it wrong and still have talent emerge at the top end that’s impressive. That doesn't mean that you have a soccer development system that makes sense.”

GOAL spoke with players, coaches and experts about the state of youth girls soccer and advice for families...

  1. U.S. girls youth soccer club options
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    U.S. girls youth soccer club options

    A key difference between girls and boys soccer in the U.S. is the level of involvement from professional leagues. MLS leads the MLS NEXT program - creating club-overseen youth academies - but the NWSL doesn't have such a system in place right now. Instead, it defers to private travel clubs to take the developmental reins until college age.

    The ECNL is widely considered the top girls youth league for future college and professional women's soccer opportunities. Cheaper local rec and school teams exist, but as the top players and coaches leave those more affordable options, the remaining kids are at risk of feeling put-off and drop out of the sport entirely. Farrey said rec soccer leagues can't fill rosters at many age levels because of a lack of interest. Overall, youth soccer participation rates have dropped since 2008, according to the most recent data.

    "Soccer is the first sport that most kids play," Farrey said. "But then it quickly loses. It has a terrible customer retention rate, in part because we create travel teams earlier and earlier, sorting the weak from the strong years before they've grown into their bodies, minds and interests."

  2. Moultrie's fight
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    Moultrie's fight

    Moultrie, 17, is still waiting on her senior USWNT debut, but the Portland Thorns midfielder has already altered the women's soccer landscape. She won the right for girls to play in the NWSL as minors through a successful legal challenge - a development that has led other impressive teenagers, including Shaw and Thompson, to quickly follow in her footsteps.

    College soccer will likely continue to be a mainstay in the developmental model for most people, but there is more flexibility now to pursue professional opportunities sooner. With four goals, seven assists and a knack for bombing forward at the perfect time, Moultrie has shown early in her NWSL career that she belongs. She believes it's only fair for girls to have the same career path opportunities as boys, who have long been able to sign professional contracts in the U.S.

    “At the end of the day, I hope that my journey inspires people to go after what they want,” Moultrie told GOAL. “You're good enough, you're old enough. That's what it's really all about, and for men and women to have equal opportunities in how we want to accomplish our goals, whether it be in sports, or in life.”

    Moultrie's upbringing exemplified the sacrifices often required to make it onto club teams and garner scouting interest, as she was homeschooled starting in fifth grade so she could focus her energy on soccer and eschewed typical kid activities for training sessions.

    "They've been a huge influence," she said of her parents, who were both college athletes. "Athletics in general is a huge part of our household and they're Type A personalities in terms of competitiveness. So that's definitely just been instilled in me for a long time. They've given me immense support, they have been willing to take me wherever and help me with whatever I needed, and whatever I wanted. They taught us what it means to commit to something and to go after something.

    "But after a little while, it just became like second nature to me. And then I was kind of driving that, you know, it wasn't my parents saying, 'Hey, you need to go do this.' It was me telling them, 'Hey, I need you to take me here.' And they did take me there, whatever it was. They're so supportive, being there for literally anything I needed them to be. They were the best at that. That is why I've been able to do everything that I have."

    When asked whether she would change anything about her experiences growing up, Moultrie expressed no regret about her workload, but suggested the strange balancing act at travel clubs between serious players and those without long-term prospects is destructive for all involved. Less-committed kids could be ridden with anxiety when shoehorned into the cut-throat travel club system. Moultrie, meanwhile, felt held back at times when training with people who obviously held a different set of goals from her. She emphasized that she has no problem with kids who don't want soccer to be their entire lives, but she wants the girls soccer system to have a better distinction between groups.

    "There's a difference between playing for something and playing for fun," Moultrie said. "And I just think those two things being separated is important. Because at the end of the day, there are kids that want to, you know, really play and want to try to win. That can't be combined with people who just want to do it to have fun and have relationships. And both are great. And it's whatever you want. But I think that's kind of the thing that sometimes gets mixed together a little bit."

  3. Shaw's journey

    Shaw's journey

    Shaw successfully jumped straight from youth soccer to the NWSL after Moultrie, becoming the second-youngest player to ever feature in the division and one of only two to have scored in their first three games. Overall, she has scored six goals in 12 career league appearances.

    The 18-year-old San Diego Wave star made similar comments as Moultrie about the need for U.S. girls soccer to find a better split between players of different commitment and skill levels. She spent much of her childhood as an indoor soccer player before crossing over to outdoor with Solar SC, where she played above her age level, sometimes with boys, in search of stronger competition. She would also travel internationally to train with clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain.

    "The priorities were a little bit different between my team-mates and I," Shaw told GOAL of the stretch early in high school before she was accelerated to training with teams with higher expectations. "That was really frustrating. How I coped with that was eventually training with the boys, which I should have been doing probably already."

    Asked which lessons she would pass from her own childhood to young girls who look up to her, she said, "Just being patient with myself and enjoying it. Being comfortable and taking the leap and trusting my abilities, even if the coach didn't believe in me as much as you would think. Focus on yourself and work hard."

    Shaw and her family had to make significant financial and time sacrifices while navigating youth soccer. Her mother, Ann, told GOAL in March that she didn't have a honeymoon, didn't go on vacations and fit a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment to save up for her daughter's youth soccer travels. She realized the potential for professional success and went all-in. She said it was "worth it" but acknowledged the experience was difficult.

    “Sacrifice is really the primary reason, I think, why some of these athletes get the opportunity that they do and carry the humbleness and work ethic that they do, because of the things that we've had to sacrifice,” Ann explained.

    An appreciative Shaw added: "She was at every practice, every day, whether it was individual training, skill stuff, shooting or speed training, whatever, she's always there, and she's always willing to learn as much as I am and guide me. And my dad was a provider, and someone that was behind the scenes more.

    "We're definitely a really close-knit family. That's also made me more humble. Yes I've been successful, but I need to know where I come from and where it all started. Yeah, I just gotta be very grateful for my family."

  4. Established cultural standard
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    Established cultural standard

    Moultrie and Shaw have grown up in a different era than previous generations of USWNT hopefuls who didn't have a blueprint to follow. The popularity and achievements of iconic teams such as the 1999 World Cup winners set an inspirational example for them to follow.

    Success for the USWNT means gold medals and World Cup trophies. America's best young players know they must rise to top of their country and become among the greatest on the entire planet. That's an institutional motivation that can't be artificially replicated.

    The emerging crop of next-generation USWNT stars didn't grow up thinking about being role models for others, but if they continue on their upwards trajectory, they will end up on posters in kids' bedrooms around the country. If there's a golden lining to the girls youth soccer landscape, it's the chain of players leading by example as they reach new heights.

    "We have this great knowledge, especially in San Diego where soccer is really huge here," Shaw said. "I'm definitely a role model for girls coming up after me and I'm happy to inspire and mentor. I find that awesome."

  5. Pitfalls to keep in mind
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    Pitfalls to keep in mind

    There is no one-fits-all approach to youth soccer. Some children will want to be the next Moultrie. Some want a college scholarship, the money their parents put into youth clubs, training and gear an investment into that future. Others just want to run around with friends and improve their play without devoting their lives to it. Being communicative with kids about which category they prefer and realistic about their chances to earn a scholarship or professional opportunity is important, multiple people told GOAL.

    Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe, a legend in the college game, recommends parents let their kids come to the conclusion of how serious they want to take soccer on their own, resisting the rush to be pushy too soon with the sport and make it a stressful experience before high-school age. He said his college program begins recruitment in ninth and 10th grade. At that point, decisions must be made by families about whether to devote maximum time and money to top club organizations - assuming the children are able to earn squad places in those organizations through highly competitive tryouts.

    "The most important thing is that they enjoy it," Ratcliffe advised parents of young children getting into soccer. "If you enjoy soccer, and you're going to play more, and if you play more, your skills are going to increase and you're going to get better. So we've got to make the environment positive, that kids are going to want to play more and enjoy it and have fun.

    "And then the ones that are truly passionate as they get older, around high school age, they can maybe [get more serious]. My hope would be when they're younger, playing a lot different sports, having a lot of fun, and honing your skills. And then, as they get older, they can focus and say, 'Hey, soccer is my first sport' and then they can really go for it."

    A rash of ACL injuries in the women's game is also concerning and has deeply affected the USWNT, which recently lost star forward Mallory Swanson for the World Cup and may not have Catarina Macario back in time for the tournament after she tore her ACL last year. It could take years to fully understand the causes of the epidemic, but players and doctors have remarked that increasingly congested schedules may be more harmful for women than men because of biological differences in knee structures. Additionally, year-round sports specialization at a young age has been linked to a higher risk of injury for girls and boys.

    “There's just this race to get your daughter on ECNL teams," Farrey said. "You know, slotted for the opportunities provided by showcase camps that provide that downstream ROI. And I think it's the core of a lot of the ACL injuries that we see in this country, girls playing too much under coaches whose incentives are aligned differently [than their needs].They end up on these clubs and just simply play way too many games. They burn out these kids and break down these kids."

    The ECNL did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

  6. Preventing abuse

    Preventing abuse

    Broadly maintaining a positive learning environment is one matter. But there are also concerns about verbal, physical and sexual abuse in youth sports, and while those extend beyond girls soccer, the 2021 Yates Report and further revelations since then have highlighted its pervasiveness in the sport.

    The 2021 independently commissioned report carried out by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was prompted by "allegations of past abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer" and meant to "gain a full understanding of the factors that allowed it to occur and to identify meaningful recommendations that will help prevent similar abuse and misconduct from taking place in the future." Along with uncovering new specific details about instances of abuse at all levels of soccer, it painted governing bodies in women's soccer as complicit in allowing abuse to continue.

    A U.S. Soccer official said the organization wants to play a better role in combating abuse down to the youth club level, knowing that it has the secondary effect of normalizing inappropriate behavior to young athletes and therefore making it more difficult for them to speak up if they encounter further trauma later in their careers. Even though youth soccer in general is seen as a league and club matter, they said, there is a push from the governing body since the Yates Report to allocate more resources to helping victims.

    Whether U.S. Soccer's participant safety hub, where there is a database on the backgrounds of youth soccer coaches and a place to report concerns, is effective remains to be seen, as properly following up on complaints is just as important as providing a prominent place to lodge them.

  7. Continuing to evolve
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    Continuing to evolve

    Moultrie and Shaw are just a couple of the up-and-coming U.S. players already making their mark, and their choice to forgo college soccer doesn't mean most girls will seek that route. While Trinity Rodman (20 years old) and Thompson (18) also skipped college, Sophia Smith (22) and Macario (23) went to Stanford, Emily Fox (24) went to North Carolina and Ashley Sanchez (24) went to UCLA.

    Ratcliffe, the Stanford head coach, expects a college-favored split to continue. He emphasized that everyone should pick what is best for them personally, though he is of course an advocate for the university experience.

    "College soccer is still going to be a great pathway for people to get to professional soccer," Ratcliffe told GOAL. "I'm always an advocate for collegiate athletics. I think it develops the entire person, their character. It helps them intellectually, it gives them so many opportunities in the future. But there is a time for certain people that want to just go to soccer and go straight to it. But the safest route in my eyes is to go to college and then professionally prove yourself at the collegiate level as a natural progression to get there.

    "There's going to be a few outliers, that is great for them. And that's fine. But I would recommend going to college because if this [attempt] doesn't work out, and you've opted out of college, it becomes more of a difficult situation. If you go to college, and you have all the doors open, you can still go play professional, but you can also go into different things."

    Another area of potential change in the youth landscape is an NWSL-led academy system that mirrors MLS NEXT, that could theoretically gain traction if the NWSL wants to have more direct control over the youth development process. But financial limitations make that seem unlikely in the near future, so in the short-term, the existing framework centered around girls travel clubs is expected to endure.

    That may be met with widespread frustration - but for the USWNT at least, there is little public worry that the status quo of youth soccer will keep it from dominating the global game in the future, even as rival nations improve.

    "When we feel that pressure from the outside and sense that our backs are against the wall, that’s when we show our true face," Andonovski said.