The Girls Academy League is the newest elite-level competition for girls soccer in the United States. The ‘GA,’ as it is known, was born from the ashes of the DA — the U.S. Soccer Development Academy — which abruptly shut down in April. U.S. Soccer blamed the financial constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, nearly 70 clubs — divided into seven conferences across six age groups — have come together to form the Girls Academy League. Longtime University of Washington head coach Lesle Gallimore was recently named commissioner. Prior to that hire, Wes Schevers — who is the girls’ academy director for Austin, Texas-based Lonestar Soccer Club, and president of the Girls Academy League — spoke with The Equalizer about how the league is taking shape. At its core, Schevers said, the goal is to unify elite girls soccer in the U.S. through a collaborative approach.
The demise of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy was pretty abrupt, and the Girls Academy League came together quickly. How did that play out?
I guess the best way to start off, when U.S. Soccer decided to do what it did at that point, I want to say there were 67 Development Academy members, plus or minus a couple. It might be somewhere in that range. Obviously we were left with no heads up, no solutions. Everyone was on their own.
David Robertson [now academy director for Michigan-based club Nationals], called a nationwide Zoom meeting with all the Development Academy clubs, at least the ones at that time, just start to start a conversation, a solution about what we were gonna look like, what a plan was going to be. And and at that time, the Girls Academy in that context and that name wasn’t even something anybody even discussed because this was within 24 hours of the DA shutting its doors.
Ultimately, what happened from that conversation was, there’s probably about 12 or 13 clubs across the country that all started working together in their geographic areas to start to build conferences and bring the country together. I’ve been on the youth side for about 20 years now and I’ve never seen anything like it before in terms of the collaboration, people working together for the betterment of the player. If there’s some overwhelming consistencies in the Girls Academy in the missions and goals and some of the communication we’re putting out, it’s every decision will be about the player and the best interest of the player and ensuring our membership has a voice. That is everyone from the club that just wants to be in a Girls Academy that maybe doesn’t want a leadership role but wants to be a member, all the way to clubs that have leadership roles, whether in their conference or at the board level.
When the demise of the DA got announced, the boys had an immediate solution and it seemed clear that MLS had advanced notice. From every account I’ve heard, those on the girls side were surprised. What did it look like from the inside?
I’d say this to start off with: after the initial break of it, all the clubs that are currently in the Girls Academy — and I’m sure the clubs that aren’t in it — have moved on from the DA and have moved on from the decision and focusing on that aspect anymore. I say that just because I think that’s a very proactive, optimistic way of looking at things rather than concentrating on the past and maybe some decisions you don’t agree with, but I can’t comment on the boys’ side. I have no idea if they got a heads up or not.
I know everything that happened on the girls’ side, from the start of the rumors, to the actual way that the message was delivered, which was, I think, via social media. I think that’s how they let everyone know; they shot a Facebook message or a tweet out, and that’s how they informed their membership from the clubs all the way down to the players. From there, we started to work together and formed what is now the Girls Academy.
What does the relationship with U.S. Soccer look like right now?
I think that the most important relationship that the Girls Academy would have, along with any other elite platform, would be U.S. Soccer [from] a talent ID standpoint, and the continuation of players at any level to be scouted and brought into national team camps. I think those pieces are really important and the positive aspect I think the Girls Academy has is the majority of the directors that are in the Girls Academy had professional [relationships] and I’m sure friendships to a certain degree with a lot of U.S. Soccer scouts, because we spent the last three years together.
And in addition to that, there’s been I want to say somewhere in the range of 20 academy directors that were on the academy director’s course that also had talent ID scouts, the DAs were a part of it and then the director of talent ID for U.S. Soccer, Mirelle [Van Rijbroek], was also on that course. So, the positive is that there’s a relationship there already with U.S. Soccer that was ingrained because of the Development Academy.
Could a Girls Academy League club have teams in multiple leagues, like the ECNL? What does that relationship look like?
An important piece of the Girls Academy is the autonomy for clubs to manage their player pool. What leagues they elect to play their players in and the fluidity of moving from one team to the next for individual programming.
So, I’d say this in the sense of, the Girls Academy has no restrictions on where players can play, because we don’t feel at the Girls Academy that is our business to tell our membership where you can and cannot place players.
That, and participation in high school soccer, was one of the bigger sticking points for teams in the DA. The Girls Academy League is going to have players involved on the board. Is that part of the bigger picture, that some of those DA decisions were made without the voices of the players being heard?
I think the answer is yes. And I think this is a very blanket statement and it has no amount of time, so if I said 10 years it would be an arbitrary number — I think a very strong voice in the country right now is that soccer decisions across the country have been purely made by leaders of clubs, leaders of organizations, leaders of different clubs, leagues and organizations across the country without a massive consideration for the player, and the player giving their opinion on maybe the direction or the formatting or the programming behind the league.
So, what we want to do with the Girls Academy is allow the players from everywhere in the country — not just a few clubs, but every one in the country — to have an ability to provide their opinion and their voice on the direction of the league. So, that would go down to the smallest example of high school soccer, but also to the core values, the mission, the vision — all of that was created through the voice of the player with the kind of overseeing of of the board, which I think is extremely powerful. I know the board and the league thinks the same way, but it’s extremely powerful and I think it creates buy-in from day one.
Would you like to see more of a collaborative approach from the pro ranks, with the NWSL, and what’s going on at a youth level?
On the professional soccer side, I would love to say that I feel that the pro side has an obligation to get involved in youth soccer. Not only myself personally would welcome it; I think on the Girls Academy side, we would welcome that involvement as well. Whether that comes through consulting, an advisory role, an investment standpoint the players that are currently NWSL players getting involved with their local clubs with appearances, maybe even invitations to training — stuff like that where the young female players in this country see a route from being an 11-year-old youth player to an 18-year-old pro. I think that can help shape youth soccer in this country going forward, which I think would be a very positive step.
Travel has been a major issue with the cost of youth soccer. Is there a specific way that you are trying to mitigate that? You have conferences with clusters of teams, but some still are a decent distance from their closest opponent.
It kind of goes back to the first question a little bit about governance and structure. [After] that very first meeting, it happened so quickly and there were 12 or 13 clubs pulling all these pieces together and there were kind of eight or nine people starting to take kind of more positional roles, not because — it was more so of a position of trying to be helpful and maybe they had expertise or experience at a certain area that they could then help benefit the league and then that kind of turned into the interim board, and the interim board will serve until the very first AGM. And then [at] the very first AGM, the long-term board will be elected then by the membership.
But the point I’m getting at is within that governance structure that we have, every conference has a rep that meets weekly with our conference liaison, who’s a board member. Currently the board is meeting three to four days a week right now to help launch the league.
And with that, one of the major things we’ve talked about is, how can we think outside the box? How can we think more proactively and progressively for our membership when it comes to reducing travel? And on a travel standpoint, we might not be able to reduce travel in each particular conference, but we might find unique ways or creative ways to save costs.
So, we’ve looked at using three-day weekends on a better level. So, Columbus Day weekend, Presidents’ Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, etc. — those types of holidays, instead of playing one game, we might use those weekends to play multiple matches and also play them at neutral sites. What could have been a flight is now played at a neutral site where it saves all those clubs involved a flight, which is something that has never been done, to my knowledge, in any of the leagues. Something like that, when we came to the decision, is a really common sense measure that’s never been done before — again to my knowledge.
So, we’ve attacked that. The challenge I think in several markets is travel at the elite level is necessary. Lonestar, for the last 10 to 15 years, has been the only elite club in Austin. And with that, we have to leave Austin to play other top competition, and there’s lots of cities like that across the country.
Southern California [clubs] potentially never have to leave Southern California because there’s so many good clubs there, but other markets aren’t that way, which is why SoCal, Dallas, Atlanta, they’re producing typically the most amount of national team players, because of the player pool there. I do think we solved some of the travel restraints and the challenges that we’ve faced and we’ve done it in a very progressive way that, I think, will ultimately serve our membership.
Given the current times, the elephant in the room: What does a safe return to play look like?
We have, currently, two different buckets that we are operating in, on a league standpoint and then an event standpoint. On a league standpoint, when it comes to COVID, we have plan A, which is everything’s gonna kick off as planned, which means some conferences will kick off Labor Day weekend and some conferences will kick off the weekend after Labor Day, which again will be unique to their conference.
And then plan B would be, if we have restrictions on how we can play matches, how we can travel for matches, etc.? Then we will deal with those on a state by state, conference by conference level, because as you’ve seen, every state right now has different kind of operational guidelines that their governor is putting out.
We as a board don’t feel like it would be the right decision to make one blanket decision that applies to everyone simply because each state is operating differently, which allows different types flexibility in terms of when we can play matches this fall and so forth. [From] the event standpoint, it’s the same idea, so we have our national events and our regional events already planned and completed for next year, under the case that nothing changes — that we get to operate like it [is] a normal season.
And then we have plan B, which would be a backup to the events or to the extent that we can’t travel, whether that means the government has told us we can’t or if that means certain states have been told they can’t travel outside of their state, and then what we’re going to do there if that were to occur.
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