cover photo belongs to ISI Photo
Back in the summer of 2013, the Canadian Hockey League made a surprise announcement when they put a ban on foreign goalies entering the league. The ban - specifically aimed at talented European goaltenders - limited teams from drafting any non-North American goalies in the three junior leagues (all under the CHL) in an attempt to give more playing time for Canadians to aide in their development. The move was a response to the country’s perceived goaltending crisis, where many viewed the netminders as a major weak point in Canadian hockey. Even as recently as summer 2017, the goalie development crisis was still a concern for some despite the league’s efforts to mend the issue. However the CHL rolled back the ban this summer, citing improvements to goalie development, although there is still some debate on the impact of the short-lived rule.
Turning to the USSF, it’s no secret goalkeeper development hasn’t been at its best in recent years. While the USMNT is struggling to fill out their second and third slots with proven talent, the USWNT is in a tight spot as well. Replacing Hope Solo has been more challenging than expected, collegiate production seems to have hit a bit of a lull, and looking back at the 2018 Women’s U20 World Cup, goalkeeping wasn’t exactly the strong point in their tournament run.
Looking at both Hockey Canada and USWNT, there are some similarities between the two organizations’ last line of defense in terms of development. When Hockey Canada introduced the ban, it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction after a few poor games. The ban was put in place after many realized the lack of representation of top Canadian goalies in both the professional leagues as well as the youth leagues. While stating the USWNT’s goalkeeper situation as a “crisis” is a bit excessive, the US has still yet to develop a goalkeeper at the level of Briana Scurry or Hope Solo nor is on track to do so. Both programs were once producing top-level goaltenders yet they’ve slowed their production in recent years.
To understand if Hockey Canada’s approach would be a good fit for the NWSL, it’s important to look at the problems plaguing the USWNT’s goalkeeper pool.
1. There is no one directing goalkeeper development within US Soccer - The last person to fill this spot was Peter Mellor back in 2005 before he moved to work solely with Real Salt Lake. Since then the standard for how a goalkeeper develops has been overseen by each coach on their own accord, from professional and youth clubs alike. At most, the federation has given vague guidelines on how goalkeepers must be developed through their licensing classes. Unfortunately most USSF coaching licenses spend little time on the position and typically are led by coaches who have never played goalkeeper. The USSF only recently started an A license goalkeeping course but featured zero NWSL goalkeeper coaches.
USYNT goalkeeper coaches work in a revolving door fashion, offering little consistency for who players will be training with from camp to camp. On the club’s side, a number of WPSL and UWS teams don’t have a goalkeeper coach while finding a collegiate problem with a goalkeeping coach who has been there for four years is tough to find. Additionally, NWSL coaches are limited to developing their second-string goalkeepers through practice, as it’s tough to find meaningful minutes for young backups.
The landscape for goalkeeping coaches in America is a mess. For every one positive goalkeeping environment in the US, there are another ten negative ones. Having a Director of Goalkeeping would ideally oversee the development for top-level goalkeepers, but also assist in making sure goalkeeper coaches across the country are on the right path when training their own goalkeepers.
A few months ago, Tab Ramos told SoccerAmerica how he’s aware of the need yet was currently in a hiring freeze, although since then the freeze seems to have been lifted. As of right now, the USSF has yet to name someone to oversee goalkeeper development on a full-time basis.
2. The dropout rate is too high - Just in the last few years, the women’s goalkeeping pool has lost a number of young prospects. Libby Stout, Caroline Stanley, Madalyn Schiffel, Brianna Smallidge, EJ Proctor, Alyssa Giannetti, Rose Chandler, and Evangeline Soucie have all retired for a variety of reasons. For some, retirement was unavoidable due to injuries but as a whole, there are far too many goalkeepers simply opting out for another career track outside of professional soccer.
Some may argue that goalkeepers who retire young aren’t in contention to truly compete for the USWNT’s starting spot and while it’s not fair to make a claim that early in a player’s career, it’s also missing the bigger issue. Top goalkeepers are only pushed by those who are under them. If there’s not enough talent to compete for a starting spot, things can easily become stagnant.
The dropout rate is a hard problem to combat, as money is a major driving force in persuading any career pursuit, but it’s one that is quietly draining the goalkeeping pool.
3. The path to professionalism is too muddied - Looking back to the 2018 U20 Women’s World Cup, players entered the tournament from top clubs all around the world. French players came from PSG and Lyon. German players arrived from Turbine Potsdam and Bayern Munich. English players trained at Manchester City and Liverpool. Spanish players hailed from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. In contrast, the US is relying heavily on the collegiate system, a training environment that plays four months out of the year. It’s a tall task for the University of Virginia to match Lyon or Barcelona’s resources.
Assuming a player is able to navigate a grueling four years playing in a jam-packed schedule, the road only gets tougher. Roster spots are scarce for rookies in the NWSL and even more challenging for goalkeepers as most teams only carry two. Some may look at the WPSL and UWS as helpful stopgaps but the reality is most of those teams rely heavily on collegiate players outside the D-1 level. It’s barely a developing ground for top collegiate players but certainly not aspiring professionals.
Unless there are dramatic changes to the collegiate setup, the USSF will eventually have to entice players to skip college altogether if they want to continue to compete with the world. Despite all it has to offer, UNC won’t be able to provide the same level of commitment as PSG and Lyon continue to ramp up what they have to offer their youth players. Until then a player whose sights are set on joining the NWSL has a large task in front of them: they must finish their cumbersome college career as a top U23 player in the world - by only training with their team for a third of the year - and somehow land a golden ticket to join an NWSL side full-time. Anything less and the player is likely looking at another career path. As of right now, there’s not a better domestic track provided for young players.
It’s hard to be optimistic towards the situation when the USSF is rolling out A licensing courses without NWSL coaches or presenting initiatives like bio-banding, a program that groups players by their physical development to alleviate the problem of coaches not appropriately challenging early and late bloomers. The program is a wonderful example of the USSF seeing a problem but being unaware of what is causing the complication. If the problem is centered on coaches not doing their job well, then reshuffling the deck isn’t going to address the issue. (Adnan Ilyas has a great write-up on more issues with bio-banding.)
Similar to the CHL’s approach, if Canadian goalies aren’t good enough, giving them more chances to fail will only help so much. The CHL raised the idea of new coaching certification to help with goalie development but according to In Goal Magazine, “five years later the impact seems to depend on where you live, with some regions accrediting coaches regularly and coaches in other areas that still haven’t heard of it, let alone opportunities to take the course.” It seems the CHL’s plan was half-hearted, not to mention short-lived.
Development is not solved solely by high-level game appearances. It must be addressed in a top-down manner. From USWNT training sessions to the grassroots level, the USSF must be keen on having a system that yields positive results and not simply rely on removing tougher competition or hoping a coach can figure it out on their own. While putting a ban on foreign goalkeepers in the NWSL might be a positive dose for the American pool, it doesn’t address the position in a more thorough manner. The NWSL is a premier league trying to elevate the level of its play, as well as the top domestic players. There are only so many young goalkeepers who can hop right into the league. Unless the NWSL is interested in lowering the level of play, a handful of extra games for young goalkeepers only will help so much.
There are a number of directions the USSF can take when approaching goalkeeper development but copying the CHL will likely result in a similar reversal of the ban in a short time. Looking across the globe, countries are continuing to put more resources into raising the level of play in their respective domestic leagues and youth national team development. In contrast, the US has yet to see any substantial improvements in the goalkeeping department over the past few years and the output is starting to show. In order for the USWNT to stay on top, simply outsourcing goalkeeper development to whoever is interested won’t be enough anymore.