With the first half of the inaugural U.S. Soccer Girls Development Academy season in the books, and the spring schedule quickly approaching, WashingtonSpirit.com caught up with Spirit Academy – Virginia Director Tom Torres for a Q&A about the exciting current and future prospects of the club’s player development program.
Q: What are your thoughts on the first half of the inaugural Girls’ DA season for the Spirit Academy, and what are your hopes for the second half?
A: “We are thrilled with the start of the program in Virginia and even more excited about what the future holds. The foundation has been set and the players and staff are building on it every day. We ask all of our Spirit players to learn, work hard and have fun every day and its been a lot of fun for the staff to see each player’s journey take steps forward and back in terms of their individual development.
A large part of our programming success has been the result of our relationships with our partner clubs. Their impact on our club and players has been immense. Rich [Shelton] from Reston Soccer and Vicky [Hal] from Gunston SC are not only great soccer people, but great people in general. We have relied on them a lot and look forward to continue to build a destination academy for the D.M.V.
The level of competition in the Girls’ DA has been high quality. The intensity of the matches, in addition to U.S. Soccer’s elevated standards and demands have put a focal point on the ‘whats, wheres and whys’ in training, and not just on the ‘how’. This has led to higher intensity levels and competition in training, which we have seen become habitual in how the girls approach each day. Being good at anything is a lifestyle, and we try to instill this in every player’s training mentality.”
Q: What’s the vision for the future of the Spirit Academy as a model for the women’s professional player development pathway?
A: “Our mission in the academy is to develop, support, challenge and inspire world class players and coaches in a professional environment. To create a true pathway for a young player, we have to see them often throughout their journey. At the moment, our Super Y League, training programs and DA are fantastic and the initial stages that give players ages 9-18 a chance to put on the badge. However, we would like to add programming to add to an even more specific path in the near future. Increasing our footprint in Zone 1 and creating the path from there into the DA is a priority.
As you can see from the 2018 NWSL Draft, we are committed to local players and players that have played for the Spirit Reserves. This was not by accident as our loyalty to the area’s players is something we discuss often. With that, ultimately, we would like to sign a player from our youth to the NWSL team. While there isn’t a mechanism within the league yet, its still a reality because of the path that is already in place. A 9-year-old girl can play within our Super Y program and join the DA by 11 or 12. Going through the DA, when she excels, she will get opportunities to train with the Reserves and/or the pros. In our first year, we have already had several of our players in that environment. She goes to college and returns in the summer to play with the Spirit Reserves or train with the pros and as an end result, signs a pro contract.
We envision our future pros coming from our Spirit DAs and at the moment, you can see so many with potential that will excel within our training environment and teaching methodology. As we build on this pathway, we will have growing pains in every aspect, but we become better in our approach everyday. ”
Q: In the long-term, how important is it for youth academies to be linked with professional clubs, and why?
A: “It isn’t necessary to be linked to a professional club in order to excel in youth development. When you see what many clubs all over the country and in this market are able to do with great resources in terms of facilities and coaches, there are a lot of options for every type of player. That is a good thing. A country this size can’t rely on one way to develop a world class player, a pro, college or top youth player.
As a professional club, one of our goals is to inspire players to make the personal decision that they would like to go as far as they can and we can provide them with a true path and environment that is focused on their development. We don’t have to be concerned with playing in a five-game tournament on a weekend, just to keep up with other clubs. The players are held accountable and a part of the process. With more training, video analysis and individual plans, we can focus on our methods of teaching and show the girls much more.
The staff is also learning how to manage our time to get the most out of the contact hours that we do have. Its always very difficult to not focus on the weekend’s match to focus on the player. We are human and want to be as competitive as possible too, but not at the expense of their development.”
Q: How have Spirit Academy players benefited so far from being a part of an NWSL club?
A: “While it isn’t necessary to develop in a professional club, there is no comparison to being connected to an NWSL club. This is a place where we are well ahead of the curve in the early stages of the DA. It took one of eight Summer Gap Training sessions for me to realize this. Not only did we have the entire DA at the SoccerPlex to watch the pros train, but the girls (who hadn’t played a DA match yet) were able to have snacks with the pros afterward and then receive training from the complete staff. [Spirit Head Coach and General Manager] Jim [Gabarra] attends training frequently and is often on the sidelines during DA matches.
As mentioned before, many DA players have trained with the Reserves and pro team already. Bridging the gap from the youth to pro is something we discuss often and the club is supportive of this mission.
There simply isn’t another place in the area in which girls can gain this experience, on top of their training and match development. Their human and professional development is also a concern for us and having pro role models and mentors is a big part of this process.”
Q: Given your experience in the Boys’ DA and MLS with D.C. United, what would you like to see continue to progress on the girls side in the early stages of the DA, at the Spirit Academy and across the league?
A: “That is a great question, as we all try to parallel so much with the Boys’ DA and other pro clubs, but the reality is that it is much, much different. I think that the key for us is patience. We don’t have to do everything that the boys do or did as there are different factors involved in the Girls’ DA. There is no doubt that anyone that is involved in youth development cares about kids and the the future of the sport. We can create our processes and build on success, but it’s very important to think and reflect about the players involved and what is best for them.”