Keeping Pace: In Conversation with Mirelle van Rijbroek

We talked to US Soccer’s Director of Talent Identification for Girls and Women to see where the USWNT goes from here.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction by Dennie Wendt.

“Can the U.S. Keep This Up?”

That’s a question a lot of fans are asking themselves in the wake of the United States Women’s National Team’s record-breaking fourth World Cup title this week.

The rest of the world was supposed to be catching up to the USWNT. Maybe the American pay-to-play youth system and the NCAA’s set-up would hold the U.S. back as other countries focused resources to the women’s game and grew their domestic leagues. Other nations are catching up. There’s no question the 2019 Women’s World Cup was the deepest ever; Spain, France, England— the teams the U.S. left behind in the knockout round—are prime examples of the kinds of countries gaining on the USWNT. And yet the U.S. just won a fourth World Cup, just played in their third straight final, just upheld a record of playing in every semi-final round in WWC history, just looked dominant doing it.

What follows every World Cup triumph is a reckoning of its champion: Why did that team win?

Mirelle van Rijbroek has been the Director of Talent Identification for the girls and women’s side of US Soccer since 2017. The combination of one of the deepest women’s talent pools in the world and a legacy of winning World Cups means it’s a big job with the highest of expectations. The Why them? question is complicated with every winner, but should the U.S. experience future World Cup triumphs, the answer could be a more refined and systemic plan of scouting, tracking and developing our best players.

We sat down with van Rijbroek back in May, before the World Cup started, to talk about how that will happen. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How would you describe your job?

I’m responsible for talent identification, which means monitoring players that we hope to identify for the national teams. I’m trying to monitor all players in the country from the age around 14 until the age of around 20. It’s a big job, but that has to do with the country’s landscape and how it’s organized. The second part is education. We just launched a scout license, so we try to educate clubs and coaches on identifying talent in their own environments. I also teach the academy director course. I have a lot of international benchmarks—nations that I follow from a soccer technical perspective. I look at player pathways in different countries, how they evolve and what we can learn from them. And then we ask what we need to do, what we need to develop and what will the future player look like?

You came to US Soccer after previously working for the KNVB. What do you think are the the biggest differences between how the Netherlands builds their national team and what you’re doing with U.S.?

I don’t only want to speak for the Netherlands—but if you look at France, Germany or England, they all have similar systems. In Europe you have one pyramid—the federations run the league, run the competition, and everyone is under that umbrella. Within that pyramid, you have different levels. Even within youth you have different levels of play. In the U.S. we don’t have this pyramid yet. For the girls, the landscape is fragmented; there are so many different leagues, competitions, which makes it hard for the players. Another aspect of our landscape is the pay-to-play system, which impacts how clubs are run, and not always in a positive way. Why would you stimulate a player to play in a better or different environment? When you lose that player, you also lose that money. So not everyone knows what steps to take. What would be a good environment for me if I have the goal or ambition to become a better player?

Would you say your job is to build out that model?

I’ve noticed that people say, “We’ve been so successful on the women’s side for many years”—and that’s correct. We’ve been successful because we’ve had college, high school, clubs—so girls could play everywhere. In Europe, in Japan and so on, there wasn’t really a system for girls. But that’s changed. Those countries have become more professionalized. They’ve created coordinated systems which make it easier to develop players because the best players are put together. That’s a big difference. When you look at the 17s, which is a World Cup group, and the 20s, also a World Cup group, players from other countries already play in the senior women’s leagues. They play year-round. Whereas if you’re in college, you play from August until November, and then you don’t really play. And the goal of the college system, from an academic perspective, is not to become a professional player—which is different from what you see in the rest of the world.

And then there’s the next step. You’re 23 or 24, and you end college. We’ve got the NWSL—but we only have nine clubs. The average age of those players is 26 and a half. Only the very best can get into the NWSL. If you look at last year’s draft—not this year, last year—there were like eight players going to the NWSL. Only three or four got real playing minutes. That’s not much. For the other players who might not get the opportunity or be ready, they don’t really have a platform. They have the WPSL and so on, for some of them, or Europe.

I’m not the one who can change the landscape and put everything on one pyramid. In the meantime, it’s more like trying to create awareness with players who want to become elite. What are the best steps you can take within this landscape?

How does the NWSL factor in?

We still have one of the strongest leagues in the world, and that will benefit our national team. But we do have to think about how do players to get into the NWSL—the pipeline.

We have the Development Academy now—it’s a program built on international standards; it’s year-round, we should have qualified coaches, and intense and quality training sessions. The amount of training sessions should reflect what’s needed to become a world-class player. And then we can still compete with the rest of the world. You need to create a high-performance environment with best players and the best coaches in the best program. 

At the U17 World Cup, Spain became world champions and their players were already playing in senior teams. Canada changed their pathway as well; they’ve got three national training centers. If you’re in the under-17s or under-20s you need to be in one of those three national centers. They’re a cooperation between the federation, the province and the club—based on one curriculum. They will benefit from that. In Mexico, they’ve started their national league. So I’ve tried to create awareness: Yes, we’ve been really successful and if we want to continue being successful, we need to develop ourselves as a nation. We need to become better and we need to think about ways we can improve.

How will US Soccer do that?

Our main mission is to identify players for the national teams. We believe that if you have better environments, you will have better players. The most important thing for us: we believe talent can be developed. It’s not like you’re born with talent. Of course you might have genetic markers, but eventually it depends on purposeful practice. What kind of environment are you in and what are you doing to become better? 

If you play with better players, you become better—if you’re fast, and the rest are really below you, how are you going to become better? You need better players around you to become a better player—that will challenge you to go to the next level. 

But you also need good coaches, someone who doesn’t constantly tell you what you need to do. If you’re constantly told what you need to do, you’re not going to think for yourself. If you’re not thinking for yourself, you’re not going to create ownership or decision-making. And that’s what we want. We’re looking for players who understand the game and make decisions.

And then you give them the tools and resources they need to make even better decisions?

Exactly. That’s why those players need to be in an environment where all those things are stimulated, that they are allowed to make decisions and mistakes. Of course, if you make the same mistake 10 times, then you have to ask something about the learning ability of a player, but you need to be in those environments. Of course, what’s important is that the player also wants to do that; a player needs to be open for that.

Say I want to become the new Alex Morgan, or I want to play in the NWSL: if you don’t train enough every week, if you don’t play enough minutes, if you’re not with the best players, if you don’t have the right coaches, then you have to think about that and maybe change your environment.

One criticism about American youth soccer in general is that the ones who have the pathway come from families who can afford to pay to be on high-level travel teams. So a lot of potentially talented players just don’t get those opportunities, which affects that makeup of the national team.

We try to educate clubs so that they can ID talent within their community. Our philosophy says we want to reach out to the communities. We have a network of almost 90 to 100 YNT network scouts on both the female side and the male side. We go to games, every week we go to tournament showcases, but we have to focus on certain environments. We’re trying to do that for the entire country, but you only have so many resources—so I need to focus on the biggest clubs where I can find the best players; I keep track of all the players and where they are from. In that sense we have at least a pretty good understanding of some of the pockets of areas where there are good players. And then of course you have some outlier markets, so we also go there. But we cannot do it all by ourselves. I try to collaborate with US Youth Soccer, because they have their ODP program. They share their best players with us, and we share our philosophy and our information to help them. We do the same with US Club Soccer. We also use a lot of data and statistics, including historical context: Where do great players come from, which markets, which environments, which clubs?

We also do recommendations, with an online tool. Basically the first step is to describe the player—why do you feel we need to look at this player, and how do we need to monitor this player? The next step will be to provide us with video of games and then if it’s a really interesting player we will go and visit.

You also see players develop in a non-linear trajectory. We monitor players over a long period and we have multiple reports or video to see how they’ve developed. So these are all things we’re doing, and that’s how we try to impact the country. 

Education is another aspect. The more we can create awareness for players and fans, the more they become capable of being critical towards clubs in order to create a really good environment or help take steps toward a better environment. And I think trying to help clubs become more aware of identifying talent in their own environments. When I’m in a city without easy access to a club, for example, how can we make sure that if we have a great player, we get them in a great environment? 

That’s what the DA is doing—they’re offering scholarships, so when the players or parents aren’t capable of paying for it, we have a budget for that. Of course, it’s not enough, but we try to offer scholarships so that they get the possibility to play. Hopefully the more we talk about this and the more players become aware of this, they know when they’re in outlying areas, they see: OK—if I want this, it’s possible for me, but then I need to take the next step.

If you could wave a magic wand, and could make one problem go away, that would make your job and your life easier, what would it be?

I would like to one pyramid, all the players under one umbrella. I would also like standards and qualifications that will really benefit and help the players. 

Not that everyone needs to do the same. But I want to help create quality environments for players because I feel every player should have of the opportunity to play on their own level and get the best coaches and quality training. I think that would solve a lot.

I just want to open the floor to you, and tell me what people need to know about the work you’re doing, and the women’s development program, and just how US Soccer is prepping younger players. 

I want to create awareness of how the landscape looks and what the pathway is. That would be really valuable. One of the important things to know is that talent is overrated. To develop talent, you need to be in a really good environment. Because if you want to be the best player in the world, but only train twice a week and not with the best players? That’s not realistic. And then we all have to know: What’s the DNA of the future player? And, of course, in the context of talent development, it’s a non-linear trajectory. We monitor players over a longer period. What is their goal and their ambition? If their goal or ambition is to get into the women’s national team, that means a certain journey, a certain pathway.

If your goal is to get your scholarship, that means a different journey or a different pathway. If we are aware of that, we don’t have to have the high school discussion. Because there will still be high school for the players that have a certain goal. For certain players, high school is not the solution. We need to be aware of that, have more shared responsibility, work together, and also be aware that there are differences in the pathways. 

Is there anything else you want the public to know about what you’re doing? 

Mostly that we follow certain things and we follow what happens internationally, but also that we make strategic decisions based on information and data. What are we looking for in players? That’s also something we share with clubs. We’ve got key qualities around understanding the game: decision-making, responsibility, initiative, physical, technical, and focus. 

And then we developed those qualities into a framework for how we examine, monitor and evaluate players. It has to do with the learning ability of players and the environment they’re in. We are physically not everywhere, but we try to be. That’s why we have this cooperation: We want a strategy focused on being in those environments where we believe that players can be developed at a faster rate.