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When U.S. Soccer first announced its plan to add general managers to oversee its men's and women's programs, there was reason to be skeptical.
The announcement came after the men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, became the scapegoat for his poor coaching selections. The general manager role, which initially had a job description with a rather limited scope, was viewed by many as a buffer to keep the heads of U.S. Soccer away from any bad decisions lower down the organization chart.
However, with the hiring of Kate Markgraf as the first-ever women's general manager, which was announced Monday, there may be reason for a bit more optimism and less skepticism.
No, it's not as if the U.S. women's national team needs extra oversight at the moment. Back-to-back Women's World Cup titles and a No. 1 world ranking suggest things are running pretty darn smoothly – failed player coups to get the coach fired aside.
But notably, the official announcement of Markgraf's hiring, which had been in the works for months, revealed a much larger scope that will see Markgraf steer not just the senior USWNT side, but a youth program that badly needs some direction.
The youth women’s national teams have been struggling – and that's a problem because that's where future USWNT stars are supposed to be developed. Both the U-20 and U-17 USWNT teams crashed out of their respective World Cups in the group stage last year, and those embarrassments were only the latest in a long string of setbacks at the USWNT youth level.
It has been so dire that Carlos Cordeiro, shortly after he was elected president of U.S. Soccer, opined that “the competition on the women's side is only going to get more intense” and vowed “a complete inventory” of U.S. Soccer's women's program, which hasn't produced much change yet.
Results at the youth level may not be the end-all and be-all; sometimes you sacrifice results to cultivate the style of soccer you want in developing players. But for the U.S., which has clung to an ultra-direct approach focused on athleticism, it may be the style that's costing them results.
U.S. scouts for the youth national teams have seemed to place a high value on physique, athleticism and individual skill while the sort of selfless decision-making and vision that can make someone an effective team player are skills that haven't been identified as quickly.
That might explain why a player like Mallory Pugh, who is technically skilled but perhaps best known for her pace and dribbling, entered the national team fold at 13 years old and broke into the senior USWNT by age 17. Rose Lavelle, who is more of a creative player known for her threaded line-breaking passes, didn't earn her first youth national team call-up until she was almost 18 years old, late in the development path. Lavelle eventually won the bronze ball at the 2019 Women's World Cup.
There's not just one type of player U.S. Soccer should be identifying – and one type of player is not necessarily better than another – but for years it has become clear the federation's youth program was valuing certain types more than others, perhaps to its detriment.
But Markgraf will have a unique opportunity to mold and change the future of U.S. Soccer.
Of the seven U.S. youth national team coach positions that exist on the women's side, six of them are listed as vacant. There is no one in charge of the U-14, U-16, U-17, U-18, U-19, U-20 and U-23 teams. That's probably because April Heinrichs, the longtime technical director who oversaw some of the youth program's worst failures, stepped down last year and still hasn't been replaced.
Asked in her debut press conference about hiring for the vacant positions, Markgraf said it's important that the coaches work within a larger framework for how the youth program should develop players. Markgraf's new general manager role will involve figuring out how to build “an infrastructure that can be institutionalized and is not person-dependent,” she said.
How much overhaul that will require is still unclear, she added. She still has to speak with the staff already in place, as well as outside experts, to develop a strategy for how to proceed.
“In terms of the degree of which there’s change or no change, at this point I could not answer that,” Markgraf said. “But I can tell you that a full evaluation and looking at everything will be done.”
Markgraf's resume might be a bit unorthodox for such a large role. She hasn't coached at a high level herself or been a sports general manager before. Her primary soccer experience comes as a player, where she was capped 201 times for the USWNT and played club soccer both domestically and in Sweden. She's also served as a broadcast analyst for ESPN and NBC.
But anyone who has talked to her about the sport knows she has a sharp soccer mind, strong opinions and willingness to challenge the status quo.
Perhaps more importantly, Markgraf brings some outside perspective, which should be welcome at an organization that has often seemed to elevate those who are well-connected and already within its own ranks. Markgraf's personality suggests she will be decisive and willing to challenge a culture that has allowed the women's youth side to struggle under the same leadership for years.
So, maybe the general manager job might have never existed if the U.S. men didn't crash out of World Cup qualifying – although sources at U.S. Soccer insist it was discussed before that fateful night in Trinidad & Tobago. Either way, it's a real opportunity to address issues on the youth USWNT level that have not yet put the senior USWNT behind, but seem due for a day of reckoning.
The future of the USWNT just might depend on it.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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