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Why the USWNT is training its youth and senior players together

Inside the USWNT’s initiative to collaborate across all age groups, and bolster its future.

USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf and coach Vlatko Andonovski sitting next to each other at a press conference.

New United States Women’s National Team general manager Kate Markgraf is finally settled in enough at Soccer House to start implementing some of her big ideas, and she got a major initiative underway this January. Three of the age groups that had January camps — the senior team, Under-20s and Under-17s — took the opportunity to get together in Florida instead of training separately.

While the USWNT has teams in every age group from Under-14 up to the first team, the U-17s and U-20s are considered especially critical to the health of the program. Those squads play in youth World Cups, and as a result, their results are closely correlated to the future of the senior team.

“The vision from Kate is that she wants us to be more integrated,” U-17 coach Tracey Kevins told SB Nation. “She wants us to have opportunities to collaborate and share ideas across age groups. You’ll see more camps where the timings or the venues are similar.”

“I got to spend 45 minutes with Vlatko [Andonovski],” Kevins continued. “I’m not going to give away secrets, but saying, ‘You’re going to do this in CONCACAF qualifying, what is your reasoning behind that, why was she doing that particular action?’ For us to have that opportunity, we didn’t have that before.”

Markgraf wants to make sure all of the coaches across the age groups have as many opportunities to collaborate as possible. “When there is that synergy, you’re not operating on an island by yourself,” she told SB Nation. “That’s huge, when you know that you’re part of a community.”

Inter-squad training doesn’t just benefit the coaching staff, but the younger players too. The programs youths have always been given occasional opportunities to train with the senior USWNT, and Markgraf believes it was important in her own ascent to the national team.

“I remember being at a camp where Mia Hamm was coaching,” Markgraf said. “It blew me away. It made it real and tangible and no longer just a person I’d seen on television.”

Markgraf believes that getting on the same field with senior national team stars will make youth players both hungrier and more confident.

“Looking at somebody who looks like you, or has the same skillset as you. Where you can look at and say, ‘in five years I’ll be bigger and faster, that’s what I could potentially look like,’ it becomes a bit more real,” Markgraf said. “The huge gap that you might have perceived shrinks when you realize you’re closer than you expected.”

The leadership behind the USWNT turned over and was restructured significantly in the last year. Former senior national team coach Jill Ellis isn’t the only important person who has moved on; technical director April Heinrichs, director of talent identification B.J. Snow and youth team coach Mark Carr have all left to take new opportunities.

Some of Snow and Heinrichs’ responsibilities will be transferred to Markgraf, and she has hired four coaches for the most important age groups. Vlatko Andonovski has taken over the USWNT from Ellis, Matt Potter has joined the Under-23s from the University of Oklahoma, former Utah Royals head coach Laura Harvey is now in charge of the U-20s and Kevins has been promoted from the younger age groups to take over the U-17s.

Markgraf said she’s going to make sure the squads continue to meet up at least once a year, and has already asked U.S. Soccer administration to look into venues that can accommodate a camp with all of its teams.

The different age groups got together when they could under Ellis and Heinrichs, but the federation lacked people in key administrative roles like Markgraf and technical director Earnie Stewart to organize the camps and make them as productive as possible. With a new staff structure in place, expect a better organized youth-to-senior USWNT pipeline for the future.