Q&A with ECNL’s Sarah Kate Noftsinger: Pt. 1

*courtesy of www.topdrawersoccer.com

RICHMOND, VA (April 14, 2013):  In December of 2010, Sarah Kate Noftsinger was hired as the first commissioner of Elite Clubs National League. Three years later, Noftsinger still runs the constantly growing and evolving league that has quickly ascended to the top of the club soccer pyramid.

Last week, Noftsinger sat down with TopDrawerSoccer.com for a Q&A about improving ECNL, high school soccer, and scouting for the national team.

This is the first part of a three-part series from that conversation.

TDS: What is the improvement that ECNL is focused on moving forward?

Noftsinger: At the epicenter, it is always player development, meaning the player’s best interest is at the forefront of our minds. Anything educational for coaching development, player development, scouting, at the end of the day, it is about staying true to who we are and what we set out to do; we want to accomplish our goal.

People ask me all the time about growth. ‘How much more are you going to grow? Are you going to add more clubs?’ You can’t put an answer on there. If I were to give people a finite number of clubs that should be in, it is not true because the game is going to constantly evolve and clubs are going to constantly evolve. Some will get better and some might fall off – you just don’t know. There is no concrete number set in stone. At the end of the day, we want to make sure our league is the best possible league in the world for female development.

We have to constantly be evolving. If we stay the same, it is not a sustainable model. The game changes, we change. The game evolves; we evolve. However, we have to stay two to three steps ahead of that evolution.

The competition structure – you have to make sure it stays engaging and financially feasible and that we are providing the tools and resources to make sure these kids get better.

At the end of the day, improvement is a constant process; complacency is not in our repertoire. Moving forward, our constant focus is improving access to the tools and resources necessary (and being innovative in doing so) to help these aspiring players develop and accomplish whatever their dreams may be—hopefully representing out country.

TDS: What is the grading process for the clubs?

Noftsinger: I arrived in Los Angeles ten days early and I dropped in on all the clubs in the LA-area  — unannounced. Similar to what the Development Academy does. You want to see what the clubs are doing when no one is watching them.

We are in the process of building out a true evaluation tool. It is not a tool that says, you’re a great club, you’re a great club, and you’re kicked out. It is an evaluation process to help these clubs and coaches improve. So you go out, immerse yourself,  and see what the training sessions are like, see what their daily environment includes. We have certain standards that as an ECNL club you must maintain, but more importantly is our league giving these kids what they need and deserve.

So in the next year, one of the big things that we will be working on is ensuring that these tools are in place—they are accessible and innovative – tools to help the coaches improve and to ensure that the clubs are providing the best environment for the players.

And if they are not, it is up to us to assist them. And if they are still not able to do that, then decisions have to be made.

TDS: What is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of keeping the ECNL the best development league in the world?

Noftsinger: I think there are a number of factors. People often forget that the U.S. is massive [in terms of geography]. When you look at the development in Japan and in Germany, it is a much smaller area that they have to work with it. Yes, we have incredible numbers. It is unbelievable what we have, however, with that size come more barriers. For us, trying to find ways to limit the financial inequities as much as possible without risking the quality of the competitive cauldron nor limiting what we provide for the players.

In saying that, I don’t think there are any barriers that are so daunting that we could not overcome them. It is just a matter of working together and that is what has been great about U.S. Soccer, all of the member clubs, Nike. It is surreal how well we all work together. It is an open door policy; it is transparent. For the first time in – I don’t know how long it has been – we truly do work together. It is a united front.  We are here to develop aspiring players who hopefully represent the country and win World Cups, multiple World Cups, who win Olympic Gold Medals. So we are working with them and it is all about the kids. I am not just saying that – people who know me know that I can be blunt and eat my foot, but that is the God’s honest truth.

TDS: What is the relationship like with US Club Soccer?

Noftsinger: We have an unbelievable relationship with US Club Soccer. They are our sanctioning body and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. The support they gave us and the support that they still give us is awesome. However, we are our own entity.

What makes the ECNL completely different is that we are run by people on the ground, people that are immersed in the player development world every single day. People are always going to have their own agenda, and people still have their own agenda here, but they are putting the players first, putting the goals of the ECNL first, and checking the ego at the door.

We have been able to find a way to make this thing work [financially] through sponsorships, support, etc.

TDS: Do you believe the league is sustainable with the way the finances are currently setup?

Noftsinger: Yes, I do. I am very confident about that.

We know who our members are, we listen, and we value their insight. We value past, current, and up and coming minds of the game. We have the strength of our clubs and the support that they give us is unbelievable. The relationship with all of these clubs is unmatched. It is a family. Yes, it is a business, however, it is a family. We all work together.   We are in a fortunate position, where we can study others successes and failures, and be strategic in our growth.

Most importantly, if a club needs some help, they will call us, that is what we are here for. We are here to support and serve our membership. That is what we do and our members understand that. We are in it for the same reasons, to accomplish our goal which is to change the landscape for elite female soccer players, through innovative, player-centered programming and to enhance the overall experience by creating a better, more enjoyable, and more successful player, coach, and club development model.