When April Heinrichs was growing up in Colorado in the late 1970s and early 80s, her athletic role model was not a woman. It wasn’t even a soccer player. The current U.S. Soccer Women’s Technical Director and captain of the 1991 Women’s World Cup champions wanted to be just like Philadelphia 76ers legend and NBA Hall of Famer Julius Erving. Heinrichs, who was also a talented basketball player, wanted to play just like Dr. J.
Of course, athletic female role models were in short supply back then, but times have certainly changed. The U.S. Women’s National Team players are among the USA’s most popular female athletes and flashpoints of inspiration for millions of girls, boys, men and women.
Heinrichs wants to make sure that continues. To that end, since re-joining U.S. Soccer in 2011, the former U.S. head coach (2000-2004) has endeavored to involve former National Team players as coaches in youth WNT training camps.
During the U.S. Under-14 Girls’ National Team event currently taking place at the U.S. Soccer National Training Center in Carson, Calif., Heinrichs and U-14 GNT head coach April Kater have included six former U.S. Women’s National Team players on the coaching staff. The goal is to have these former players gain invaluable experience working alongside more seasoned coaches, serving as assistants and role models while demonstrating and playing in with the girls.
“We¹ve asked them to share their journey on the National Team and what representing the USA meant to them during their career,” said Heinrichs. “They have imparted their wisdom in every session, throwing their arm around a player or encouraging her to execute an exercise faster, with more detail or at a higher level of intensity. The relationships have developed so quickly in just a few sessions, and we see how these young players look up to and want to imitate the former players.”
The six former players at this camp together accumulated 172 caps and include Amy LePeilbet, one of the top defenders in U.S. history who earned 84 caps and was a member of the 2012 Olympic champions and 2011 Women’s World Cup Team; Tina Ellertson (formerly Frimpong), who earned 34 caps and played in the 2007 Women’s World Cup; Jen Lalor, a member of the 1995 Women’s World Cup Team who earned 21 caps from 1992-1995 and another two in 2001; Kacey Burke (formerly White), who earned 18 caps from 2006-2009; Keri Sanchez, who earned nine caps from 1991-1994 and another four in 2000-2001; and Val Henderson, who never earned a full WNT cap but was the starting goalkeeper for the USA at the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Russia.
Kacey Burke, Jen Lalor, Tina Ellertson, April Heinrichs, Amy LePeilbet, Val Henderson, Keri Sanchez
“When I was playing on the National Team, I felt so lucky that my daughters (now ages 12 and 7) had access to Abby Wambach and Hope Solo and the rest of the players, and it means so much to me to come into this camp and give back to these other girls,” said Ellertson. “We are right in there with them, we’re not on TV, and we can impact them in many ways. It’s important to give back, and I know my daughters are stronger because of that experience, and hopefully these U-14 players will get that as well.”
For LePeilbet, who retired last December after helping FC Kansas City win the 2015 NWSL championship, it’s also a chance to re-connect with former teammates.
“It’s been wonderful to work with this group and all the coaches,” said LePeilbet. “We really are a family. I haven’t seen some of them in years, but we come together on and off the field and it’s just that comfortable feeling again. It’s really nice to have that connection, and it’s something special that comes from playing on the National Team for so long.”
Burke says it’s that connection that can be transferred to these young players – none of whom had been born when Lalor and Sanchez were representing the USA and most of whom were babies when Ellertson was playing -- as they get their first experiences with the U.S. Women’s National Team programs.
“For me, coaching is about connecting with the players,” said Burke. “The connection we made during our time with the National Team has inspired me to give that back to these young players. As coaches we are connecting as well, and that helps us work with these young players to make an impact.”
The former players played a wide variety of positions with LePeilbet earning most of her caps as an outside back, White and Sanchez were primarily flank midfielders, while Ellertson was a defender and a forward. Lalor was a creative center midfielder. Still, the goal is the same: help create a positive environment for the youngsters to grow as people and players.
“The theme for these younger players is really ball mastery and getting each player to understand that the work to get to the top levels doesn’t stop when she leaves camp,” said White. “The players can put in the work in their home environments to help them master the ball, and once they do that their potential will be as far as their mental and physical attributes will take them."
As the former players continue to grow as coaches, LePeilbet sees the bond they have continuing to positively impact not only players they work with but also each other.
“What’s really neat is that for all of us, we are really supporting each other, we really respect each other, and we want to see each other succeed as coaches just like we did as players,” said LePeilbet, who started five of the six matches at the 2012 Olympics and all six at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. “It’s a different journey but really cool to have these strong coaches next to me to support me and to provide this great opportunity.”
Heinrichs also sees the many positives and will keep encouraging more former players to take the coaching path. Surely, Stephen Curry can still be a great role model, but young players in the United States now have plenty of female soccer players to emulate.
“It¹s been absolutely fabulous to have them with us, and I also think it¹s been mutually beneficial,” said Heinrichs. “The former players have been inspired by the U-14s and they¹re motivated to return home and share their experiences with their players and clubs.”