By Marc Serber
Featured Contributor, SoccerWire
Richmond United is in only its sixth year as a club, but is already heading towards the elite ranks on the girls’ side as a member of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL).
The organization from Virginia’s capital reached the status as a top-60 ECNL club three years ago, before jumping up the rankings to No. 36, and climbed a further nine spots by the conclusion of the 2018-2019 campaign.
Just as, if not more impressive than Richmond’s rise up the ECNL charts, is the fact that the club has had nine players called into a Women’s Youth National Team camp in the past six years alone. Add Katie Cousins and Madelyn McCracken from United’s parent clubs – the Richmond Strikers and Richmond Kickers – shortly prior to the formation of Richmond United, and the number reaches 11.
Featured among the top USYNT prospects developed in United’s ECNL program over the past several years are class of 2022 standouts Jill Flammia and Layla Shell, who have helped the U-16 squad jump out to a perfect 6-0-0 start in ECNL play this season. Meanwhile, class of 2023 midfielder Ella Stanley has been called in for an upcoming U.S. U-15 Girls National Team Talent ID Camp in Kansas City. Additionally, former United players Lindsey Romig and Jordan Canniff represented the U.S. in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2018. [+More on Richmond United’s USYNT History]
So, how did Richmond United’s ECNL program reach the status it has now?
It all started back in 2014 when United’s current ECNL Director, Aaron Brunner, was working with the Strikers. He had discussions with his club and with the Kickers to create Richmond United, to give the best girls in the area a chance to compete nationally in the ECNL program. Furthermore, Brunner envisioned that concentrating forces to combine the clubs’ best players would elevate the coaching staff and training environment, making it a more competitive atmosphere.
In an exclusive interview, SoccerWire asked what elements were most conducive to Richmond United’s success. Brunner was quick to praise the Strikers and Kickers for sharing in his vision:
“The leadership from the top is important,” Brunner said. “The leadership from the Kickers and Strikers and their trust in [my] hiring a talented coaching staff.”
Even more important to Brunner is that the parent clubs not only trust the coaches he hires, but also the autonomy he and his staff have in identifying talent and creating a pathway from the recreational level through travel soccer with the Kickers and Strikers to the ECNL (girls) or U.S. Soccer Development Academy (boys) with Richmond United.
“The pathway is real because we are starting with the Kickers and Strikers as parent clubs developing players,” Brunner explained. “United has been able to draw players from the surrounding areas such as Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and Charlottesville, which elevates our training and competitive environments. This in turn not only improves our teams, but also gives the girls a chance to play collegiate soccer and then go pro.”
The framework Brunner developed is not only generating success with players being called into the youth National Teams, but also moving girls on to the collegiate level. Last year, the eldest United ECNL squad send 14-of-15 seniors on to play college soccer.
Like the Big Mac, the “special sauce” remains a secret, but the framework is based on principles of play with an emphasis on the girls understanding how and why they approach the game a certain way. Within these principles, each coach has the ability to structure their team and play a formation as they see fit, but everything always reverts back to three core values of Richmond United which are stated as, “Unite, Inspire and Achieve.”
With three full-time and three part-time coaches, including a college recruiting adviser, Brunner believes he has a “staff who has brought in and has the same ambition of wanting to be a big club despite being in a small market.”
Brunner continues, “The fact that we [the coaching staff] have a direction is the reason we are moving up every single year, and I believe we are only going to improve.”
This “direction” is based on a vision of a program that fosters the development of a more tactically sophisticated and technically skilled player with the aim of elevating the club to new heights in the next five years. Blending individual player development with the ability to get results should maximize output for both player and club.
“If our performance is high and our girls are educated in tactics, style, and philosophy,” Brunner explained. “It should lead to more players in college, more championships, and more opportunities with the National Team.”
United teams are off to especially strong starts this season in the ECNL’s U-16 and U-17 age groups, in which their teams are unbeaten through their first 12 games combined. The club is looking to build on a 2018-19 season which saw their U-14 and U-15 squads reach the ECNL Playoffs, both winning 2-of-3 group games in San Diego. The U-15s won their group and ultimately finished as quarterfinalists in the ECNL Champions League.