On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer and the Football Association (FA) confirmed that Dawn Scott, who was the United States Women’s National Team’s High Performance Coach, is leaving U.S. Soccer for a similar position with the FA as the Physical Performance Manager for England’s senior women’s national team. Scott’s sudden departure was surprising as newly installed USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski had said that he was “retaining” Scott (SI.com). The news was broken over the previous weekend by Simon Austin at Training Ground Guru and confirmed by Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer.
Details about the circumstances of Scott’s departure and hiring are limited, although her departure was described as “amicable.” (The Athletic article, subscription required)
Scott, who joined the USWNT in 2010 under Pia Sundhage, was instrumental in modernizing the USWNT’s approach to performance analysis and monitoring, with a focus on collecting daily health data and providing individually tailored plans for exercise, nutrition, et cetera.
U.S. Soccer’s press release included this extended quote from Scott:
“This was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make,” said Scott. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with U.S. Soccer and the opportunity I had for my personal and professional growth. I want to say thank you to everyone at the U.S. Soccer Federation, to the players, to the staff and to all the coaches – it has been an honor. I have memories to last a lifetime from the past nine years. I am now looking forward to a career progression and this was an opportune time to continue my professional development in England.”
U.S. Soccer High Performance Director James Bunce, who was previously Head of Performance for the Premier League in England, will be in charge of finding a replacement for Scott.
One possible in-house candidate to replace Scott is current Youth Women’s National Teams Sport Scientist and Physical Performance Coach Ellie Maybury, who has been with U.S. Soccer since January 2016. Maybury has over ten years of high performance experience, including four years with the FA as a sports scientist for England’s youth WNTs. (2019 USWNT Media Guide, page 146)
Scott’s return to the FA has been described as a “major coup” for Phil Neville’s Lionesses and a “big loss” for the USWNT. These gut reactions have not been supported by thoughtful analysis.
While Scott is highly regarded and deservedly so, her public reputation (and cult hero status in the USWNT fanbase) is mostly tied to her establishment of a modern, data-driven high performance program for the USWNT, which effectively did not exist prior to 2010. That is her largest impact on the success of the USWNT, as well as her legacy. The program that Scott established will not disappear now that Scott is gone. It will continue after her departure, and hopefully improve under her successor.
In the short-term, there will be a disruption until Scott’s full-time replacement settles into their position. How much disruption and how long that disruption lasts will depend on a number of factors.
Two of these factors are the loss of Scott’s unique professional expertise, as well as her institutional knowledge. Regarding Scott’s unique expertise, even is she is the best overall in the world, her successor may be superior in specific competencies, such that the successor ends up having a larger positive net impact on the USWNT over the next Women’s World Cup cycle, than what Scott’s impact would have been.
As to the loss of her institutional knowledge regarding the USWNT, Scott likely produced detailed notes, memorandums and/or reports that her successor can use to get up to speed. Also, there should be detailed files on each individual player. Another way to mitigate the loss of institutional knowledge would be to promote someone within U.S. Soccer.
The timing of Scott’s departure, less than three months before CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, is far from ideal, but the net impact on qualifying should be minimal, as U.S. Soccer has other employees in their High Performance section, including the previously mentioned Ellie Maybury, who can perform Scott’s duties.
On the England side, yes, this is a great hiring by the FA and Scott is a highly regarded professional in her field, but “coup” implies a brilliant or triumphant act (Wiktionary), such as the FA poaching Scott away from U.S. Soccer. As noted above, details on the circumstance and timeline of Scott’s departure from U.S. Soccer and hiring by the FA are lacking.*
*Worth mentioning, as it has been quoted on Twitter and elsewhere: An earlier version of The Athletic article cited above contained the sentence “It is understood that new national team coach Vlatko Andonovski was keen to retain Scott, but the FA moved in when an agreement could not be reached with US Soccer’s senior staff.” (BigSoccer.com forum post) However, the “but the FA moved in…” part had since been deleted. Google search result screenshot, below.
The prepositional phrase “with US Soccer’s senior staff” conjures up concerns of mismanagement, such as U.S. Soccer being too stingy with the purse strings, but as things stands now, there is not enough evidence to lay blame on any specific party.
As to why Scott returned to the FA, personal and/or family reasons may have been a large factor for the England native. Or, Scott was simply ready for a new professional challenge. Also, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Scott’s move was primarily pecuniary.
Regarding the timing of Scott’s decision, England’s next official tournament is the Women’s Euro in Summer 2021, which they are hosting. Joining the Lionesses over a year out allows Scott plenty of time to work with the team and its individual players. (The timing also gives Scott at least six months to work with Great Britain players ahead of the 2020 Olympics, most of whom will hail from the England WNT.) Additionally, this was a good time to leave the USWNT, as they are in a transition period, with the recent hiring of Andonovski as head coach.
Furthermore, even if Scott is an irreplaceable talent, high performance is just one part of the USWNT’s success. Other factors, such as the talent and drive of the players, as well as the strategy and tactics of the head coach, have much larger and more significant roles in determining the USWNT’s success.
Thus, one possible silver lining of Scott’s departure is that it could force the USWNT to examine other areas where the team can be improved, which could lead to greater improvement than beyond what would have happened if Scott had stayed with the USWNT.
Finally, discussing Scott’s departure in terms of a win for one side and a loss for another is reductive zero-sum thinking (Wikipedia). First, arguably, the potential benefit to England of hiring Scott is larger than the potential cost, if any of Scott leaving the USWNT. Secondly, the development could be positive for both teams if the USWNT finds a replacement who is a net improvement over Scott.
Additionally, for international women’s soccer to grow, all teams to improve, not just on field, but also off the field. The USWNT hoarding resources, such as the talents of Dawn Scott, is not optimal for the growth of the women’s game.
- U.S. Soccer Press Release: Dawn Scott Steps Down as U.S. WNT High Performance Coach to Take Similar Position with England FA
- FA Press Release: Dawn Scott Appointed Senior Women’s Physical Performance Manager
- The Athletic: From banning treats to tailoring training to players’ menstrual cycles – what the Lionesses can expect from physical performance coach Dawn Scott (subscription required)
- The Telegraph: Ending period ‘taboo’ gave USA marginal gain at World Cup (July 2019)
- NBC Sports: The Secret To Everything: Fitness coach Dawn Scott and her holistic ‘marginal gains’ approach could lead the U.S. to Women’s World Cup glory (June 2015)
- BBC Bitesize: How science can make you a better athlete – featuring Youth USWNTs High Performance Coach Ellie Maybury (November 2019)
- Soccer Today: U.S. Soccer’s High-Performance Director James Bunce on How Sports Science Impacts Youth Soccer Players (July 2018)
- The Guardian: James Bunce: can a 31-year-old Englishman help USA win the World Cup? (April 2017)