The sprawling attempt to prevent travel soccer sprawl

Let’s play Soccer Optometrist.

Better like this?

Or better like this?

That’s the result of my attempt to demonstrate something I’ve been investigating and analyzing for the past two months in a couple of stories — the opus on all Development Academy issues and the five-point plan for reducing the confusion and unnecessary travel in elite soccer — and the first full-fledged Ranting Soccer Dad podcast, in which Mike Woitalla and I pointed to travel itself as the best place to cut costs in travel soccer. The logic is pretty simple — it’s tougher to cut coaching costs and much tougher to cut field costs than it is to cut the bills on hotels and airlines.

So the hypothesis I’m testing with these maps: Elite soccer players don’t need to travel like Odysseus to find competitive games. The Development Academy (adding girls’ teams this year) and the ECNL (adding boys) would be better off if they played each other and top U.S. Youth Soccer teams currently playing in the Eastern Regional League and National League.

I also learned two important lessons:

1. Don’t try to put 332 data points on a map of the Northeast U.S.

2. Most youth soccer clubs have atrocious websites.

But I did compile complete-ish data for most teams playing at a serious or semi-serious level in Region 1 (the East Coast from Virginia to Maine). I put the raw data on Github because I have delusions of becoming a data journalist. (And so people can check numbers at a glance and dive deeper if they wish.)

On the spreadsheet and the maps, all clubs are listed with their 2016-17 leagues EXCEPT the ECNL and DA, which have announced their fall lineups, plus a couple of clubs that have qualified for the National League. I did NOT go through and try to figure new qualifiers for the ERL or calculate promotion/relegation in EDP and local leagues. (But there’s a little bit of pro/rel later.)

The rankings are all from Youth Soccer Rankings. All rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but this site has the most comprehensive results database. It has the occasional error, mostly because teams often don’t use consistent names (“PREMIER 01 GIRLS FC BULLDOGS” or “PREMIER FC BULLDOGS,” etc.) and because a couple of leagues (looking at you, Virginia Premier League) have sites that simply don’t make it easy to look up results. But it does a remarkable job of compiling and analyzing scores, and I chose the U17 level because that group is old enough for results to be relatively meaningful. I used girls leagues because boys DA teams generally aren’t ranked because they rarely play outside the DA.

I have a plausible reorganization of the “national” leagues in U.S. youth soccer — the Development Academy, the ECNL and the U.S. Youth Soccer regional/national competitions. On these maps, I call that “Division 1.” I’m a little less convinced with what I’m calling “Division 2,” for reasons that will be come apparent.

Here’s how I broke it down:

CRITERIA FOR CURRENT LEAGUES (the “Before” view in the before-and-after of my reorganization; the numbers all refer to rankings)

DIVISION 1: 64 teams

  • Elite Clubs National League (ECNL): 6 t10, 9 13-32, 47th, 82nd, 104th
  • Development Academy (DA): 4 t12, 2 35-75, 129th, 8 new teams
  • Eastern Regional League (ERL) and/or U.S. Youth Soccer National League (Natl): 2 t20, 8 21-50, 10 51-100, 5 101-200, 2 below
  • Two independent teams ranked in top 100

DIVISION 2: (105 teams)

NPL (U.S. Club Soccer) regional leagues

  • New England Premier League (NEPL): 6th, 6 40-100, 2 below 200
  • NPL Northeast: 3 t50, 4 51-100, 6 101-200
  • New York Club Soccer League (NYCSL) – NPL Division: 2 t20, 5 51-100, 2 101-200
  • Virginia Premier League (VPL): 2 50-100, 4 101-200, 3 below 200

Non-NPL regional leagues

  • EDP – 1st Divisions
    • North (NY East/CT): 2 t50, 1 51-100, 3 101-125
    • Central (NJ): 3 t50, 2 51-100
    • East (NJ/PA East): 2 t50, 3 51-100
    • South (PA East/MD): 1 t50, 3 51-100
  • New England Premiership – 1st Division (NEP): 4 51-100, 5 101-200
  • Club Champions League (Va/Md): 1 t50, 2 51-100, 4 101-200, 3 <275, one unr.
  • 11 independent teams in top 200 (11)

DIVISION 3 (162 teams)

I only mapped this on the rather jumbled 332-team map. I may go back and do some local case studies at some point. But for posterity, here’s how I came up with a third division.

Complete leagues (or divisions of leagues)

  • EDP – 2nd Divisions: majority in top 200; all but 2 in top 300)
  • EDP – Premier divisions (third tier): 7 101-200, 10 201-300
  • Connecticut Junior Soccer Association – Elite: 2 101-200, 4 201-300)
  • National Capital Soccer League – Div. 1 (NCSL; DC/MD/VA): 3 101-200, 3 201-300 (disclaimer — the NCSL has collected some Dure family registration fees over the years)
  • NEP – 2nd Division: 3 101-200, 3 201-300
  • Northeast Soccer League – Elite (NSL; NE): 2 101-200, 1 200-210, only 4 teams
  • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1 (second tier): 2 101-200, 3 201-300
  • PA West Spring Classic League – Div. 1 (SCL): 87th, 3 101-200, 2 201-300
  • Thruway League – National (NY West): 11th (also ERL/Natl), 54th, 173, 218th, unranked

In the top 300 or champion in a league with multiple teams over 300

  • 5 from CJSA – Premier
  • 2 each from EDP Championship Central and Championship North (fourth tier)
  • 3 from Jersey Area Girls Soccer (JAGS)
  • 2 from Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier A (LIJSL)
  • 2 from NCSL – Div. 2
  • 3 each from NEP Championship North and Central (third tier)
  • 3 from NSL – Premier
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 2 (plus fall champ that also plays LIJSL)
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 3
  • 2 from Rock Spring League (PA East)
  • 2 from SCL – Div. 2
  • 3 from Thruway League – Presidents (second tier)
  • 2 from Virginia State League – Division 1 (VSL; plus 2 teams playing up)

Champions or top U16 teams in these leagues/divisions/states

  • Baltimore Beltway Soccer League (BBSL, Md.): top team 466
  • Blue Ridge Soccer League (BRSL, Va.): champion 373 (also beat team playing up at U17)
  • Central Pennsylvania Youth Soccer League (CPYSL): top team 412
  • Lancaster County Soccer League (LANCO, PA East): top team 344
  • Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier B (LIJSL): champion 238
  • Mid New Jersey (MNJ): top team 468
  • Monmouth Ocean Soccer Association (MOSA, NJ): champion 414
  • Maine State Premier League (MSPL): champion 383, plus team (69) that played up
  • NCSL – Div. 3: champion 287
  • NEP – League 1 (fourth tier): champion 253
  • New Hampshire State League (NHSL): champion 542
  • NSL – Select: champion unranked
  • Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer – Div. 4 (PAGS, top tier, fall league): champion 318
  • Vermont State League (VtSL): top team 334, top-ranked team 328
  • West Virginia: remaining top-ranked team 323

So how did I do the “reimagined” maps? Like so:

DIVISION 1: Add champions of Division 2 leagues. (EDP-1N champion New York SC Elite NPL is already in DA.)

DIVISION 2

  • Remove those who were promoted.
  • Add champions of:
    • EDP – 2nd Divisions
    • CJSA – Elite
    • NCSL – Div. 1
    • NEP – 2nd Division
    • NSL – Elite
    • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1
    • SCL – Div. 1
    • Thruway League – National (already in)

Here’s how it turned out:

BEFORE

AFTER 

That’s an improvement, but perhaps less so than Division 1.

The Division 2 issues:

  • Pennsylvania West somehow dropped to one team. They have some company at the western tip of New York and in West Virginia, but that’s not a league. Possible solutions:
    • Play up an age group in a local league.
    • Cross the regional boundary and play in Ohio.
    • Just drop to Division 3 unless they’re utterly dominant.
  • Roanoke Star, all the way in southwestern Virginia, also might need to cross a regional boundary and play teams in and around Greensboro.
  • Virginia’s high school season is in the spring. (So is Delaware’s, though only for girls.) I should probably split the “DMV” region along the Potomac.

 

Do we care about high school soccer? Depends on the region. I found most elite teams currently play few to no league games during their high school season. A lot of lower second and third tiers that often play through high school season, depending on the region. In my densely populated area (Northern Virginia), that makes sense — players who aren’t on the top travel teams won’t make their high school teams. That’s surely less common in more rural areas.

High school play is the biggest wedge between the Development Academy and the ECNL. The latter allows players to play in high school. The former doesn’t — sort of. Players can get waivers if their admission or scholarship to private school is contingent on their participation on the soccer team.

If we combine the DA and ECNL, we’d have to let players play in high school. If some teams want to skip high school soccer and play more league games, we can work that out.

Final note: This plan wouldn’t necessarily replace existing leagues. The NPL (U.S. Club Soccer’s network of regional leagues) would get some reorganization, and it could split the second tier with the EDP or share it. (The sprawling EDP already has some NPL divisions in other age groups, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them cooperating.) I do think Club Champions League should reinvent itself as a series of showcase events rather than a “league,” which is another rant.

The rest of the pyramid remains intact, perhaps with the stipulation that teams would need waivers if they’re a certain distance from the league’s geographic center.

There’s no way to prevent all lopsided games. But with this system in place, at least teams wouldn’t travel 300 miles for an uncompetitive game. If they still want to fly to Disney World for a tournament, they’re still free to do so. (Can I join your club?)

 

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