Well I was rolling down the road in a minivan
I had a keeper in the back and a guest player at the wheel
We going cross-country and we’re skipping school
We tired and I’m lost – I wonder why this is cool
Oh I’m bad … I’m nationwide
We know we’re not supposed to do this, right?
At the youth level, we have six national championship-ish events despite legitimate concerns that all we’re doing is rewarding families that can spend a lot of money on travel. And despite the legendary Horst Bertl (Dallas Comets, now FC Dallas) quote: “National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Whoever thinks these up should be stoned.”
At the adult level, we fret over the costs a team like Christos FC incurs when it advances in the Open Cup. Then we see teams fall all over themselves to enter national leagues on top of national tournaments.
And the trend is only accelerating. Consider the news from the past week …
- U.S. Youth Soccer is revamping the regional pyramid that forms the base of its national league system, which is really a series of national showcases because no one really expects Tennessee Soccer Club to schedule a U15 league game against Greater Seattle Surf.
- The UPSL, the first league to institute promotion/relegation besides all the other adult (and youth) leagues that have had it for generations, is rapidly expanding — Columbia, S.C.; Silver Spring, Md.; Alton, N.H.; Hollywood, Fla.; Perris, Calif.; Aurora, Colo.; Dallas; Wake Forest, N.C.; etc. I count just north of 170 teams in the league now.
Like the Borg, the UPSL has grown in part through assimilation. The Premier League of America (which, despite the name, covers a relatively compact area around Lake Michigan) simply merged into the UPSL and became the Midwest Conference. A few other teams have moved over from existing amateur leagues such as the Colorado Premier League (a U.S. Specialty Sports Association affiliate), Texas Premier Soccer League (U.S. Club Soccer), the nominally professional American Soccer League, the apparently defunct American Champions League, the apparently defunct Champions Soccer League USA, the People’s Front of Judea (OK, that one’s fictional), and elsewhere. They also have a partnership with the traditionally strong Maryland Major Soccer League (home of the aforementioned Christos FC), one of the USASA’s Elite Amateur Leagues.
To some extent, the UPSL is a loose network of regional leagues. It’s much bigger in California than it is elsewhere. But it does have a national playoff and advertises a separate Cup competition called the Admiral Cup, though that doesn’t appear to have been contested recently.
A national playoff of this sort is a little curious. If you’re one of the many people annoyed with the USA for doing things that other countries don’t do, well, this is something other countries don’t do. I don’t see a national Regionalliga championship in Germany — just playoff games to determine the promoted sides, with no overall winner. Nor do I know of any English divisional championships after the fifth tier, which is the last nationwide league. (England does have the FA Trophy, a cup competition for those in tiers 5-8, and the FA Vase for anyone lower than that. But the U.S. counterpart to that would be the U.S. Amateur Cup, which many UPSL teams enter, and that winner can play in the supercup-ish Hank Steinbrecher Cup.) European clubs in regional leagues try to win that league and progress as far as they can in their cups.
But that playoff is, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless. It’s the summer leagues, PDL and NPSL, that have counterproductive national playoffs. These clubs serve a valuable purpose — giving college players a few more competitive games in the summers. Then they cut their regular seasons short to race through a set of playoffs that no one really cares about. (Seriously — lower-division fans can all remember U.S. Open Cup upsets such as Reading United over the New York Cosmos, Michigan Bucks over everyone, Des Moines Menace over a couple of pro teams, Chattanooga FC over Wilmington, etc. Name the last PDL champion. Or try to remember anything from the NPSL playoffs other than Midland-Odessa scraping together a team to play the final after the bulk of its roster went back to school for the fall.)
That’s the state of adult soccer. What about youth soccer?
Maybe the new U.S. Youth Soccer leagues will be an oasis of sanity. Unlike the Development Academy and the ECNL, they should have enough entries to split into sensible regional divisions. (The DA has a few good clusters at U12 but hits peak absurdity by U15, while ECNL travel budgets are rather excessive even in the long-established girls’ divisions.)
And somewhere in the ashes of the 2018 U.S. Soccer presidential race lies an interesting idea — a national Youth Cup. This exists in England, where the FA Youth Cup draws hundreds of U18 entries (and note that the age range is not by birth year) and Broxbourne Borough of the Spartan South Midlands League Division One (unfortunately, the senior team is facing relegation down to England’s 11th tier) was one game away from the quarterfinals last year.
One national championship. (OK, maybe two — England has a national U18 league with north and south divisions that face off in a national playoff, but that’s about it for national travel, even in a country that requires no airplanes for away fixtures.) That seems sensible. And the top academies might have to face off with a Broxbourne Borough in a meaningful game instead of sitting in a silo.
Basically, if you’re going to have a national championship, maybe it should include everyone in the nation — at least those meeting a certain criteria like “amateur” or “Division 3 or below” or “Division I college teams.” Otherwise, why spend time flying when you could be playing?