First, a quick announcement — because I’m writing for Soccer America now and have a book in the works, I won’t have many posts and podcasts over the winter.

But I wanted to take care of something I’ve been trying to do for a while, and it’s a case study of what can be done with a dose of sanity.

The basic idea: There’s no need for artificial divisions between levels of play, and kids/teams should be able to find their levels on their own.

Another basic idea: Quit traveling MORE to play LESS competitive games.

Which leads to this: Like most countries, we’re going to put league play under one umbrella.

You can do club-vs.-club league play IF all or most of your teams are in the same tier as your opponent. No more dragging your U13s 150 miles to lose 8-0.

And this reorganization doesn’t affect tournaments at all. If you have some exclusive league, you can reset it as a couple of tournaments/showcases. (The one caveat: Can we please have ONE State Cup? If you don’t want to enter it, and you want to have a special tournament of your own, fine, but don’t call it a “State Cup.”)

You might think this is just some OCD thing or the narcissism of a lone youth coach who’s sick of seeing lopsided soccer games in which one team has a bunch of kids who are near-elite level and the other has kids who simply can’t keep up physically. But let’s look at a larger issue from that Atlantic article everyone has been reading (“American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports“):

Expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind desiccated local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources.

Here’s the cycle I see here:

  1. Big clubs hold cattle-call tryouts at U9, usually taking the more athletic players. (I’m constantly amazed by the coaching gurus who think they can cast players aside at age 8 or 9 when they’re in their growth-spurt clumsiness. It’s almost as if they haven’t spent any time with children other than their selected few. Sure, you can spot someone who’s light years ahead of the rest in terms of understanding the game, but sifting through the other 99.9% is a fool’s errand.)
  2. The players who don’t make it are often discouraged and sometimes quit.
  3. The players who do make it aren’t necessarily those who are really devoted to soccer. They burn out, and they quit, and then the travel teams are left scrambling to grab kids from what’s left of the rec league.
  4. Some players may really like soccer, but when they hit middle school and high school, they have other interests that keep them from making the year-round commitment to travel (related issue: year-round commitments to mid- and lower-level travel teams are ridiculous), so they drop back into those “desiccated local leagues.”
  5. The clubs all band together to form a larger “rec” league that’s basically “travel lite.”

A few years ago, I suggested a way to bring players through the U-Little ranks up through Under-10 soccer, inspired by my local Little League baseball program that brings everyone to the “Majors” at their own pace. Basically, if you’re advanced, you play up. You can also arrange scrimmages with other clubs — putting your top players against theirs, your second-best against their second-best, etc. — and make those distinctions fluid. You don’t need “full-time” travel. You need your advanced players to be challenged, and you need your less advanced players to have the same access to good coaching because they might be great players when they grow into their bodies.

Move up to the older ranks: Middle school has a way of reshaping children’s priorities. If they’re truly elite soccer players and want to pursue it, they’ll be in an ECNL Academy program. (Yeah, we’re merging those two — we’ll get to it.) If they’re pretty good “travel” players but also good basketball players, tuba players, drummers or Eagle Scouts-to-be, they might want to drop their commitment level.

Does that mean these players have to quit playing with their similarly inclined friends? Does it mean they have to play at the lowest level of soccer along with new players or those who haven’t figured it out (or don’t have the physical tools to play particularly well)?

I don’t think so. And what I’ve found by high school age is that the difference between the top half of “rec” players and the bottom half of “travel” players no longer exists. The only difference is that the “travel” players are spending more money on professional coaches and … travel.

Let’s change that. As a model, we’ll use Under-14 boys in Northern Virginia. Our data and the abbreviations we’ll use:

  • YSR: Youth Soccer Rankings for Virginia (no ranking is perfect, in part because teams don’t always play for the result, but this is the most comprehensive)
  • EDP-1, EDP-2, etc.: EDP standings
  • CCL-1, CCL-2: Club Champions League Premiership and CCL Championship standings (which aren’t included in Youth Soccer Rankings — note this is not a promotion/relegation league)
  • VPL: Virginia Premier League standings
  • NCSL-1, NCSL-2, etc.: NCSL standings (this IS a pro/rel league)
  • ODSL: ODSL standings
  • SFL-1, SFL-2: Suburban Friendship League (rec) standings
  • Cup: Spring 2018 U13 State Cup (Play-in is PI, Round of 16 is R16, quarterfinal is QF, etc.)
  • Club Cup: Spring 2018 U.S. Club Soccer State Cup
  • GotSoccer rankings, but more importantly, tournament results. I didn’t want to reward teams for chasing GS points, but I used their event rankings to judge tournament results. Between that and YSR, I should have a good sense.

The result is admittedly subjective, but I hope I’ve accounted for idiosyncrasies in the rankings in which teams are dragged down (or up) by the strength of their leagues.

ECNL DEVELOPMENT ACADEMY (yes, get over it and merge — and yes, YSR’s rankings are muddled here because of a lack of data points comparing these teams to others)

  • Arlington (DA)
  • D.C. United (DA)
  • Loudoun Soccer (DA)
  • McLean (ECNL)
  • Virginia Development Academy (DA)

At this level, traveling a bit farther makes sense. The rest of the current Mid-Atlantic DA  (Baltimore Armour, Bethesda, Lehigh Valley United, PA Classics) and other nearby ECNL programs (Baltimore Celtic, Maryland United) can be reached with an easy day trip.

We won’t have traditional promotion/relegation here because this league will have different standards than others, and each club will have its teams evaluated by a combined U.S. Soccer/ECNL staff. But any team that is clearly overmatched at this level, it’ll be asked to drop down at that particular age group, even if other teams in that club (in other age groups) remain in the ECNLDA. I’ve done this here with Braddock Road, whose results in and out of ECNL do not indicate a competitive team.

We’ll have one more level with medium-range travel.

EDP D.C. METRO REGIONAL 

  • Doradus Barca Elite (#2 YSR, #4 EDP, #4 NCSL-1, State Cup R16)
  • Alexandria Red (#3 YSR, #2 CCL-P, State Cup QF)
  • Lee Mount Vernon Patriots Red (#4 YSR, #6 CCL-P, State Cup QF)
  • DC Stoddert Blue Metros (#6 YSR, #8 CCL-P)
  • Arlington Red (#12 YSR, #4 CCL-P, State Cup QF)
  • Loudoun Red (#9 YSR, #10 CCL-P, State Cup QF)
  • Stafford Soccer Revolution Blue (#15 YSR, #3 VPL)
  • Annandale United/Villarreal Academy (#10 YSR, #2 VPL, Club Cup champion)

Those eight teams will combine with similar teams in Maryland, with yearlong standings. At least, at U14 — above that, you run into the problem of Virginia playing its public school soccer season in the spring while Maryland and most others play in the fall.

The champion is the non-ECNLDA D.C. metro area champion. (Maybe they could even play some games with ECNLDA teams in the spring season.)

No club can have more than one team in this division or the one beneath it. We want to encourage clubs to use club passes, and it pretty much defeats the purpose if you have multiple teams in the upper tiers.

The bottom Virginia team from this league is relegated to …

NORTHERN VIRGINIA PREMIER LEAGUE

  • Herndon Ciclones Black (#16 YSR, #16 CCL-P, State Cup R16)
  • Fredericksburg FC Black (#20 YSR, #12 CCL-P, State Cup R16)
  • SYA Cardinals Red (#25 YSR, #14 CCL-P, State Cup R16)
  • Capital FC Red, formerly Diplomats (#19 YSR, #1 EDP-4)
  • FCSC United Black (#29 YSR, #4 CCL-C)
  • McLean Green (#26 YSR, #3 CCL-C, State Cup runner-up but may have sent many players to ECNL – Jaime Moreno is the coach!)
  • Great Falls Reston Elite NPL (#30 YSR, #5 VPL, Club Cup PI)
  • NVSC CCL (#36 YSR, #11 CCL-P, State Cup R16)

The distances here aren’t too bad, though we have some 70-mile drives and might need to think about moving Culpeper, Fredericksburg and FCSC (Fauquier County) to other regions, perhaps with the opportunity to move into EDP. Below this level, as we draw the leagues more locally, teams from this clubs won’t be in the NoVa league.

These top tiers will only have eight teams playing seven games per season. That should give them plenty of time to play tournaments and showcases.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA LEAGUE ONE

  • Lee Mount Vernon White (#43 YSR, #2 CCL-C)
  • Arlington White (#38 YSR, #1 CCL-C)
  • Vienna Red (#31 YSR, #6 VPL)
  • Virginia SA NPL (#32, #9 VPL)
  • Barca Academy NoVa Blue (#28 YSR, #9 EDP-1)
  • Loudoun Black (#42 YSR, #6 CCL-C)
  • DC Stoddert Red Metros (#35 YSR, #7 CCL-C)
  • Doradus Barca Premier (#36 YSR, #4 NCSL-4)

The Barca team is tough to judge because it has been routed in its league games, and it has also chose too high of a level in tournament play so far. Its ranking reflects the strength of opposition. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt in placing it here.

The Doradus team is one of those that plays low-level league play but does quite well in tournaments.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA LEAGUE TWO

  • Cougars Youth Club Olympiakos (#53 YSR, #1 ODSL)
  • Chantilly YA Purple (#44 YSR, #8 VPL)
  • FC Virginia United Elite (#48 YSR, #10 VPL)
  • Team America Academy (#49 YSR, #9 NCSL-1, State Cup R16)
  • FPYC Blue (#51 YSR, #7 NCSL-1)
  • FC Dulles Gold (#53 YSR, #5 NCSL-4)
  • McLean White (#58 YSR, #1 NCSL-3)
  • Burke Fusion Blue (#64 YSR, #3 NCSL-3)

The FC Dulles team is another tournament overachiever.

I happen to have reffed a game with Olympiakos. They’re one of those teams playing in (and dominating) ODSL because the club isn’t in a higher league, and they’re doing well with an ambitious tournament schedule.

One more eight-team division …

NORTHERN VIRGINIA LEAGUE THREE

  • DC Stoddert White Metros (#73 YSR, #10 NCSL-1)
  • Annandale Villarreal Yellow (#61 YSR, #1 NCSL-4)
  • NVSC CCL II (#63 YSR, #5 CCL-C)
  • SYC Lions Blue (#55 YSR, #12 VPL)
  • PWSI Pre Academy NPL (#59 YSR, #11 VPL)
  • Real World FC Scorpions (#65 YSR, #8 NCSL-4)
  • Premier AC Navy (#86 YSR, #3 NCSL-2)
  • Leesburg Infinity (#79 YSR, #4 NCSL-2)

As mentioned above, I’ve started skipping teams from farther out — in this case, Fredericksburg SC Vasquez Academy and Winchester Orange.

We’ve now accounted for all of the CCL Premiership and VPL teams. The remaining CCL-Championship teams, EDP team and ECNL team might disagree, but we’re getting to the point at which most of these teams have smaller ambitions, so we’re going to have more league games on the assumption that these teams will not go to as many tournaments. This should create a cheaper price point.

I’m going now by league affiliation rather than rankings, which are splitting hairs at this point, and I can attest there’s still a gap between the typical NCSL Division 2 team and NCSL Division 5.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA LEAGUE FOUR

  • Braddock Road ECNL
  • Barca Academy NoVa Yellow (EDP-4)
  • Herndon Ciclones White (CCL-2)
  • SYA Cardinals White (CCL-2)
  • Alexandria White (NCSL-2)
  • VSA Select Red (NCSL-2)
  • Arlington Blue (NCSL-2)
  • Chantilly Gold (NCSL-2)
  • SYC Lions Orange (NCSL-3)
  • Great Falls Reston Napoli (NCSL-3)
  • Vienna White (NCSL-3)

NORTHERN VIRGINIA LEAGUE FIVE

  • Loudoun White (NCSL-4)
  • Sterling Black Lions (NCSL-4)
  • Lee Mount Vernon Patriots Blue (NCSL-5)
  • SYC Lions Blue (NCSL-5)
  • Alexandria Blue (NCSL-5)
  • Chantilly Black (NCSL-5)
  • Vienna White (NCSL-5)
  • FPYC Gold (NCSL-5)
  • Premier AC White (NCSL-5)
  • Braddock Road United (ODSL)
  • PWSI Challenge (ODSL)

Now we’re going to get regional and “recreational,” though we’ll still have promotion and relegation opportunities. We’ll start adding in the SFL (recreational) teams here as well as teams from the two non-SFL clubs — Arlington (15 teams) and Vienna (five — they have 10 in a combined U13/U14 league, so divide in half).

SFL has two divisions, with the top one smaller than the second.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA DEVELOPMENTAL 1-WEST

  • Loudoun Gray (ODSL)
  • Virginia Revolution WLFC United (ODSL)
  • PWSI Classic (NCSL-6)
  • Loudoun Silver (NCSL-6)
  • Great Falls Reston 1 (SFL-1)
  • Herndon 4 (SFL-1)
  • FPYC 2 (SFL-1)
  • NVSC 6 (SFL-1)
  • NVSC 5 (SFL-1)
  • Sterling 1 (SFL-1)
  • PWSI 3 (SFL-1)
  • Herndon 1 (SFL-1)

NORTHERN VIRGINIA DEVELOPMENTAL 1-EAST

  • Alexandria Black (ODSL)
  • Capital FC White (NCSL-6)
  • Annandale 1 (SFL-1)
  • Springfield 1 (SFL-1)
  • Annandale 2 (SFL-1)
  • Gunston 1 (SFL-1)
  • Top four from Arlington
  • Top two from Vienna

Beyond that, we have:

  • 11 more from Arlington
  • 3 more from Vienna
  • 10 more from SFL-1
  • 32 from SFL-2

So that’s probably two more tiers of three regional divisions each.

Over time, some of the SFL teams would probably work their way up into League Five. Other teams would be relegated — and this might keep them together. It’s frustrating to be the bottom team in a travel league with nowhere to go but splitsville.

The teams at the top divisions will always have an eye out for good players. Clubs will promote from within — perhaps a player on the FPYC Developmental 1 team will move up to League Five or even League Two.

Beyond that, kids can play with their friends and find their level. All without breaking the bank.

(Now all we need is field space.)

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