This page has a rough hierarchy of youth soccer in the United States.
The Hot Topic Guide has a history of how we got here.
The Club Directory is an effort to collect all clubs that play at what could be called an “elite” level. Over time, the page will link out to other clubs and leagues as well.
Is this free?
Yes, but I wouldn’t object if you’d like to chip in a few dollars to say thanks for the years of research that have gone into this.
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You may also consider buying my book on the earliest ages of youth soccer, Single-Digit Soccer. It’s one of the six books I’ve written — five on soccer, one that’s part MMA and part personal memoir.
I’m also going to put in a couple of ads (served by WordAds, so please don’t blame me if it’s something obnoxious):
What does this mean for parents?
This information may help you pick a club for your kids …
Please don’t rule out a club because it’s not “elite.” Plenty of clubs that don’t play in national or regional leagues have good coaches and can develop players to play in college and elsewhere.
The questions parents can and should ask are:
- You want us to travel HOW far? Why?
- Will your coaches make the game fun for my kid and/or develop him/her for high school, college and even beyond?
- Is this league really more competitive than the one we just left?
- Do I have any other options?
We can answer the fourth question. Yes. The flipside of the chaotic, cluttered U.S. youth soccer scene is that you can shop around if you start to wonder why you’re paying $2,000 to drive your kids 200 miles round-trip to play one game that may or may not be competitive.
We can also answer the third question to an extent. That’s the purpose of this page.
The second question will require some research of your own. A club’s website should include lists of alumni that have gone on to college and beyond. (If you run a club that does not have this information, may I suggest you consider my consulting business, Soccer Site Doctor?) Whether it’s fun is something you’ll need to ask other parents in your town.
The first question is something you need to ask your coach. When he or she (sadly, we don’t have enough “shes” in this sport) answers, you can use these pages to verify whatever you hear in response.
Things for parents to consider
- A club that has teams in the ECNL, MLS Next or the Girls Academy (GA) won’t necessarily have better coaches at that top level than another club has. You’ll have even less of a guarantee that the coaches of the B, C, D and E teams are better than the coaches elsewhere.
- Plenty of kids who are in a lower-tier league at age 9, 10 or 12 end up playing in top-flight leagues when it matters for college recruitment and State Cups. Kids hit puberty and change. Sometimes, the light just comes on. Sometimes, all the kids who were the big dogs at age 10 really weren’t all that interested in soccer and were just more athletic at an early age, and they may end up focusing on basketball or lacrosse. And sometimes, the coaches totally botched the tryouts at age 10.
- No player ever learned to play soccer in a car or a plane. To paraphrase Yoda, travel not make one great.
- Guaranteed: Every low-cost, low-travel league has a couple of teams that could run some self-appointed “elite” teams off the field.
With all those disclaimers in mind …
DEVELOPMENT ACADEMY, 2007-2020
This is a program U.S. Soccer established to find the best of the best and herd them into clubs that meet the highest criteria for facilities and coaching. These clubs played in their own league and only in their own league, with rare exceptions for prestigious tournaments. The boys DA debuted in 2007 and includes teams from nearly every Major League Soccer club (Toronto FC, obviously based in Canada, has a slightly different program) and several other pro clubs. The girls DA debuted in 2017.
The DA had a few controversial rules, including banning its players from high school play unless they had a waiver from a private school saying, “Look, USSF, we gave this kid preferential admission and/or a scholarship to play for our soccer team, so let him play.” (Well, technically, they said it wasn’t a “ban” — you just couldn’t play high school soccer while you’re playing for the DA. That’s a bit like saying you’re not “banned” from cheating on your biology midterm — you’ll just be kicked out of school.)
For the most part, players in the DA had an inside track on pro and college opportunities. But competition was a little uneven. In the boys league, most MLS-affiliated academies were free, so they had a bit of a recruiting advantage. The girls league didn’t manage to capture many of the country’s top clubs, and the ranks were filled with some clubs that couldn’t keep up. Other academy clubs’ parents paid an awful lot of money to travel and get beaten by MLS academies or other big clubs, but they could honestly claim the experience is “elite,” whether they were doing so because they wanted their kids to have soccer opportunities or whether they just wanted neighborhood bragging rights.
NATIONAL LEAGUES NOW
The order here IS not meant to imply a hierarchy
MLS Academy: The Development Academy disbanded in 2020. Major League Soccer immediately formed its own academy league, including its own clubs but also dozens more for a total of 95 at the outset. This is for boys only.
Girls Academy (GA) league: Many former DA clubs are putting their girls teams in this new league.
But former DA clubs have another option that pre-dates these leagues …
Elite Clubs National League (ECNL – boys / girls): With no girls’ Academy at the time, U.S. Club Soccer filled the void in 2009 with the ECNL, which mirrored the Academy for the most part but allowed its players to continue to play in high school. When the DA launched a girls’ program, the ECNL fired back by launching a boys’ program.
With the DA gone, both boys and girls teams are splitting between the ECNL and either the MLS academy or the GA. A handful of clubs are entering both.
There’s still another national league of sorts …
U.S. Youth Soccer National League: This one is somewhere between a league and a tournament. Teams have to qualify each year, and they don’t necessarily leave their usual leagues behind.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Again, not a hierarchy
Development Player League (girls): Some DA and ECNL clubs will enter their second or third teams in this league, joining other clubs’ top teams.
ECNL regional leagues (girls): As in the DPL, these leagues are a mix of ECNL clubs’ second teams (and some GA clubs’ second teams) and other clubs’ top teams.
U.S. Youth Soccer regional conferences: Like the National League, these conferences are based on annual qualification.
U.S. Club Soccer or U.S. Youth Soccer: Most of the older travel leagues in the country are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer via the local state associations. U.S. Club Soccer has formed its own leagues in some regions, often under the National Premier Leagues umbrella that leads to national competitions. A typical club will not be one or the other — the club may have some teams in a U.S. Club league, some in a U.S. Youth Soccer league and maybe some in the DA or ECNL.
Many U.S. Youth Soccer leagues maintain parity through promotion and relegation, accommodating very good teams and very not-so-good teams without having a bunch of 15-0 blowouts. Some U.S. Club Soccer leagues also use promotion/relegation, but others are self-defined “elite” leagues in which each team from each member club is assumed to be at the proper level. (See “club-centric scheduling” below.)
In some states, U.S. Club Soccer also runs its own State Cup competitions, so you can have multiple State Cup champions, even in small states. If you find that a bit absurd, you’re not alone — this was an issue in the 2018 U.S. Soccer presidential campaign.
Which, in some cases, has better players than the “travel” leagues
Most clubs, particularly bigger clubs that represent a community, have a recreational league, either in-house or in conjunction with a few neighboring clubs. Usually, these players will be registered with U.S. Youth Soccer, but few people will notice. They’re just signing up to play rec soccer with their local clubs.
But there are two alternatives, depending on your area:
American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO): This large organization started in California in 1964 and spread to many other regions. It has decidedly recreational philosophies — “Balanced Teams” (they’ll redistribute players within leagues in the name of parity) and “Everybody Plays” (all players get at least half the available minutes) — but also has a thorough coaching curriculum and a lot of famous alumni (Landon Donovan, Eric Wynalda, Julie Foudy, etc.).
Soccer Association for Youth (SAY): Started in Cincinnati in 1967 and is not quite as strictly regulated.
Neither organization is completely siloed away from everyone else. Some AYSO regions have travel teams that compete in other organizations’ leagues, and SAY promotes interplay as well.