This page has a rough hierarchy of youth soccer in the United States. It’s also a candid look at that hierarchy, with appropriate skepticism about some ideas.
The Club Directory is an effort to collect all clubs that play at what could be called an “elite” level. The League Directory rounds up leagues across the country. The Hot Topic Guide has a history of how we got here.
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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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.
To show how ridiculous this all is — in other words, how we keep asking parents to drive past neighboring clubs to play clubs much farther away — I’ve made a few maps like this one. It’s a little outdated now, but it’s not as if things have gotten any better:
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, including Major League Soccer 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. 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, which was playing catch-up with the better-established ECNL, 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 was “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.
As you can imagine, COVID-19 wreaked havoc with the debut seasons of MLS Next and the GA, so it’s difficult to assess where they stand.
MLS Next: When the DA disbanded. Major League Soccer immediately formed its own academy league, including its own clubs but also dozens more. 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 DA at the time, US Club Soccer filled the void in 2009 with the ECNL, which mirrored the DA 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.
These leagues aren’t “national” in the sense of a professional league in which teams travel all over the country. Competition takes place in regional clusters. In an area like Southern California, clubs barely have to travel for the bulk of their games; clubs in the Rockies have a bit farther to go.
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. Teams typically meet at neutral sites and knock out three games in a weekend.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Again, not a hierarchy
Development Player League (girls): Officially the second tier for the GA, so GA clubs will enter their second teams while some other clubs enter their top teams.
Elite Academy League (boys): Similar function to the DPL.
ECNL regional leagues (boys / 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. The boys competition is new in 2020-21. Some of these leagues are integrated with National Premier Leagues (see below), and some are more selective than others.
U.S. Youth Soccer regional conferences: Like the National League, these conferences are based on annual qualification. The qualification system varies wildly by region. Several conferences are grafted on top of regional leagues, such as the Maine-to-Virginia EDP. Some conferences have teams from fewer than 20 clubs; some have teams from more than 40.
US Club Soccer or U.S. Youth Soccer travel leagues: Most of the older travel leagues in the country are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer via the local state associations. US Club Soccer (yes, they omit the dots in “US”) 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 US Club league, some in a U.S. Youth Soccer league and maybe some in the GA, MLS Next 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 US Club Soccer leagues also use promotion/relegation, but others are self-defined “elite” leagues with rigid membership.
Some leagues in each organization are “club-centric” or use “club-vs.-club” scheduling, in which Club A fields a team in each age group against Club B’s team in each age group. The idea is that parents can take their kids to the same place on the same day. That assumes, though, that the kids are on the same level — all on their respective “A” teams if the club enters its top teams, or maybe all of the club’s “B” or even “C” teams for clubs that enter many leagues. Parents may also have one kid playing at 8 a.m. and another at 4 p.m., so they spend their whole day four hours away from home. The “club-centric” model is really designed for technical directors who want to see their teams in the same place, which means they’re focusing all their attention on that level and not the other teams in each age group.
In some states, US 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 the name of the national organization. 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.