You want us to travel HOW far? Why?
Is this league really more competitive than the one we just left?
Do I have any other options?
We can answer the third 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.
And the whole point of the Ranting Soccer Dad to Youth Soccer is to help parents make informed decisions. That means we’re going to have candid discussions about all these leagues and some of the clubs. If it’s a little too candid for you (or, worse, inaccurate or outdated, or if you just have more information to share), please contact Ranting Soccer Dad.
Most of the guide and a lot of the discussion about it will be available only on the Ranting Soccer Dad Patreon page. The exception is the D.C. metro area, which is free here so you’ll have an idea of what I’m doing. RantingSoccerDad.com will have updates so you’ll know when your area is available.
The area guides are designed to give some specific info for each region — in some cases, a state; in others, a metro area. But we’ll have some nationwide basics and common themes, especially a guide to the legendary alphabet soup of national organizations:
Development Academy: 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 play in their own league and only in their own league, with rare exceptions for prestigious tournaments. The boys’ Academy 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’ Academy debuted in 2017.
The DA has a few controversial rules, including banning its players from high school play unless they have 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 say it’s not a “ban” — you just can’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, boys in the DA have an inside track on pro and college opportunities. But competition is a little uneven. Most MLS-affiliated academies are free, so they have a bit of a recruiting advantage. Other academy clubs’ parents pay an awful lot of money to travel and get beaten by MLS academies, but they can honestly claim the experience is “elite,” whether they’re doing so because they want their kids to have soccer opportunities or whether they just want neighborhood bragging rights. (And make no mistake — the training is generally superb, or else the coaches will hear about it from above.) DA clubs will be mentioned in each area guide, but U.S. Soccer also puts up helpful maps for the DA’s various age groups: U12, U13/U14, U15 and higher.
The girls’ Academy (see the map) includes most National Women’s Soccer League clubs and a couple of MLS clubs. It’s newer, so it’s not quite as entrenched as the boys’ Academy and perhaps not as far along as the …
Elite Clubs National League (ECNL): 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, it’s fair to say things got a little tense. And the ECNL fired back by launching a boys’ program. We’ll have to see how this plays out, but just remember that we have two national leagues for the best of the best.
U.S. Youth Soccer National League: OK, three national leagues. But 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. In the area guides, we’re going to ignore this league and the related regional leagues because their composition changes each year.
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. 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.
American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) or Soccer Association for Youth (SAY): 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. AYSO is the bigger one, starting in California in 1964 and spreading 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.). 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.
The area guides will let you know if there’s an AYSO or SAY presence. You can also assume there’s a U.S. Youth Soccer-affiliated club with a rec league nearby. They even have a directory to help you find one.
“Club-centric” scheduling: This concept sounds logical. Rather than having a club’s many teams in many age groups scattered across whatever region its primary league may cover on a typical Saturday or Sunday, the league schedules “club vs. club.” Club A brings its top teams, U9 (or U11 or whatever constitutes the bottom end) through U19, to visit Club B. This way, the club’s technical staff can see all the top teams in one place. (Well, maybe two — assuming the clubs have both boys and girls teams, they’ll need more than one field to get all the games done in one day. And U9s, U11s and U13s all play on different-sized fields anyway.)
It’s sold to parents as a convenient way of dealing with multiple kids. “Sure, you’re driving 200 miles one way, but you can see Suzie play at 11 a.m. and Bobby at 2 p.m., and you don’t have to travel in between!”
But what if Suzie’s on the A team and Bobby’s on the B team? Or what if Suzie’s game is at 8 a.m. and Bobby’s is at 5 p.m., forcing you to spend all day a couple hundred miles from home?
And what if your team isn’t competitive in this league? You can’t be relegated to a lower division where you’ll get better games. So instead, a lot of players quit and go elsewhere, and the team likely gets worse.
Some parents swear by club-centric scheduling, though. In many cases, they’re the ones whose kids are always on the A team and never getting blown out, but then those families are being scooped up by the Development Academy and the ECNL. In fact, some clubs are now putting their A teams in the DA or ECNL, leaving their B teams in the club-centric league. Now what?
“Elite” leagues in general: One unintended consequence of the DA and the ECNL is that they’ve accelerated the arms race in youth soccer. Clubs are scrambling to join “elite” league to bolster the perception that they can still get your kid into college soccer. In some cases, it’s nothing more than perception. The club is desperate to avoid being left behind. The league needs more numbers — and maybe the last-place teams need someone to beat. So the league expands to include that club.
Sometimes, the arms race “winners” really are the best clubs. Their coaches might not be happy about being forced to leave their local leagues, but they figure that’s the way the game is played, and they have to play it.
HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE AND FIND THE BEST FIT
You may be tempted to look at this directory of leagues and aim to put your kids in the “top,” most competitive leagues.
Don’t. Please. Unless that’s the best fit.
- A club that has teams in the Development Academy or ECNL 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 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.
So this is not a ranking of leagues. By no means am I saying any league is better than another league, and I am definitely not saying one is better than another for your kid.
And sometimes, you’ll stress yourself out over these decisions, only to melt when your child walks off the soccer field with a smile.
This guide will help you make an informed decision, but it can’t make that decision for you. Your child’s face may provide the last word.