What is this? See About the Area Guides.

The nation’s capital is an unusual place. Everyone here is from somewhere else, lured here to work for or near the government and tangentially related lobbying, legal, accounting and tech firms. A lot of those firms are well outside the geographically confined District of Columbia, stretching along the tentacles of various spurs off the Beltway. (The joke about my old employer, USA TODAY, is that we wanted to get outside the Beltway, and we made it by about 100 feet.)

The District itself has a few underserved neighborhoods. Soccer is making progress there, thanks to organizations like DC Scores and the actual in-town clubs — D.C. Stoddert, Soccer on the Hill, Capital FC and Washington Soccer Club.

Around the District, the region is diverse. Some might say “chaotic.” Parents in the wealthy, well-educated, workaholic suburbs tend to be ambitious. They want their kids in the best clubs.

How can many different clubs claim to be the best? Simple! Just form a bunch of different leagues so you’re not playing each other on a regular basis. You might think your kid is at the top of the pack in Arlington, but you may never get to see Prince William play, so how would you know?

And because a lot of people in this region tend to be peripatetic (they’re military or State Department or World Bank or some sort of job that asks them to relocate frequently), they don’t have a lot of local knowledge.

This is the first area guide I’m doing for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is the height of “elite league” absurdity and confusion, for all the reasons given above.
  2. I live here, so I know tons of parents who’ve been through all this.

I’m not going to focus too much on the talent-rich Baltimore area until I do the Maryland guide, but given the one-hour drive between D.C. and Charm City, there’s going to be some overlap. If you live along I-95 in Maryland, chances are pretty good a “Baltimore” club, particularly one in the southern suburbs, will be worth considering.

One complication in the area is high school soccer scheduling. Virginia public schools play in the spring. Private schools and Maryland public schools play in the fall. Fortunately, the region has far too many travel players to be accommodated on high school rosters, so there’s always a league to play in.

Into the abyss:

CLUBS COMPETING NATIONALLY (league assignments of 2017-18)

About the Development Academy, ECNL and other competitions

Arlington Soccer Association (Arlington, Va.): Just across the Potomac from D.C. It’s the dominant club in one of the largest and most soccer-crazed suburbs, with sprawling travel and rec programs. Boys’ DA: U12, U14

Baltimore Armour (Ellicott City, Md.): A small, young program drawing from a couple of feeder clubs and partnering with Under Armour, the clothing company that has become the dominant Baltimore brand. It also partners with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit for one of the Spirit’s two girls’ DA operations. Boys’ DA: all ages. Girls’ DA (partner). 

Baltimore Celtic (Baltimore, Md.): Broke away from traditional power Baltimore Bays, which had been in the Development Academy. Four U.S. Youth Soccer national championships, all since 2014. Boys’ ECNL.

Bethesda Soccer Club (Bethesda, Md.): Traditional power from northwest suburbs. Alumni: Andi Sullivan, Jeremy Ebobisse. Boys’ DA: all ages. Girls’ ECNL.

Braddock Road Youth Club (Burke, Va.): The traditional power (Hamm, U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis, several other prominent women of the 90s) was the first Virginia club to enter the boys’ ECNL. Two U.S. Youth Soccer national titles in the 2010s. Boys’ ECNL. Girls’ ECNL.

D.C. United (Washington, D.C.): The Major League Soccer club has several secondary teams in local leagues in addition to its academy teams. It was ahead of other MLS clubs in getting involved in youth soccer but has been running behind in making its programs free. The new stadium might help. Alumni: Bill Hamid, Andy Najar (Honduras), Ian Harkes. Boys’ DA: all ages.

FC Virginia (Loudoun County, Va.): A smaller club with a good track record on the girls’ side, rewarded with DA slots for its girls’ teams. Girls’ DA.

Loudoun Soccer (Loudoun County, Va.): The largest club in a fast-growing exurban county. Won first U.S. Youth Soccer national title in 2016. Boys’ DA: U12, U14

Maryland United (Bowie, Md.): A small club with elite teams. Boys’ ECNL. Girls’ ECNL.

McLean Youth Soccer (McLean, Va.): A traditional power from a close-in suburb that has been in, out and back into the DA. Boys are joining the ECNL in 2018. Won second U.S. Youth Soccer national title in 2016. Alumni: Andi Sullivan. Boys’ DA: U12. Girls’ ECNL.

Richmond United (Richmond, Va.): Another hybrid, drawing the top players from the strong Richmond Kickers and Richmond Strikers clubs. Not quite in the D.C. area, though maybe someone in the southern exurbs would consider it. Boys’ DA: all ages. Girls’ ECNL.

Virginia Development Academy (Woodbridge, Va.): Yet another collaborative effort, pulling from Prince William Soccer Club, Virginia Soccer Association and Vienna Youth Soccer. (Disclaimer: I live in Vienna, my kids have played in their rec programs and I know a lot of the staff.) VSA had a girls’ team that won two U.S. Youth Soccer national titles in the 2010s. Alumni (Prince William): Ali Krieger, C.J. Sapong. Boys’ DA: U12 through U17. Girls’ DA.

Washington Spirit Academy-Virginia (Fairfax, Va.): See above for the NWSL club’s Maryland program, run in cooperation with Baltimore Armour. This one draws south of the Potomac. They’ve also launched a pre-Academy program in conjunction with the partner, the newly merged Great Falls-Reston club. Girls’ DA.

“ELITE” LEAGUES

Disclaimer: Not all teams in “elite” leagues are actually “elite.” See the “About” page.

We have not one but two “club-centric” leagues — one aligned with U.S. Club Soccer and one not.

Club Champions League (CCL) has some of the area’s biggest and most successful clubs (Arlington, Loudoun, McLean). But the notion of “A team” vs. “A team” has taken a hit in recent years as those clubs have entered DA and ECNL play. They brag quite a bit about winning State Cups in Virginia, though the competition is a little diminished with the DA, ECNL and now a new U.S. Club Soccer State Cup. You may also notice that a lot of the State Cup champions are from the three big clubs (Arlington, Loudoun, McLean), but another CCL club occasionally takes the trophy.

It’s still aggressively expanding, adding Alexandria, Herndon and Virginia Rush (Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads) in 2018. The league actually started (in the late 90s) to give southern Virginia clubs good competition, but now most clubs are in the D.C. area.

They don’t have promotion/relegation, but there is a “CCL 2” that includes more teams from some of the full-fledged members plus a couple of additional clubs (Fauquier County SC, Springfield South County YC). By that stage, given some clubs’ DA/ECNL membership, you may be seeing a club’s “C” team.

CCL is also adding a “NextGen” program for U9 and U10 that wouldn’t be limited to existing CCL clubs.

The site posts standings but not scores, which is either a good way to de-emphasize the margin of victory or a way to hide a lack of parity, depending on your point of view.

Virginia Premier League (VPL) is the U.S. Club Soccer answer to CCL. Its clubs weren’t winning quite as many State Cups as CCL, but now they’ve started their own Cup, so that shouldn’t be a problem any more.

VPL is an affiliate of the NPL (you can probably guess what that stands for) and therefore offers a pathway to national U.S. Club competitions.

Three VPL clubs are also partners in the Virginia Development Academy (see above).

Unlike CCL, the VPL makes scores easily accessible on its site so you can see if the VPL team you’re thinking of joining is playing decent competitive games.

But wait, there’s more! Yes, we have a third “elite” league. Well, sort of …

Elite Development Program (EDP) has promotion/relegation (or at least tiers into which they sort their incoming teams) and doesn’t have club-centric scheduling. It couldn’t really. Few clubs, at least in metro D.C., have all their teams in EDP. It’s a team here and a team there, often just to find some more competitive games than they’re getting in the local leagues. (Or at least that’s what they’re telling their parents. In some cases, it’s simply not true.)

In the upper age groups, EDP becomes a U.S. Club Soccer National Premier League, like VPL. If you’re in one of those age groups, your travel is going to be considerably greater. Enjoy Manhattan!

Good luck learning much more than that. The site is borderline unnavigable. It’s full of information about showcases and Cups.

But this league has a few advantages over CCL and VPL. If a club happens to have a really good team in a particular age group, it can enter EDP. If it doesn’t, that team can play elsewhere.

The map above is an attempt to capture clubs that are sometimes groups in a “south” division. Because the membership is so variable, the travel requirements are hit-or-miss. You may only have to go from Northern Virginia to Baltimore. Or you may have to go up into Pennsylvania — which, map nerds will note, is still closer than Roanoke or Virginia Beach.

TRADITIONAL LEAGUES 

National Capital Soccer League (NCSL) is the big local league, extending to as many as 10 divisions in any given age group. It merged in the mid-2010s with Washington Area Girls Soccer (WAGS), whose name lives on in a tournament that dates back to 1975.

Until recently, a typical club might have its A and B teams in NCSL and its C and D teams in ODSL. With the elite leagues siphoning off so many teams, some clubs have three or even four teams in NCSL, and they may be C-D-E rather than A-B.

The promotion/relegation system isn’t perfect. They don’t sort boys’ teams until the spring U11 season. Girls wait even longer, until spring U12. That means U9 and U10 aren’t exactly havens of parity. Even after that, the initial sorting is based primarily on the fall season, so a team that has a hot streak or a cold streak may be three or four divisions away from where it really should be playing.

They’ve done better in recent years to mimic some of the “club-centric” scheduling idea, though instead of having one club’s A teams in every age group playing the other club’s A teams, you might see one club’s three U9 teams playing another club’s three U9 teams, back-to-back-to-back.

Still, as the league’s geographic reach extends farther into central Virginia, perhaps it would be better served having a pro/rel pyramid rather than a ladder — one powerful first-tier divisions, two regional second-tier divisions, then perhaps a third and fourth tier that get more and more local. Unfortunately, the time to do that was probably before so many clubs took their A teams elsewhere.

Old Dominion Soccer League (ODSL) has a lot of the bigger clubs’ lower teams, but it also features some surprisingly strong teams from small clubs, often in majority Latino areas, that don’t yet have the resources to join NCSL or one of the elite leagues.

Despite the name, it’s not entirely based in Virginia. It reaches from Charlottesville up into the West Virginia and Maryland mountains, so you may still have some long drives.

It’s also a promotion/relegation league, but it’s considerably smaller, with no more than three divisions per age group.

One neat feature: Teams are allowed to call in recreational players for a taste of travel soccer. (But see SFL below.)

Another: The standings pages include a sportsmanship ranking. A 12.0 is perfect. The top teams in that ranking are often honored at pro games.

DEVELOPMENTAL AND RECREATIONAL LEAGUES

This does not include every club’s recreational or “House” league, which is generally the only option for U8 and under. The larger clubs also have their own recreational leagues from U9 on up.

Maryland/DC

Olney-Bethesda Soccer League (OBSL) and Central Maryland Short Sided League (CMSSL) have joined forces to provide competition for U9s through U12s in Maryland.

Montgomery Soccer Inc. (MSI) offers a “Classic” league that essentially fills the gap between rec and travel in Montgomery County (Rockville, Gaithersburg, Takoma Park, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Germantown, etc.). The site says it’s “select” in the sense that players try out but “house” in the sense that it’s run by volunteers. It runs from U10 on up.

Player Progression Academy (PPA) is somewhere between “club” and “league.” It has travel teams, and it runs a developmental league (tryouts required except at younger ages) that covers D.C. and parts of Maryland.

Soccer Association of Montgomery (SAM) runs recreational and select leagues out of the Maryland SoccerPlex, a giant youth soccer complex in Boyds (just outside Germantown) with a central stadium that hosts Washington Spirit (NWSL) games and other occasional events.

SAY has a D.C. program and is affiliated with the Central Maryland Soccer Association in the Baltimore region.

Virginia

Arlington Development Program (ADP) is run by Arlington Soccer Club (see above) to fill the rec-travel gap in U9 through U11 age groups.

Suburban Friendship League (SFL) has a sturdy membership of 20-some clubs that have banded together to give rec teams in their upper age groups more competition. That’s great news for clubs that may only have 1-2 teams at, say, U16, certainly not enough to host an in-house rec league.

They’re also a sort-of pro/rel league, with two tiers per age group if they have enough teams. The top teams can be quite good, easily on par with or better than lower-tier travel teams.

One issue: The SFL is so strictly recreational that it effectively undercuts the ODSL’s welcoming stance on rec players. If a player plays one travel game during an SFL season, that’s it — no more SFL for you that season.

AYSO has no regions within 35 miles of the capitol. They have a couple of regions in the mountains (mostly West Virginia) and in Hampton Roads, one of which plays travel soccer in Virginia State League.

Something missing? Let me know.