DA vs. ECNL and the Alphabet Soup of Soccer

UPDATE:

As of 4/15/2020, US Soccer terminated the Development Academy for both boys and girls. US Soccer indicated that the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have created a financial situation that makes continuation of the DA impossible.

As of 5/16/2020, the post-DA youth soccer landscape is starting to come into focus. On the girls side, about 1/3 of the former DA clubs have jumped over to ECNL, while most of the remaining former DA clubs have joined the newly formed Girls Academy League (GA).

As background, the GA is a new platform launched by the Development Player League (DPL). The DPL was formed in 2017 by the Southwest Division DA clubs as sort of a second level league. Details about the Girls Academy League are still somewhat scarce, but it will have 7 regional conferences. The GA is also addressing two of the biggest complaints about DA in that they have stated their intention to allow high school play and include a more lenient substitution policy.

On the boys side, about 1/2 of the former DA clubs have joined the Boys ECNL, while the other 1/2 have committed to the MLS Academy. As of this writing, the MLS Academy currently has 95 total club commitments.

On May 15, 2020, MLS announced a partnership with US Youth Soccer. The intent is to create a single pathway for all players (boys and girls) through the gauntlet of youth soccer. MLS will leverage the infrastructure of USYS for its MLS Academy, while USYS will benefit from the reputation (and money) of MLS. One of the goals of the partnership is to ensure that every player has equal opportunity. MLS intends to subsidize regional events to eliminate cost considerations and counteract the pay for play model.

One of the big questions with respect to the new partnership is whether MLS will have the money to realize their lofty goals. While MLS has solidified itself as a going concern over the past several years. The current situation is certainly creating a strain for the organization, as evidenced by the proposed 20% pay cut for the current players (which has since been dropped to a 10% proposal). The ultimate effect of the COVID-19 shut down remains to be seen.

At this point, the youth soccer world remains in flux. It appears that we may end up with a split upper tier for both boys (MLS Academy and Boys ECNL) and girls (ECNL and GA). It may be a while before this plays out. In the meantime, if you want to learn how to find a little more information on specific teams and clubs, take a look at my post on Best Youth Soccer Rankings Websites.

For the updated version of this post click on ECNL vs. GA and MLS Next – Which Soccer League is the Best?

Stay Tuned!

The Original Post Follows:

Starting at about the U13 age group, high level soccer players will likely be faced with a number of options to choose from for continuing their accelerated soccer development.  But, determining which of these options is best for a particular player can be very difficult and confusing. Should he/she pick DA or ECNL (click here to jump to a summary chart comparing DA vs. ECNL)? What about National League or NPL?

US Soccer Pyramid

To sort out this somewhat tangled web of possible pathways to soccer greatness, let’s start at the top of the American soccer pyramid – the US Soccer Federation.    The US Soccer Federation is the governing body for soccer in the United States.

Directly under the US Soccer Federation are the following tier 1 programs: (1) Major League Soccer (MLS); (2) National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL); (3) US Men’s National Team (USMNT); and (4) US Women’s National Team (USWNT).  

The next tier consists of the United Soccer League (USL) for men and the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) for women. Then, there are a myriad of pro and semi-pro leagues.  

But, the focus of this post will be on the youth soccer programs below all of the pro and semi-pro leagues.  Youth soccer programs are divided into four primary categories:

US Soccer Pyramid Diagram
US Soccer Pyramid

Let’s start at the youngest ages and work our way up.  From about ages U5 to U8, soccer players will likely only have recreational league opportunities.  Recreational leagues are usually organized locally (meaning they are not within any of the 4 centralized categories above).  Many recreational leagues will have divisions all the way up through high school.

Beginning with age U9 (approximately), you will likely have access to local competitive leagues (see When to Start Formal Soccer Training for a discussion of the differences between recreational and competitive soccer).  These leagues will usually be governed by their respective US Soccer State Associations, which are in turn governed by USYS.  Local competitive leagues will likely have divisions all the way up through high school as well. 

Beginning with age U13, regional and national competitive opportunities become available for the highest level players.  This is where it starts to get confusing. Here are the regional and national league options at this age:

Let’s look at these leagues individually.

National League

Like most local competitive leagues, the National League ultimately falls under USYS, so there is a natural flow from local competition to regional competition.  The National League has 13 regional Conferences. Teams earn their way into their Conferences based on success in competitive opportunities within their respective US Youth Soccer State Associations.   

Each Conference will have a top (Premier I) Division and will likely have additional Divisions (Premier II Division, First Division).  Promotion and relegation will occur among the Divisions based on records at the end of each soccer season.


Teams in Premier I can qualify for the four US Youth Soccer Regional Championships. Champions of the Regional Championships can compete for the right to call themselves the National Champion in their age group in the US Youth Soccer National Championships which take place sometime in July.

Starting at the U14 age group, teams in Premier I can also qualify for participation in the next season’s National League — which is a higher tier than the individual Conferences.  Unlike the individual Conferences in which travel is regional, the locations for the National League events can involve significant travel. Teams in the National League can qualify directly to the US Youth Soccer National Championships without going through the Regional Championships.

The National League just recently started a club vs. club division. The intent is to match the best clubs (as opposed to just the best teams) against each other across multiple age groups. This creates a structure more like ECNL in that it becomes a club commitment as opposed to an individual team commitment. Like the top teams in Premier I, the top teams in the club vs. club division will qualify for the Regional Championships.

National Premier League

The National Premier League falls within US Club Soccer.  There are 19 somewhat regional member leagues in the NPL. The NPL is a club commitment.  In other words, if a club wants to participate in the NPL, they must put a team in at every age group.  This is different than the National League in which individual teams qualify. There are certain fairly low minimum standards that must be maintained to qualify as a member club.

The NPL offers Showcase events and a playoff system for the top teams in each NPL member league.  Finally, there is also a higher tier of competition which is called the Elite National Premier League (ENPL) – which mirrors the National League mentioned above – with a more national scope with respect to competition and travel.

Girl throwing the ball in.
Throw In

ECNL

Elite Clubs National League is also sanctioned by US Club Soccer.  Originally, ECNL was formed specifically for the elite female players, but now ECNL has a boys side as well.  There are currently 8 regionally based conferences. Like the NPL, the ECNL is a club commitment and each club must maintain fairly high standards with respect to facilities and coaching.

The ECNL also offers (and, in some cases, requires) several Showcase events throughout the year.  Additionally, there are a couple of different levels of end of year playoffs for which teams may qualify.

Recently, the ECNL has expanded to include ECNL Regional Leagues.  Currently, there are 7 different ECNL Regional Leagues which are intended for a lower level of competition – much like Conferences in the National league.  Club standards are generally a bit lower for qualification into ECNL Regional Leagues. Teams from the ECNL Regional Leagues can qualify for playoff events which would allow them to advance and play the higher level ECNL “national” level teams.  As of now, ECNL Regional Leagues are not being used as qualification leagues into the ENCL “national” league, but that could happen in the future.

Check out this interview on Top Drawer Soccer with Christian Lavers, the President of ECNL (starting at the 6:36 mark). Lavers discusses the boys ECNL, the future of the ECNL in general and why he thinks the structure is better than the Development Academy. Good stuff!

Development Academy

Finally, the Development Academy is directly under US Soccer.  Originally, the DA was for male teams only, but has since been expanded to include a female division.  The standards for being accepted as a club into the Development Academy are very high. The intent of the DA is to develop players at the highest level in preparation for professional soccer careers and national team participation.  Like the previous structures, there are three conferences (and two or three divisions within each conference) to make travel somewhat easier. There is also a playoff system at the end of the year.

The Development Academy has very strict rules about the amount of practices per week, the types and amounts of tournaments and participation in sports outside of the Development Academy.  Perhaps the most impactful and controversial rule of the DA is that, as long as a player is in the DA, the player cannot play high school soccer. 

DA vs. ECNL

DAECNL
Elite CompetitionYesGirls: Yes
Boys: Not Yet
High Level RefereesYesYes
High Level RecruitingYesYes
Practices4x / week
4:1 ratio vs. games
3x / week
(suggested)
Other SportsNot AllowedAllowed
High School SoccerNot AllowedAllowed
Coaching CurriculumUS Soccer FederationClub Driven
Showcase / Tournaments5 (including playoffs)7 (including playoffs)
Other EventsDA OnlyOther Events Allowed
FocusUS National TeamsCollege Placement
Substitutions7 / game
No re-entry in same game (except U13 and U14)
7 / half
No re-entry in same half

Which option is best?

Interestingly, if you look at the mission statement of each of these organizations, you will find that they’re nearly identical.  So, the big question is: with all of these different structures, which structure is the best? The answer really depends on your ultimate goal with respect to soccer.  

High School Soccer

If the ultimate goal is to play high school soccer, but there is no intent to play at the collegiate level or higher, the Conferences of the National League or the NPL would likely be sufficient.  With respect to those leagues, the competition level is sufficiently high and the commitment is much lower as far as time and travel. However, the step up National League and the ENPL probably do not offer much more than the Conferences or the NPL, so the benefits of making those leagues is marginal while the increased investment is substantial.

College Soccer

If the ultimate goal is to play in college, the answer is fairly clear on the female side — ECNL.  While, in comparison to the National League or the NPL, the level of commitment is much higher and the rules are a little more strict, the competition level is extremely high and the women’s ECNL events are well-attended by top college scouts and coaches.  The organization of the league is top notch and exposure is assured. ECNL Regional Leagues are still fairly new, but with the same governing organization, there will likely be significant college exposure at that level as well.

As an example, a friend of mine who has a daughter playing at the step-up National League level related a story to me recently of their experience at a National League event in Florida.  Apparently, there was an ECNL event also in Florida at the same time. While the ECNL event attracted a very large number of college scouts, the National League event was, unfortunately, sparsely attended.  ECNL is clearly the preferred format for top colleges.

On the male side, the best option is probably the DA.  The DA is well-established while the male division of the ECNL is still relatively new.  Again, the competition level is extremely high, and high level college coaches and scouts scour DA events.  Unfortunately, as mentioned, the restrictive rules do not allow players to play high school soccer, which can be a deal breaker for some.  Also, given the high standards that must be maintained by member clubs, the DA can be prohibitively expensive. Finally, the level of commitment in the DA is extremely high due to the required training sessions involved.

Professional Soccer

If the ultimate goal is to play professionally, ECNL on the girls side and DA on the boys side are probably still the best choices.  Currently, the easiest path to professional women’s soccer is still through the college ranks, so leveraging the ECNL through college works best.  On the boys side, a direct path through the DA to a professional club is becoming the norm. Male players may still be able to make it through the college level to professional, but the preference for a direct route is becoming more and more pronounced.  

Finally, if the ultimate goal is to play on the national team, the DA is the best route for both male and female players.  Since the DA is run directly by US Soccer, the DA events are heavily scouted by national team talent identification personnel.  

Many Different Paths

Please keep in mind that I’ve presented the “best” options for the various goals above.  That is not to say that college/professional/national team players cannot or will not come from National League or NPL teams — or even local competitive or high school teams.   The US Soccer structure is a tangled web of organizations; and I have seen various level scouts at all sorts of different events. If your player is not able to make an ECNL or DA team, don’t give up! Who knows where your soccer journey is going to take you, but it will be fun finding out!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *