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. Which youth soccer league is the best in the US? Is it The ECNL (Elite Clubs National League)? What about GA (Girls Academy League) for girls or MLS Next for boys? How do National League and NPL fit into all this?
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:
- United States Youth Soccer (USYS);
- US Club Soccer;
- United States Specialty Sports Association Soccer (USSSA); and
- Collegiate Soccer.
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:
- Conferences of the National League;
- National Premier Leagues (NPL);
- Elite Clubs National League (ECNL);
- MLS Next for Boys; and
- Girls Academy League (GA) for Girls.
Let’s look at these leagues individually.
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.
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 (ECRL). 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 ECRL. Teams from the ECRL 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 the best in youth soccer. Good stuff!
MLS Next provides a platform for the highest level of boys soccer starting at the U13 age group and is organized by MLS. MLS Next is partnering with USYS and is essentially a replacement for the now defunct Development Academy (click here to read about the Development Academy and its demise).
MLS Next’s intent is to create a single pathway for boys through the gauntlet of youth soccer. As of today, 489 teams from 113 clubs are participating in MLS Next. The standards for being accepted as a club into the MLS Next are very high. The league is divided into 3 regional conferences and further subdivided into divisions – up to 13 total divisions in some age groups.
The MLS Next structure is still evolving, but it appears that it will have strict rules about the types and amounts of tournaments allowed as well as participation in sports outside of MLS Next. MLS Next is also carrying over perhaps the most impactful and controversial rule of the DA – as long as a player is in MLS Next, the player cannot play high school soccer.
The Girls Academy League (GA) is a new soccer organization for U13 and older girls originally launched by the Development Player League (DPL) in the wake of the DA’s demise. The GA has about 69 clubs divided into 7 regional conferences.
The GA is, essentially, the replacement for the Girls DA, although about 1/3 of the former girls DA clubs actually jumped over to the ECNL rather than joining the GA. The GA has partnered with MLS Next and USYS with the intent of becoming the highest level of youth soccer for girls.
The GA is also addressing two of the biggest complaints about the DA in that they have stated their intention to allow high school play and include a more lenient substitution policy.
The Development Player League is a girls league that was formed as a sort of second level league by and for some of the girls Development Academy clubs prior to the DA’s dissolution. It is sanctioned by the USSSA. The DPL originally formed the GA, but the DPL does not otherwise currently play a big role in the girls soccer world.
MLS Next vs. ECNL vs. GA
(On mobile, scroll right for GA Column)
|Elite Competition||Boys: Yes||Girls: Yes|
|High Level Referees||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|High Level Recruiting||Likely, yes||Yes||Likely, yes|
|Practices||Unclear||3x / week|
|Decided by Individual Club|
|Other Sports||Not Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|High School Soccer||Not Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Coaching Curriculum||Unclear||Club Driven||Club Driven|
|Showcase / Tournaments||Unclear||7 available (including playoffs)||U13-U14 – Summer Playoffs|
U15-U17 – 2 National Events plus Summer Playoffs or Summer Showcase
U19 – 1 National Event plus Summer Playoffs
|Other Events||Other Events Allowed if they follow MLS Next Outside Competition Standards||Other Events Allowed||Unclear|
|Focus||MLS and National Team||College Placement||Unclear other than a replacement for DA (College Placement and National Team)|
|Substitutions||U13 –unlimited over 3 moments per half, plus half time; no re-entry in same half|
U14 – U19 — unlimited over 3 moments plus half time; no re-entry
|7 / half;|
No re-entry in same half
|7 / half;|
No re-entry in same half; 5 total moments plus half time (no more than 3 moments in one 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 soccer league 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, but the commitment is much more manageable 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.
If the ultimate goal is to play in college, the answer is fairly clear on the female side — ECNL. In comparison to the National League or the NPL, the level of commitment is much higher and the rules are a little more strict in the ECNL, but the competition level is higher 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 his 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.
While the GA may rival the ECNL at some point with respect to a college pathway for girls, the GA is too new to get a good read on. Stay tuned as the landscape continues to change.
On the male side, the best option is less clear. Both MLS Next and the male division of ECNL are still relatively new.
The mission of MLS Next is to provide a pathway to pro soccer and the national team. Some of the powers that be in the MLS believe that the pathway does not run through college soccer, so it’s unclear if college soccer will be promoted by MLS Next. Also, as mentioned, the restrictive rules of MLS Next do not allow players to play high school soccer, which can be a deal breaker for some.
The boys side of the ECNL will likely take its lead from the girls side. So, it’s focus will likely be more on college soccer. However, the boys ECNL does not yet have a track record like the girls ECNL.
Both MLS Next and ECNL will have an extremely high level of competition, so either option will likely be good for general soccer development, but, given the high standards that must be maintained by member clubs, they may be prohibitively expensive. Finally, regardless of cost, the level of commitment for both will be extremely high.
If the ultimate goal is to play professionally, ECNL on the girls side and MLS Next on the boys side are probably 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 an MLS Academy to a professional club is becoming the norm, so the MLS Next platform will likely be the best option 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 best options are likely going to be MLS Next for boys and GA for girls. Both of those organizations are partnered with US Youth Soccer and the relationship between US Youth Soccer and the US Soccer Federation appears to be a bit tighter than the relationship between US Club Soccer and the US Soccer Federation. That said the answer is far from clear at this point.
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 MLS Next team, don’t give up! Who knows where your soccer journey is going to take you, but it will be fun finding out!