Commentary

Youth soccer's alphabet soup is running out of letters as championships flood the nation


“National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard of in my life.”

So said Horst Bertl, the Bundesliga champion and Dallas soccer coach who passed away Feb. 6.

This year in particular, Bertl’s sage advice is being discounted. In a landscape that already includes the venerable U.S. Youth Soccer national championships, the MLS Next Cup, U.S. Club Soccer’s National Cup , U.S. Club Soccer’s NPL Finals and the ECNL National Championship, add the oxymoronic ECNL Regional League national championship, the Girls Academy’s Champions League, and the USSSA-affiliated National Competitive Soccer League.

Also, U.S. Youth Soccer is once again revamping its National League, a series of showcase events in which overall standings are kept. This season, USYS launched National League P.R.O., in which teams pick two of three national events and round out their schedules with a “local” game for a total of seven, with top teams qualifying for the already-existing national championships. Next season, USYS will also include the Elite 64, which will have a league schedule of 14 games in addition to a national finals event.

The alphabet soup is running out of letters. The Girls Academy will keep point totals for clubs in its national competition, calling that competition the “Club Champions League,” a name already in use by a league that has added satellite operations from its mid-Atlantic home. The National Competitive Soccer League goes by the abbreviation NCSL, as does the traditional local league in the D.C. metro area. Even the Women’s Independent Soccer League, which is planning to play professionally and affiliate with the neo-NCSL, shares the abbreviation WISL with one of the USA’s past indoor leagues and countless local leagues.

For its part, U.S. Soccer is maintaining its laissez-faire attitude, saying it’s not in the business of telling its members they can’t have national events. It’s hard to blame them for that stance, especially when their legal team has enough on its hands as is. (U.S. Club Soccer is careful not to call its events “national championships” -- their winners are simply the champions of specific competitions that happen to be national in scope.)

But absent any structure or guidance from Soccer House, we have a cluttered and confusing marketplace.

“There are multiple sanctioning bodies that all create a National Championship platform,” said USYS CEO Skip Gilbert. “Add to that, any league can easily create a National Championship tournament, regardless of how many states they actually have teams in. This creates massive confusion with parents and forces all organizations to spend more time recruiting teams and poaching players than focusing on developing players and creating programs that kids will stay in throughout their teenage years.”

One organization is a carryover from the cluttered professional market. The NCSL is affiliated not just with the WISL but also NISA, the pro men’s league trying to get a promotion/relegation pyramid going in the USA. As such, it proposes a “pathway to the pros through the lens of promotion and relegation.” The problem is that it’s clubs, not players, who would be promoted and relegated. A player who has the misfortune of living outside a population area that can sustain a youth club of national ambitions will be stuck in Level 4 of the pyramid, regardless of that player’s talent.

Some of the differences between these entities are philosophical. Some are financial.

“The for-profit faction provides leagues and championships to acquire more market share in order to make more money,” said Dave Guthrie, executive director of Indiana Soccer. “To be fair, there are some for-profit organizations that add value to the youth soccer landscape. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. A cursory study of the youth soccer landscape will reveal how the for-profit faction has over-saturated, confused and distorted what was once a healthy, community-based, harmonious, youth development environment.

“The non-profit as well as the for-profit factions have been present over the past 50 years. However the for-profit faction has grown rapidly over the past 25 years, and exponentially over the past 10 years. The sport is being crushed by the excessive number of leagues, competitions, and youth academies that are owned and operated by for-profit organizations.”

That’s the supply part of national league economics. What about the demand?

“I’ve been speaking to a lot of clubs around the country, and they aspire to challenge for national honors,” said Simon Collins, the former English professional player who was hired in August as the commissioner of the USYS National League. “They like to elevate themselves. They’re proud of the fact that they get to the finals. It’s a huge deal.”

And it’s not just the coaches and club executives, Collins says. It’s the players.

“If you look at the photos -- there’s immense elation in that,” Collins said.

The downside is ironic -- by leaving the door open to so many national events, youth soccer becomes more exclusionary, both in terms of geography and family wealth.

Some events aren’t as explicitly focused on club results as the NCSL, but all of these competitions require clubs to get bigger and bigger. Then they all overshadow ODP, which was designed to cover all parts of the country. (Whether it succeeded is a question that can be debated, but the new leagues don’t even offer the pretense of attempting it -- though teams from outside the National League can earn places in the USYS national championships.)

And who pays to rev up the “travel” part of “travel soccer”? Parents. Many of whom can’t afford either the money or the time to send or escort their kids to every corner of the country to play for a dull medal and an approving nod from a coach of an obscure college team.

In turn, those coaches turn out to see the national events from which a lot of top players are excluded. What a curious system we’ve developed in which, instead of a college coach traveling to see 400 players at a regional event or a few league venues, 400 players have to travel to a national event to see the college coach.

USYS is trying to put the genie back in the bottle, sort of. The organization wants to host a Champions Cup bringing together champions and top clubs from the other national bodies.

U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina is skeptical.

“There will never be a claim to a singular national champion,” Cullina said. “The country is simply too large and the calendar won’t work. Someone will always be left out.”

But whether it’s a national championship or not, there’s some benefit to the competition USYS is proposing. Collins wants to include not just the champions of other big organizations but also teams from MLS Next and Europe. He’d also be happy to include ODP teams, which could open a door for players from smaller markets to get a look.

The question no one can answer, though, is why any of these competitions have to be national. Does a Montana ODP team have to fly to Florida, or would a bus ride to Salt Lake City or Denver suffice? Do Southern California teams really need to go to Colorado to find comparable competition?

In short, who will be able to step up to make “travel soccer” about soccer rather than travel?

20 comments about "Youth soccer's alphabet soup is running out of letters as championships flood the nation".
  1. R2 Dad, February 18, 2022 at 2:06 a.m.

    Not to worry, the next recession with thankfully destroy this nonsense as parents will be too broke to waste money on frivolous travel.  

  2. Santiago 1314, February 18, 2022 at 6:40 a.m.

    USSF must Put IN, Transfer & Solidarity Payments ... Then Coaches and Clubs will Gladly SELL their Players UP the Ladder... The Strong will Survive and the Weak will be "Vanquished", "You must  Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women." (Conan-Schwarzennegger)... Jajaja ;)

  3. Chris Wasdyke replied, February 18, 2022 at 10:59 a.m.

    Weren't solidarity payments added years ago?  That was part of the whole transition of MLS to a seller's league.  Maybe that was just for MLS teams?

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, February 18, 2022 at 12:59 p.m.

    Chris, I don't think so... But I haven't kept up with the Issue in the Last Couple of years...
    I remember the Yedlin "Deal" vaguely.
    I think that MLS is getting around it, by saying, that because the Parents; Paid the Club, the Clubs are NOT entitled to Compensation.
    They Keep all the Money.

  5. humble 1 replied, February 21, 2022 at 10:49 a.m.

    Not sure full impl of FIFA youth xfer and solidarity would immediately cause any club to 'gladly' let players move up the pyramid until they see how much they can win when a player transfers internationally.  The trouble for US Academies U12 and up that are pay-to-play is that theoretically their investment is relatively low, parents are investing, club is offering a service.  Given their level of investment, they may be due relatively lower comps.  It is possible that the p2p clubs make far more from paying parents than they could from FIFA.  More likely there will be an evolution if there is a change and the real bottlenecks for player ID and development here will remain the same, access to the game and access to good coaches and referees. Lotta runway left to get this bird off the ground.

  6. humble 1, February 18, 2022 at 11:17 a.m.

    They do it because it makes money for the clubs and the leagues.  I live this sh*t as a parent so I know first hand.  Give you a micro-example.  Just look at ECNL expansion into boys in 2018.  ECNL boys opens in 2018.  My local club was struggling on the boys side before 2018, U14 and up they struggle to keep 2 teams, at $3k per player, 20 on a team, this is $120K in revenue.  They had their 'Championship' team, then some random color team as their second tea.  They arleady has girls ECNL, so 2018 comes along and they add a boys ECNL team, and keep their Championship team. Parents on the bubble at DA eat this up and in not time they have 3 boys teams, now the ECNL, their legacy Championship, and their random color team.  They go from $120k to $180K on the boys side for the U14, take that to U19 and you have 5x$60K or $300K more revenue annually.  Fast forward to 2020, they successfully add ECRL for girls, so in 2021 they add for Boys, now we have 4x$60K, or $240K more.  So just on the boys side with ECNL and ECRL they are running $500K more per year.  Parents eat this stuff up.  I've seen it and heard it.  The ECNL folks are genious at marketing, they have all these competitions, nationwilde and Elite this and Championship that and Path-to-Pro and even sprinkle in Showcase and ID and College Coaches.  It sells like hotcakes!!! I am on the sidelines for all this, avoiding DA, MLS Next and ECNL, letting my kid play HS soccer, finding a club that is sensible, used playing-up instead of travel.  All good.  Enjoy watching the sh*t show and thankful my player is in a good spot, as this is not easy in this environment.  Keep it going! 

  7. humble 1 replied, February 18, 2022 at 11:25 a.m.

    Adding a THANK YOU to SA for the reminder of the aphabet soup mess.  So glad I was able to navigate around all that crap, at times I was going from my gut, basic instict, as I was not a player.  Thankful my player is being developed by two very humble local legends at club and HS level.  We are now in the early phases of getting kiddo-crack ready for college and let me tell you, I am, as I say, in the early stages, but I am beginning to think that the college racket is where the real money is.  It may be far greater than the youth.  Don't forget, HS and College soccer are outside the purveys of USSF and Men's College Soccer in all it's forms, make up one of the largest, if not the largest amatuer leagues in the world, with, since 2018, their own tranfer portal, and thousands of international amatuers playing in the US. Keep it going SA and USA! 

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, February 18, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

    R2; I got one of my Players a 4 year Scholarship for 64k a year... Do the Math...
    That IS where the Money is at...For the Parents...
    For the College Coaches... Well, you just have to Read the Headlines about the Kick-Backs there from Rich Parents to get their "Rowing", Rec Soccer Player into Top Colleges.

  9. R2 Dad replied, February 18, 2022 at 1:56 p.m.

    Santi, glad to see you and your player got what you wanted out of the system. I hope you got into a program that has decent coaching--there is a lot of kickball coaches out there that don't develop players as much as hone track stars. Better yet would be a 2 season year so all those matches stretched out over 9 months instead of 4.

  10. Rey Phillips, February 18, 2022 at 12:38 p.m.

    The tragedy that I see is that players aren't given the chance to fail, which is an important part of development.  Rather, there is the constant need to win.  The coaches won't play the kids that they don't think will help them win.  So there are a ton of kids who need coaching and time and space to develop into better players, and might get there if given these tools.  But, if they're good enough and have enough money, they remain on the fringe, almost getting there but being neglected because they aren't the ones that are faster and stronger.  This is a system built for hares, not for tortoises.

  11. Santiago 1314, February 18, 2022 at 1:03 p.m.

    It's just the Same Old Racket, Run by the Same Old People..
    The Names Change; but the Faces Remain the Same.
    And that won't Change, until the People Running the USSF Put in the "Full" Transfer/Solidarity System.
    But, as Long as you have the President of The USSF, as a Paid Employee of a $14Million-a-year Pay-to-Pay Club; I doubt that is going to Change.!!!!

  12. Ben Myers, February 20, 2022 at 10:33 a.m.

    The kids lose out the most in this hellish mess. Do any clubs ever talk about player development and actually do it, whether club, HS, or college?  Well, yes, once in a while.

    The parents lose out financially only because they are uninformed and gullible.

    The single $64K scholarship Santiago 1314 mentions is the exception.  Each Division 1 men's soccer team is limited to 9.9 scholarships a year to be divided among 20+ players.  Playing elite club soccer is rarely the road to a full ride college career.  Oh, yes, there are ways of fudging it, too, lining up players with jobs.  Stiil, this info is a missing part of the education of most soccer parents.

  13. John Polis, February 20, 2022 at 11:10 a.m.

    Thanks for getting to the core of the thorniest, most difficult problem facing the sport in the USA. What most people don't remember is that this problem is almost 30 years old. I can remember living in Chicago in the early 90s, when I walked the trash cans out in front of my house and a neighbor, who knew I work for the US soccer Federation, joyfully told me how her son had made the travel team. I asked her how old her son was and she said nine. I was apalled. Nine-year-olds traveling to games. And for what? Sadly this has only grown over the last three decades and as the article implies: It's out of control. Over the last 50 years (yes 50)  the youth level of the sport has evolved into a vast national business that, while providing opportunities for kids to play, is targeted and operated in a manner that caters to families with substantial means that can afford it and have their young players travel to money-making tournaments in their region or around the country. And now, too many people are making too much money to seemingly change it. What a shame. In truth, there are not enough opportunities for averageto-lowincome families and it cannot be calculated how many kids are being left out, some of them surely budding soccer talents who are left behind, let alone kids whose families can't afford to put three kids in rec programs, some of those costing $50 and up for a seven-game rec season. The fact that we have multiple national championships that result in a bunch of wealthy teams being actually champion of nothing when you look at it, is the very tip top of the problem. But it all goes much deeper than that. Some soccer leaders, at least out of one side of their mouths, have decrying this as a problem for too many years with nothing being done about it. And I won't pretend to have the answer here, but just put an exclamation point on the Beau Dure article. There an awful lot of people in our country who know a lot about this subject and it seems if they all pooled their knowledge and talked it over, something could be done. Until then, this over emphasized business model that dominates our sport, in my view, will continue to not only muddle how we identify top talent, but most important of all, continue to choke out what should be the most important long-term development goals of our game: make the game as cheap and accessible as possible so the largest number of kids can play while all the while all the while developing what should be our game's primary altruistic goals of producing soccer players and fans for life.

  14. R2 Dad, February 20, 2022 at 11:57 a.m.

    I remember walking out of a soccer complex to cross a field to my car after my matches. I passed this girl who was juggling a ball--she was phenomenal. I asked her if she was warming up for her club. "No, I'm taking a break, I work nearby" she told me. Looking for a club?, I asked. "No time, between work and school ", she replied. No amount of scholarship can help the working poor, when club dues are only some of the costs families have to pay.

  15. Mike Lynch, February 20, 2022 at 6:24 p.m.

    When you spend more time travelling for soccer than playing soccer, that's a problem. 

    Need greater competition locally, play up an age group or two (individuals and/or teams).

    Hard to play pick up when enduring excessive travel for practice and/or games. Club soccer is enhanced when also playing lots on their own. Hard to play on their own when training 3-4 days per week plus travel games to the far ends of the earth. How about 2 practices, games in the same state or border state and lots of pick up? That's the path to player development, more joy and love for the game ... for life!

    It's not rocket science. 

  16. Richard Crow, February 20, 2022 at 10:26 p.m.

    It's no wonder why U.S. Soccer doesn't partner with schools. Yes, schools could put tons of young players on the field: pickup play at recess or after school, gym classes, friendly games with other schools, differentiated instruction for late bloomers, etc. Even teachers that didn't grow up playing soccer could evolve into great skills coaches because they are familiar with developmental psychology and the learning process in children. The downside for U.S. Soccer: No school administrator who truly cares about students would support a system that not only distracts kids from their studies with excessive travel, but obviously does not help them reach their potential as soccer players.
    If you don't bring soccer to kids where they gather and play on a regular basis you'll never harness the potential of millions of potential players.

  17. humble 1 replied, February 21, 2022 at 10:22 a.m.

    Schools is a puzzle.  USSF has no jurisdiction.  They are all state level entities.  Formal sport does not begin until 6/7/8 grade depending on state.  So if you want to get soccer in schools b4 formal sport, it has to be in gym class, you have to get to gym teachers and get soccer/futsal in their lesson plans.  How to do that?  That is far beyond scope of USSF.  

  18. cony konstin, February 21, 2022 at 11:02 a.m.

    47 years ago when I started coaching in San Francisco there was two soccer sessions. The first session was run by the PAL Police Dept ran the league and the second session was the FLAME League run by the Fire Dept. There was only u12, u14, u16 and U19. There was 8 teams in each league and no lower divisions or even rec soccer. You had to be good to play in these leagues. The balls, registration, uniforms, coaching, fields and cones were all free. Today youth soccer in America is sn abomination. It's all about buying and selling tons of gimmicks, smoke n mirrors, $400 shoes, pretty uniforms, never ending tournaments,  endless coaching curriculum, and layers of minutia being sold by imposters and con artist. It is a sad state of affairs and youth soccer is a reflection of our daily society. We need radical change. We need a revolution for our kids. Please watch this. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ReJSPjSiMYQ&feature=youtu.be

  19. Santiago 1314 replied, February 21, 2022 at 4 p.m.

    Yes, Cony mi amigo...
    But, this is just like the USSF and the Alphabet Soup Leagues...
    We have been hearing this ever since i was Playing back in the 70's
    Let the Kids, be Kids.... But the Names Change, and the Results are the Same...
    Kids Dropping OUT.!!!

  20. humble 1 replied, February 22, 2022 at 11:52 a.m.

    cony, your comments ring of truth.  I was not a soccer players, but your description is correct, only I would add, maybe it's not that bad.  First, not convinced on the #s of drop-outs for soccer.  First, I know they do not cover the latino leagues, 'cause those don't send their numbers anywhere but to the bank.  Second, 'cause when USSF force calendar year down the throat of clubs, they gave an advantage to HSs, and a lot of kids now leave club for HS, much more than before.  I've seen both of these with my own eyes.  Soccer has always been made up of amazing exceptions, we read about these folks in SA regularly, and thank you for that, for me, today, there are more exceptions.  More people that get it.  More that have lived it and know the system.  So maybe there is progress in soccer, maybe there is no free lunch from the police or fire fighters, but most MLS and many USL Academies are free today, and soccer continues to grow.  Summarizing, for me sky is not falling.  Long way to go.  Everyone keep doing their bit and gradually, it will come.  Keep it going!

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