Youth Soccer Levels in the U.S. Explained
Youth soccer in the U.S. has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades. Where town travel used to rule the soccer scene, now soccer clubs have advanced to support athletes who are looking to play more competitively.
With all the changes taking place it can be very confusing. At the youth level, there are three dominant organizations: USYS, USSSA, and US Club Soccer. These soccer organizations have various leagues that they endorse and maintain.
As a parent, it’s difficult to figure out what is what and who’s who. For this reason, we’ve done our best to lay it all out.
Choosing the right fit for your player is important to their overall development. But, keep in mind that it’s fluid and you can always choose a different path at different stages of their soccer development.
The U.S. Youth Soccer Pyramid
In the U.S., the soccer pathway builds up as a pyramid at various levels and ages. Here is the current breakdown for boys and girls youth soccer.
Note that some regions of the U.S. don’t offer select levels on this list. This is more of a frame of reference for the overall landscape of youth soccer in the United States.
- Town Recreational Leagues
- Town Travel Leagues
- Youth Academy
- National League Conferences: NPL and ECNL Regional Leagues
- The National League: ENPL and ECNL
- Development Player League (DPL)
- Girls Academy (GA) and MLS Next
Organizations of Youth Soccer in the U.S.
Because the sport of soccer has evolved over time, various organizations now sanction different levels. Let’s take a look at the sanctioning bodies in the U.S.
United States Sports Specialty Association (USSSA): A non-profit entity whose mission is to develop and expand the game of soccer in the U.S. The USSSA has been affiliated with U.S. Soccer since 2001. It now sanctions the Development Player League (DPL) and Elite Academy League (EA).
U.S. Youth Soccer (USYS): The nation’s largest youth sports organization, the USYS registers nearly 3 million soccer players and 10,000 clubs annually. They sanction multiple levels for boys and girls soccer including the MLS Next (in partnership with MLS), GA, and National League Conferences.
U.S. Club Soccer: A national organization and member of the U.S. Soccer Federation, U.S. Soccer Club works to develop and support soccer clubs in the U.S. They endorse ECNL, ECNL Regional Leagues, NPL, and ENPL.
About the Different Pathways for U.S. Youth Soccer
With multiple governing bodies, it can be very difficult to choose which path is right for an athlete. Each organization focuses on the development of the player and provides excellent opportunities through their leagues but it’s not always clear which path is best.
Here is a breakdown and brief summary of each youth soccer club level.
Most soccer clubs in your region will offer some type of youth academy soccer. From U8 through U10, these teams are more competitive than town travel and typically provide more advanced coaching. That is not always the case but you typically move from a volunteer coach to a salaried coach.
Clubs are looking for a bigger pool of youth players at this level to help identify talent at a younger age.
National Premier League (NPL)
The NPL is sanctioned by U.S. Club Soccer and clubs can participate if they have teams in every age group. The NPL offers Showcase events and a playoff system for the top teams in each NPL member league.
National League Conferences: Premier I is the NLC’s top conference and is broken down by region. In most cases, there’s an additional division called Premier II.
ECNL Regional Leagues (ECRL)
The ECRL was developed to improve coordination and collaboration between teams of different levels within the same ECNL club. ECRL is limited to playing teams in their region, whereas ECNL teams play nationally.
Elite National Premier League (ENPL)
ENPL is the highest level under the NPL umbrella. These are state-based regional teams competing against other similar teams in their region.
Elite Clubs National League (ECNL)
Originally formed specifically for girls, ECNL has now expanded to include a boy’s program as well. Each club member must maintain a fairly high standard with respect to facilities and coaching.
ECNL is one of the most innovative youth soccer leagues in the U.S. and most large soccer organizations are a part of it.
Development Player League (DPL)
DPL is an all-girls national league providing an elite competition for top youth soccer clubs in the U.S.
Girls Academy (GA)
Sanctioned by the USYS, the GA was formed to replace Girls DA and aims to develop female players for college soccer and possibly the women’s National Team.
Formerly known as the Development Academy (DA), MLS Next is the highest level for boys soccer teams. Starting at U13, MLS Next is affiliated with Major League Soccer (MLS) and can be a pathway for their respective professional teams.
What is the Best Pathway for a Youth Soccer Player?
Depending on how serious and committed your soccer player is, choosing the right club and league can be difficult. Especially at younger ages, keeping options open can be the best path.
Each of the above has its pros and cons. For example, the MLS Next pathway requires a good amount of travel. Players can sometimes be required to travel 5-6 hours for a single game in a fall or spring season. And, fly across the country to attend a Showcase. But, players are getting coached and competing at the highest level.
It’s always recommended to consistently gauge your child’s interest in competitive soccer. In some cases, players lose their passion when the games become more competitive. In these situations, it could be best to stick to town travel. On the other hand, some players keep their own fire lit underneath them and thrive in high-pressure situations.
Not only should you consider your player’s needs and desires but take into account your personal situation. Club soccer in the U.S. can get expensive and the time commitment can be taxing on some families. Weigh out all the options before committing to a soccer club.
Remember, most kids won’t turn pro. Some kids will play college. But, all kids should have the opportunity to have fun playing the game of soccer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Both leagues provide the highest level of play in the U.S. ECNL tends to focus on player development and individual skill-building, while MLS Next places a greater emphasis on team tactics and strategy. ECNL is great for the high school and college path. While MLS NEXT is geared towards college and pro paths.
Honestly, both leagues are interchangeable. Even though we have GA at the top of the female soccer pyramid, ECNL could be right there as well. In some states, ECNL can be stronger than GA.
Playing for a youth soccer club is great for players who are dedicated to becoming better at soccer. Players who should join a club team are those individuals who excel in town rec or travel, who are passionate about soccer, and who want to play all year.
It’s subjective but club soccer in the U.S. is expensive and does require a significant amount of travel. It’s best to assess your family’s obligations and finances before committing to a club. Once you sign up, you are typically contracted for the rest of the year.
Don’t take it too seriously. Unfortunately, because their is a significant amount of money involved, many parents take their child’s ‘soccer career’ too seriously. They get caught up with the small things (playing time, lack of progress, etc.) and lose sight of the bigger picture. I think the bigger picture involves having fun and the development of the child. If these things are taking care of the rest will fall into place.