A five-point plan to simplify youth soccer’s confusing mess of competitions

USA TODAY Sports-Robin Alam

Confused by the craziness that is US youth soccer? You're not alone. Here's a path towards a better future.

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Youth coach Horst Bertl said it best in 2007: “National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard in my life. Whoever thinks these up should be stoned.”

Bertl, a former Bundesliga and NASL player, merged his Dallas Comets organization into the FC Dallas fold and is now a coach with the MLS club’s lauded youth development program.

In the month of July, there will be six – SIX! - different national events for youth soccer, ranging from Development Academy playoffs to national championships and AYSO’s National Open Cup extravaganza, which even features a trip to a water park.

This is absurd.

The notion that all of these organizations must have their own national events is predicated on a simple fallacy: that clubs have to play competition which operates the same way they do.

But when so many of these clubs don’t play each other, that’s difficult to prove. The Development Academy can point to its rigorous training, required of all its clubs. U.S. Club Soccer and the ECNL also set high standards. But that doesn’t necessarily mean ECNL-approved Club A’s U-16 girls will get a better game 500 miles away against DA-approved Club B’s U-16 girls than it would if it met local Club C’s unusually good U-16 girls 15 miles away.

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

No matter how consistent the coaching may be, clubs may have some good age groups and some not-so-good. Maybe the U-17 boys had a couple of the best players the town has ever seen, while the 10 best U-15 girls all packed up and went to a rival club. It happens. In ECNL play this year, McLean Youth Soccer has a U-14 team with a 1-20-1 record and a goal difference of minus-57, while its U-17 team won its division with a 13-3-0 mark.

So between these national championships and the excessive travel in all the leagues rising up to stake out a unique place, it’s time to take action.

Here’s a five-point plan to make it happen.

1. A national pyramid of promotion/relegation leagues

No more assuming you have to travel vast distances to get a competitive game. Play your way up or down.

Don’t reinvent the entire infrastructure. Just as England’s FA gradually cobbled together a national professional and amateur pyramid from its scattered leagues (the farther you drop down the list, the more quintessentially English the league names become), the existing youth leagues can be brought into some sort of alignment.

Recreational leagues, including most of the AYSO, wouldn’t be affected. If some smaller leagues opt out of this pyramid and do their own thing on a local level, fine. It’s still a free country.

The Development Academy would still exist as a concept (see No. 3), but its teams would play in the ECNL. Unless they’re relegated. By combining the DA and the ECNL, along with a few exceptional teams outside those two leagues, most clubs should have reasonable travel requirements. In sparsely populated regions, have smaller divisions - no harm in playing the same team three or four times a year instead of two.

2. The higher the level, the fewer league games you play

The top leagues will cover a broader region than the lower leagues, so the travel needs will be greater. These teams also will want to play in showcase events (see No. 4).

3. Make “Development Academy” a certification rather than a league

U.S. Club Soccer is already rolling out plans to certify qualified organizations as “Players First” clubs. Your club can still be “Development Academy” or “Players First” if it meets standards of coaching education, training-to-game ratios, facilities and so forth. Maybe other clubs could strive for a “Community Club” certification based on offering solid recreational and travel play to everyone in town. All of these clubs would be free to advertise their status.

4. Have those certifications be the entree for showcase events

By all means, have tournaments and festivals that are Development Academy-only or Players First-only. The “club-centric” leagues that use club-vs.-club scheduling - all of Club A’s teams play all of Club B’s teams, in all age group, in the same town on the same day - can reorganize as a series of showcases each year.

Most youth soccer is just fine out of the limelight. Players need some freedom to make mistakes and learn.

5. Have one national championship per age group

Make it a big event. Make the qualifiers big events.

Most youth soccer is just fine out of the limelight. Players need some freedom to make mistakes and learn. This tournament will give players one event in which they emphasize the result. Draw some fans, and it’ll give players some experience playing in front of a crowd that isn’t just scouts and parents. As teams advance, they’ll be guaranteed good games against teams that have had to prove, over and over again, that they can compete with the best.

If ESPN can televise the Little League World Series as if it’s the World Cup, someone can do a good job broadcasting a tournament with 17-year-old prospects who may only be a year or two away from MLS or the NWSL.

This system would make youth soccer less chaotic. And yet clubs will maintain flexibility to do what’s best for their needs. The Development Academy and U.S. Club Soccer pathways will still exist, but clubs will be able to break the current league barriers to play each other without racking up frequent-flyer miles.

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