Alphabet soup of leagues only increasing youth soccer's travel problem

Mark Howard-ISI Photos

Many leagues offer a higher caliber of play at club level, but the tradeoffs leave parents asking if there's a better way.

The email comes in. “Our club is going to the Champions Premier Elite Club National League!”

The club’s staff is thrilled. They speak of all the opportunities to be seen by college coaches, which will apparently be better than the opportunities they promised when everyone signed up for the club in the last year or two. And better competition, of course, even though that was the reason for joining the previous league a few years ago.

But the club’s parents start checking maps. And their wallets. Charter buses? Entire weekends -- several of them -- spent in hotels? How much will this cost? How will anyone get homework done? Sure, I want my kid to play college soccer, but I also want my kid to be ready for college academically. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Why should you care if you’re not (yet) one of these parents?

Firstly, those debates about how well the U.S. men and women would fare if the best athletes played soccer will only get more intense as frustrated families pull their kids from soccer clubs demanding too much money and travel time. A survey conducted for this story found some concern that we’re losing players from elite soccer because the travel requirements are too great.

And if you have kids of soccer-playing age in the near future, you may think twice about putting them into the soccer-industrial complex, which can be especially brutal if your kids are elite players. (Disclaimer: My kids are not involved above the local league level. Other parents consider me lucky.)

In other words: If travel soccer has become more about the travel and less about the soccer, everyone who cares about the sport will suffer. So is that really the case, or are these just anecdotes from panicky parents?

To find out, I conducted a survey of coaches, parents and others with an interest in youth soccer to see how quickly youth leagues were sprouting up and overlapping like weeds and ivy after weeks of rain. The survey also asked them to sound off on the impact of all these leagues.

I also spoke with people involved with the game at every level -- national administrators, coaches and parents. (Most of them aren’t quoted -- some wished to remain anonymous, others talked for hours and would push this piece to about 40,000 words.)

I created a map using Under-14 boys in Region 1 (the Northeast and upper Mid-Atlantic states) as a test case to show how elite leagues were expanding and bumping into each other. The result (see below, and read about the methodology here) looks like a 10-player game of Risk after an earthquake.

The clear takeaway from all this: “Elite” leagues are popping up all over. The result: Good clubs are passing up opportunities to play league games with their neighbors, even if they’re on the same level, to travel farther and more frequently. Parents and players might not be happy about this trend -- and some coaches are unhappy, too. But it shows no sign of abating.

The cynical take would be that it’s all about money and turf wars. The most recent additions to the youth landscape do indeed seem petty on first glance. U.S. Soccer has operated a Development Academy competition for boys since 2007, but it has had no such league for girls. U.S. Club Soccer launched the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) for girls in 2009. Then in the past year, U.S. Soccer announced it would start a Girls’ Development Academy in fall 2017, and, coincidentally, a boys’ ECNL was unveiled.

But some of the turf wars fall into the “just war” category of ethics. A lot of traditional leagues and state associations, all operating within tried-and-true U.S. Youth Soccer regulations and guidelines, have been slow to respond to reasonable calls for change.

“That’s the way the marketplace has developed over time,” said U.S. Club Soccer CEO Kevin Payne, a longtime U.S. Soccer board member and longtime D.C. United president. “The state associations were created, and they had their own point of view about how to do things. They tended to be very administrative, very bureaucratic. And they typically promoted activity just in their own state. Our organization with the vision that state boundaries are really meaningless.”

In some cases, U.S. Club Soccer leagues (and some traditional U.S. Youth Soccer leagues) simply group clubs in a logical metro area. Others, particularly at the National Premier Leagues (NPL) level and the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), insist on traveling greater distances.

“If you’re playing competitive travel, unfortunately, you’re going to have to travel,” Payne said. “There’s not enough kids in a constrained area. If you’re looking for high-level games, you’re not going to be able to play them all in your neighborhood. We’re hoping over time we can regionalize this so travel is minimized.”

The unintended consequence, though, is that more groups keep breaking away, whether they’re affiliated with U.S. Club Soccer or not. The Region 1 map above includes these leagues, listed in order of formation, in addition to the ECNL (founded 2009), the Development Academy (2007) and traditional leagues such as the National Capital Soccer League (NCSL) and Thruway League:

  • Elite Development Program (EDP, 2000). The top division is a U.S. Club Soccer NPL.
  • New England Premiership (NEP, 2009): Top division is NPL
  • New York Club Soccer League (NYCSL, 2009): Top division is NPL. 
  • Club Champions League (CCL, founded 1997, expanded to Northern Virginia in 2011 and Maryland in 2012): Not a U.S. Club Soccer league.
  • Virginia Premier League (VPL, 2014): U.S. Club Soccer NPL.
  • Atlantic Premier League (APL, 2014): Also not a U.S. Club Soccer league.

Few people deny that the alphabet-soup landscape is overcrowded and cluttered. The survey, while not gathering enough responses to give a statistical snapshot, gives ample anecdotal evidence to show the concern. A slight majority agreed with the statement “We’re losing players from elite play or travel soccer because the travel requirements are too much.” A stronger majority agreed with “My area has too many leagues, diluting competition and forcing kids to travel too much.”

Little wonder many coaches and parents are ready for U.S. Soccer to step in and do something about it.

“My hope is that gradually U.S. Soccer moves down through the club levels and does what almost every other federation in the world does and just builds in levels -- national level, regional level, then state -- to bring it all under one umbrella so we can avoid having what’s happening,” said Benjamin Ziemer, who helped create NorCal Premier Soccer. “We just had a club that left NorCal for ECNL. They will drive past literally hundreds of clubs to compete against the other eight ECNL clubs in our state.”

The survey respondents don’t necessarily want U.S. Soccer to take over entirely. But nearly two-thirds want the federation to set some standards.

As it stands now, there’s no consensus about simple terminology such as whether “Elite” is better than “Premier,” much less whether the “Elite Development Program” is better than the “New York Premier League” -- which is actually the third tier of the New York Club Soccer League.

Into that void has stepped U.S. Club Soccer, founded in 2001. The organization has published standards for youth clubs -- some aspirational guidelines, some requirements for participating in their National Premier Leagues. (The National Soccer Coaches Association of America also has had a program that offers club audits to see how they match up against a set of standards.) The next step for U.S. Club Soccer is to evaluate clubs under its “Players First” model, with certifications due to start this fall.

“We’re trying to get parents away from the idea of only playing for a club that wins all its games,” Payne said.

Consider Braddock Road, the Northern Virginia club that has been home to players like Mia Hamm and Jill Ellis. For the past several years, the club has played in the Club Champions League and traveled extensively for tournaments. The girls have also played in the ECNL. This fall, the boys will join the ECNL, which will have no other teams in Virginia and only two in Maryland.

Some players at Braddock Road spent around 17 nights in the past year in hotels, by the estimate of Brian Welsh, the club’s director of coaching for boys.

Welsh says the travel requirements should actually drop a bit -- they may travel more for league play but less for tournament play -- and he finds himself fighting off the rumor mill that tells parents their costs will go through the roof.

And Braddock Road travels less than other clubs at younger age groups.

“The only reason we travel is for college exposure,” Welsh said. “You’ve got to have better competition. Our boys up to U-14 aren’t going anywhere (in terms of traveling).”

But at the upper levels, who pays for all this travel? Sponsors and scholarships can make a dent.

“Soccer clubs and leagues around the country have done a good job of trying to ensure that kids don’t lose an opportunity to play soccer because they can’t afford it,” Payne said.

That’s one issue. And how do parents find the time to transport their kids to distant games, and in some cases to distant practices, as they opt for an “elite” club 45-60 minutes away rather than a less ambitious club in town?

“The cost, the time, the energy and the money that parents are spending in these younger age groups is crazy, and eventually, it’s just going to have to give,” Ziemer said. “Or it’ll remain an upper-middle-class sport. Even then, people can’t afford it.”

Something is likely to give, soon. But what?

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