Throughout my time as a player and coach, I’ve witnessed the extreme lack of information parents often have regarding youth soccer levels.
Far too often, coaches and clubs push their division onto parents, giving them a tunnel vision of youth soccer levels.
The lack of information often leads to poor team selection and an overemphasis on which division a child is in, rather than the environment they are in.
What are the youth soccer levels?
The youth soccer pyramid is now incredibly complex and often confusing. There are three separate organizations (USYS, USSSA, and US Club Soccer) sanctioning several divisions for youth soccer players, resulting in multiple high-level youth leagues.
Choosing the best soccer program for your child starts with understanding the constantly evolving world of competitive youth soccer.
Today, we’ll review the goal and structure of each youth division as well as a few helpful tips for deciding which is best in this complete guide.
Youth soccer pyramid
The youth soccer pyramid in the United States is far more complicated and controversial than it once was. Here are the various levels on the pyramid:
- Local recreational leagues (from U6-U19)
- Youth Academy (U7-U10)
- Local (state) competitive leagues
- National League Conferences, NPL, and ECNL Regional Leagues
- The National League, ENPL, and ECNL
- GA and MLS Next
- DPL overlapping with all leagues above local competitive leagues
As different leagues are sanctioned by different governing bodies, there is not a clear distinction for when one is higher on the pyramid than the others, the rankings overlap.
Organization of Youth soccer divisions
There are now several different soccer levels sanctioned by different organizations.
Before diving into the various leagues and levels, it’s critical to understand the different sanctioning bodies.
USSSA is a non-profit organization affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
The USSSA has over 4,000,000 members in several sports including baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, golf, and more.
They sanction the Developmental Player League or DPL.
US Youth Soccer (USYS) is the nation’s largest youth sports organization. Annually, USYS registers 3 million soccer players.
They have 55 Member State Associations and 10,000 clubs.
They sanction multiple levels of youth soccer, including National League Conferences, GA, and MLS Next.
US Club Soccer
US Club Soccer is a National Association of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
They seek to develop players through a variety of club programs including recreational, youth competitive, and adult leagues.
US Club Soccer sanctions the ECNL Regional Leagues, ECNL, NPL, and ENPL.
Youth Soccer Levels Explained
All three soccer organizations aim to improve player development and provide excellent opportunities to players throughout their youth careers.
For that reason, choosing a particular league is not always so clear. Here’s a helpful summary of each youth soccer level.
Regardless of which governing body sanctions a team/ club, most clubs provide academy soccer options for young players.
Academy soccer covers U7-U10 age groups and is intended to be a higher-level alternative to recreational youth soccer.
- The goal of youth academy soccer is to prepare players to climb higher on the pyramid, making it to the highest level of youth soccer that their organization participates in.
While clubs may split academy teams into different groups based on skill, there are no tryouts required to play on an academy team.
The Conferences of the National League and the National League are sanctioned by USYS.
By successfully competing in statewide US Youth Soccer State Associations, teams can earn a spot in National League Conferences.
National League Conferences have a top division known as Premier 1. Most conferences have additional divisions, Premier II then First Division.
Travel for the conferences is regional.
Premier I teams may quality for US Youth Soccer Regional Championships. There is an East Region, Midwest Region, South Region, and West Regional Championship.
Teams U14+ can also qualify for the National League, which is higher than the National League Conferences.
There is a National Championship tournament, and teams in the National League automatically qualify.
Otherwise, a team must place high enough in the Regional Championships to make the National Championship.
- Note that travel for the National League is nationwide, which is a major commitment.
MLS Next is a U13+ boys’ only option a level above the National League. Sanctioned by the USYS, MLS Next has replaced the former Development Academy.
The goal of MLS Next is to create a pathway to professional soccer for boys.
Admittance into MLS Next requires strict standards, likely including rules about the tournaments that teams can enter and participate in other sports outside of the league.
Players cannot play high school soccer if they play MLS Next.
GA stands for The Girls Academy League, and it is a new girls’ league sanctioned by USYT. The GA was formed to replace the Girls DA, and it is partnered with MLS Next.
- The goal of GA is to develop female players for the National Team pathway and college soccer.
Unlike the former DA, the GA will allow girls to play high school soccer.
National Premier League
US Club Soccer sanctions the National Premier League, which is a club commitment.
A club must enter a team in every age group to participate. NPL participants can attend College Showcase events and playoffs.
Elite National Premier League (ENPL)
The Elite National Premier League is a level higher than the NPL. It has the same structure, requiring club commitment.
Based on its national scope, games maybe around the country.
Originally started for girls, the Elite Clubs National League requires a club commitment.
US Soccer sanctions this league now for boys and girls. ECNL has 8 regional conferences as well as showcase events.
Compared to NPL, ECNL requires higher coaching and facility standards.
- Teams may qualify for playoffs at the end of the year. Furthermore, there can only be one ECNL club within a 75-mile radius.
ECNL Regional Leagues
The ECNL expanded to include a lower level of competition known as ECNL Regional Leagues or ECRL.
- Like Conferences for the National League, ECRL is a step under ECNL. The standards for qualification are a bit lower.
Teams from ECNL can earn promotions to the ECNL via playoff events. Oftentimes, ECNL clubs enter their second-tier teams into the ECRL.
The Development Player League is a girls league formed as an alternative to the DA.
Sanctioned by the USSA, the DPL formed the GA initially.
However, the GA was since taken over by USYS. The level of competition in the DPL seems to be below that of the GA, but overall it does not have as big of an impact on youth competitive soccer.
Youth Soccer Divisions
Ultimately, there are several youth soccer divisions to choose from. Naturally, each club and division touts its offerings as top tier.
Parents are often shocked to find out about the different divisions available.
Ultimately, the mission statement of each sanctioning organization is quite similar, so it’s most important to find the fit for your child.
Which Youth Soccer Division is Best?
If your child is serious about soccer, pick the toughest league in your area so that they are challenged. Because of the variety of competition in each state, go and view the games to decide.
Choosing the right team, club, and league for your child is not easy. With so many competitive options available, it’s often very stressful to make the best decision for your child.
Again, each organization preaches a very similar mission statement. Essentially, you must consider several key factors when choosing a youth soccer division.
What is Your Child’s Goal with Soccer?
Be honest about assessing your child’s goals for soccer, not your own.
- High school soccer: If your child is interested in simply playing competitive youth soccer through high school (not college or beyond) then you will find National League Conferences or NPL to be a good option.
Both of these leagues offer good competition but not nearly the same level of commitment and travel as other leagues.
- Collegiate soccer: On the other hand, kids who are driven to play collegiate soccer should consider the National League and ECNL.
Both of these leagues focus on collegiate exposure through several showcase opportunities.
While the ECNL claims that 90% of ECNL female players move on to college, college coaches will certainly be attending the National League Championships as well.
Professional soccer/ National Team: MLS Next and the GA are designed to create a pathway to professional/ national team soccer.
Both are still relatively new, but they are both partnered with US Youth Soccer with a close relationship with the US Soccer Federation.
That said, ECNL is also a strong option for overall development.
Aside from your child’s goals, you must also consider the following:
What to consider when choosing a youth soccer team
- Location. Not all of these options will be available within a reasonable driving distance to you. How far are you willing to travel just for training?
- Cost. The cost investment of ECNL and MLS Next may be prohibitive.
- Coach. Regardless of the league, will the coach be a good fit for your child?
- Team. Youth divisions like the ECNL are club-based. That does not guarantee that the team in your child’s age group is the top team in your area. You are better off opting for a top club in the National League than the worst team in ECNL.
- Risk. Always remember that playing in a certain league does not guarantee anything. Even leagues that send a lot of players to college cannot guarantee your child will be a D1 soccer star. Will it still be worth the money and time if your child does not go on to the next level?
How to play Competitive Youth Soccer?
Competitive youth soccer has more paths than ever. Ultimately, multiple pathways can help your child achieve their soccer goals.
There’s no one right answer about the best league for competitive youth soccer.
Understanding the goals, organization, and structure of each league will certainly help you make the right choice for your child.
However, you must carefully assess your local soccer landscape and personal circumstances when selecting a team.
Rather than hyper-focusing on a certain youth division, consider which specific team is the best fit for your child.