Making Sense of the Competitive Soccer Leagues

Greg Hubbard
December 9, 2022

Soccer is a game where children can be free to express themselves, have fun and learn important life skills. It is also a battleground for those who believe they have a better idea for the development of your player (and your dollars). Competitive soccer in the United States is a capitalistic system and there is no top-level leadership from the United States Soccer Federation. Therefore, numerous competing national and regional programs have emerged. They all play for their own championships and work to different levels of success to encourage collegiate and professional scouts to attend their events. When you are evaluating a soccer club for your daughter or son, should you be impressed when their marketing materials provide a laundry list of these leagues’ logos and acronyms? Do those acronyms guarantee you a certain level of quality or observation by top scouts? The answer is a definite, maybe…

All these leagues have minimum standards that a club must be able meet before gaining entry. Requirements include club success at a local league level, do they have year-round soccer programming and access to training facilities, coaches’ qualifications, club alumni, can the club field a team at every age group, can the parents fund the league and travel fees and many more. If the club participates in one of these leagues, you can be assured that they have achieved a certain level of player and club development that separates them from other clubs. The downside from a league perspective is that with club-based acceptance means that one team at every age level gets to participate. Within a club, talent may not be even from team to team make some age groups less competitive than others. This makes it difficult for leagues to promise level competition. Some leagues are better than others at reviewing and removing clubs each season based on performance, but remember it is always difficult to remove a paying customer.

We know the club that you are considering is marketing their affiliation with one or more of these leagues, we know that it will be expensive and that the team you are joining may or may not be competitive at every age level. What do the acronyms mean? Below is a listing and description of these leagues, we tried to list them in some form of ranking from highest to lowest, but putting MLS NEXT, ECNL Girls and Girls Academy League aside, arguments can be made for the ranking of the remaining leagues.  


MLS NEXT is a U13+ boys-only league and is not exclusive to MLS franchises. This league is universally looked at as the highest level of boys’ youth soccer in North America. This league has the highest club, coaching and player standards. MLS NEXT aims to create a pathway to professional soccer for boys. They have strict rules about participating in other sports or events outside of the league, including players cannot play high school soccer. 

USL Academy League

USL Academy League (USL-A) has developed a youth academy system for their league clubs. USL’s academy league is designed to give a pathway for players to move toward USL professional opportunities. Participating USL clubs must have a league-approved youth network and meet the league’s minimum standards. USL Academy League is open to both boys and girls, but the club must have a USL affiliation.

Girls Academy League (GA)

The GA is a girls’ only league that aims to develop players for the National Team pathway and college soccer. The GA has developed a unique governance structure that allows for the players to take an active role in shaping the league. The GA allows girls to play high school soccer. 

Elite Clubs National League (ECNL)

Originally started as a first of its kind girls national league in 2009 and grew to become the top level of competition in the United States. In 2017, ECNL expanded to the boy’s game. Both leagues maintain high coaching and facility standards and manage this by restricting the number of clubs in proximity of each other. This creates competition for admission to the league, but also increases league wide travel.

ECNL Regional Leagues 

The ECNL expanded to include a lower level of competition known as ECNL Regional Leagues (ECRL). The standards for qualification are lower. Often, ECNL clubs enter their second-tier teams into the ECRL.

United States Youth Soccer National League

The US Youth Soccer National League is a series of programs leading up to a National Championship. The National League provides three levels of competition.  

Elite 64 is the latest addition to the National League. Elite 64 is a national competition of 64 teams in a club-based league format offering like-minded clubs an opportunity to compete against each other. Travel regionally and nationally is required.

National League P.R.O (Player, Recruitment, Opportunity) serves as the national competitive league for teams competing for direct advancement to the National Championship. Access to this league is based on performance in their National League Conference.

National League Conference has minimal qualifications for participation and can be entered by team or by club. Travel for the conferences is regional. 

Elite Academy League (EA)

EA provides a regional club-based league model that leads to a national tournament and multiple college showcases. The league is a mixture of high-level clubs in addition to up-and-coming clubs. For clubs that already have MLS NEXT or ECLN teams, EA provides another pathway for second team players within the club to compete with a similar competition structure and exposure level to that of their top team.  

National Premier League 

US Club Soccer sanctions the National Premier League, (NPL) which is a club commitment. NPL strives to provide competitive games while reducing travel. NPL has a postseason tournament and College Showcase events.  

Development Player League (DPL)

The Development Player League is a club-based girl’s league. The have regional conferences that qualify teams for a national event series. They provide access to national competition and college showcases.

Choosing the right team, club, and league for your child is difficult. With so many competitive options available, making the best decision for your child is often very stressful. Each league promises similar products, regional games leading to a national event with scouting events mixed in. Essentially, you must consider several key factors when choosing a youth soccer division. 

Be honest about assessing your child’s goals for soccer. 

High school soccer: If your child is interested in playing competitively in high school then you may not need any of these national options.  A good local, state-wide competition and coaching may suffice. Participating in these leagues will certainly not hurt your players development and will help prepare them for varsity level competition.

Collegiate soccer (NCAA DII, DIII, NAIA or Junior College): For kids who are driven to play collegiate soccer should consider playing in a national league. Getting year-round training, playing for licensed coaches against challenging competition will be important for their development. Plus, game film from these competitions will be needed for recruitment. All the above leagues can provide scouting opportunities and pathways to college soccer.

Professional soccer and DI Collegiate Soccer: The league matters. Scouts have limited resources and only attend the top-level events. Boy’s leagues affiliated with professional leagues or the GA and ECNL on the Girl’s side are the most scouted and provide the highest chance of being scouted by the level of program your player desires.    

Competitive youth soccer has more pathways than ever. In theory, multiple pathways should help your child find the right level to help them achieve their goals, but in many ways, it has complicated the process. There is no right answer or singular pathway to your child’s goals, just know that there are many options available and the right one is out there.  

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