by Beau Dure
“National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard of in my life.”
So said Horst Bertl, the Bundesliga champion and Dallas soccer coach who passed away Feb. 6.
This year in particular, Bertl’s sage advice is being discounted. In a landscape that already includes the venerable U.S. Youth Soccer national championships, the MLS Next Cup, U.S. Club Soccer’s National Cup , U.S. Club Soccer’s NPL Finals and the ECNL National Championship, add the oxymoronic ECNL Regional League national championship, the Girls Academy’s Champions League, and the USSSA-affiliated National Competitive Soccer League.
Also, U.S. Youth Soccer is once again revamping its National League, a series of showcase events in which overall standings are kept. This season, USYS launched National League P.R.O., in which teams pick two of three national events and round out their schedules with a “local” game for a total of seven, with top teams qualifying for the already-existing national championships. Next season, USYS will also include the Elite 64, which will have a league schedule of 14 games in addition to a national finals event.
The alphabet soup is running out of letters. The Girls Academy will keep point totals for clubs in its national competition, calling that competition the “Club Champions League,” a name already in use by a league that has added satellite operations from its mid-Atlantic home. The National Competitive Soccer League goes by the abbreviation NCSL, as does the traditional local league in the D.C. metro area. Even the Women’s Independent Soccer League, which is planning to play professionally and affiliate with the neo-NCSL, shares the abbreviation WISL with one of the USA’s past indoor leagues and countless local leagues.
For its part, U.S. Soccer is maintaining its laissez-faire attitude, saying it’s not in the business of telling its members they can’t have national events. It’s hard to blame them for that stance, especially when their legal team has enough on its hands as is. (U.S. Club Soccer is careful not to call its events “national championships” -- their winners are simply the champions of specific competitions that happen to be national in scope.)
But absent any structure or guidance from Soccer House, we have a cluttered and confusing marketplace.
“There are multiple sanctioning bodies that all create a National Championship platform,” said USYS CEO Skip Gilbert. “Add to that, any league can easily create a National Championship tournament, regardless of how many states they actually have teams in. This creates massive confusion with parents and forces all organizations to spend more time recruiting teams and poaching players than focusing on developing players and creating programs that kids will stay in throughout their teenage years.”
One organization is a carryover from the cluttered professional market. The NCSL is affiliated not just with the WISL but also NISA, the pro men’s league trying to get a promotion/relegation pyramid going in the USA. As such, it proposes a “pathway to the pros through the lens of promotion and relegation.” The problem is that it’s clubs, not players, who would be promoted and relegated. A player who has the misfortune of living outside a population area that can sustain a youth club of national ambitions will be stuck in Level 4 of the pyramid, regardless of that player’s talent.
Some of the differences between these entities are philosophical. Some are financial.
“The for-profit faction provides leagues and championships to acquire more market share in order to make more money,” said Dave Guthrie, executive director of Indiana Soccer. “To be fair, there are some for-profit organizations that add value to the youth soccer landscape. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. A cursory study of the youth soccer landscape will reveal how the for-profit faction has over-saturated, confused and distorted what was once a healthy, community-based, harmonious, youth development environment.
“The non-profit as well as the for-profit factions have been present over the past 50 years. However the for-profit faction has grown rapidly over the past 25 years, and exponentially over the past 10 years. The sport is being crushed by the excessive number of leagues, competitions, and youth academies that are owned and operated by for-profit organizations.”
That’s the supply part of national league economics. What about the demand?
“I’ve been speaking to a lot of clubs around the country, and they aspire to challenge for national honors,” said Simon Collins, the former English professional player who was hired in August as the commissioner of the USYS National League. “They like to elevate themselves. They’re proud of the fact that they get to the finals. It’s a huge deal.”
And it’s not just the coaches and club executives, Collins says. It’s the players.
“If you look at the photos -- there’s immense elation in that,” Collins said.
The downside is ironic -- by leaving the door open to so many national events, youth soccer becomes more exclusionary, both in terms of geography and family wealth.
Some events aren’t as explicitly focused on club results as the NCSL, but all of these competitions require clubs to get bigger and bigger. Then they all overshadow ODP, which was designed to cover all parts of the country. (Whether it succeeded is a question that can be debated, but the new leagues don’t even offer the pretense of attempting it -- though teams from outside the National League can earn places in the USYS national championships.)
And who pays to rev up the “travel” part of “travel soccer”? Parents. Many of whom can’t afford either the money or the time to send or escort their kids to every corner of the country to play for a dull medal and an approving nod from a coach of an obscure college team.
In turn, those coaches turn out to see the national events from which a lot of top players are excluded. What a curious system we’ve developed in which, instead of a college coach traveling to see 400 players at a regional event or a few league venues, 400 players have to travel to a national event to see the college coach.
USYS is trying to put the genie back in the bottle, sort of. The organization wants to host a Champions Cup bringing together champions and top clubs from the other national bodies.
U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina is skeptical.
“There will never be a claim to a singular national champion,” Cullina said. “The country is simply too large and the calendar won’t work. Someone will always be left out.”
But whether it’s a national championship or not, there’s some benefit to the competition USYS is proposing. Collins wants to include not just the champions of other big organizations but also teams from MLS Next and Europe. He’d also be happy to include ODP teams, which could open a door for players from smaller markets to get a look.
The question no one can answer, though, is why any of these competitions have to be national. Does a Montana ODP team have to fly to Florida, or would a bus ride to Salt Lake City or Denver suffice? Do Southern California teams really need to go to Colorado to find comparable competition?
In short, who will be able to step up to make “travel soccer” about soccer rather than travel?