The definitive word on participation trophies …

From a Cracked piece responding to a rant about Millennials:

Simon, let me tell you about my participation trophies. I got them for playing soccer, and they were handed out from a bag at the end of the year with all the ceremony of communist factory workers getting their lunch rations. My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” Later it was a nice reminder of time spent playing with my friends, and as I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.

Source: This Millennial Rant Deserves A Trophy For Being Most Wrong

How far would you travel for travel soccer?

Alternative youth soccer leagues are almost as popular these days as alternative facts.

I’ve spent the last month doing interviews and compiling data for an upcoming story to see how we stand on the fine line between awesome and absurd. That reminds me: Today is the last day to take my survey about leagues in your area and whether they strike the right balance between competition and spending entire weekends in cars and hotels.

The data is now available in map form, showing more than 300 Under-14 boys teams in Region 1 and the leagues in which they play. Here’s the full version:

Here’s the methodology:

The age group: I chose U14 boys because this is the last year before a lot of teams sit out league seasons to allow kids to play high school soccer. They’ll usually play in a few tournaments during that season off, but the point here is to show the leagues. Tournaments are another issue entirely. I chose boys rather than girls because there are more teams (the reasons for that are yet another rant) and because the girls are getting a new Development Academy next year that will throw everything for a loop.

Yes, the boys also have a new league — the boys ECNL, which is represented here.

The rankings: Youth soccer rankings are generally ridiculous. Teams enter every tournament they can in an effort to boost their numbers at GotSoccer so they can brag to their friends and (they think) impress college coaches. They’re also based on results, which can be deceiving (another reason I chose U14 rather than U11 or U12, where kids are still learning the game and one team with a good goalkeeper may beat a far superior team whose goalkeeper is scared of the ball). Some teams I know to be outstanding are poorly ranked or not ranked at all because they’ve either reorganized or simply not played enough games. And you may still have some rogue results because some team’s star player needed math tutoring or was at a cousin’s wedding the weekend of the biggest tournament of the year or whatever.

With that disclaimer out of the way — yes, I used rankings here. I took the ever-controversial GotSoccer as well as a lesser-known site called YouthSoccerRankings, which seems to have more league results as well as a handy tool for soliciting corrections.

The idea behind using two ranking systems was to cast a wide net. Some teams had incomplete records with one service or were missing entirely, but then the other site would have the info. I calculated an overall ranking based on the higher of the two rankings. Then I took the top 300 teams, plus any other teams that play in self-proclaimed elite leagues.

So the numbers are all included, but please take them with a grain of salt. They update quickly — I pulled the YouthSoccerRankings numbers in the middle of last week, and they changed the next day. I’m hoping to get a general idea of where the top teams in Region 1 are playing, and I’ve surely missed a few. I’m not trying to start an argument between overbearing soccer dads in Massachusetts and Virginia because one kid’s team is ranked 45th and another is 58th.

The leagues: “What league are you in?” is not a simple question. Some teams switch leagues between fall and spring, and some play in multiple leagues in the same season. A handful of teams aren’t in a league at all, at least in the spring. I tried to find either the team’s most recent league or the league into which they’re moving this fall (particularly the new ECNL, but also a few other elite leagues replacing ECNL-bound participants).

And in some cases, it’s hard to tell what qualifies as a separate team and what doesn’t. Both of the ranking sites have a lot of duplicates — a team may be “River Otters Premier Black” at one tournament and “River Otters NH North Coast Premier” at another. I did all I could to catch duplicates, and I deleted teams that seem to be one-offs for specific tournaments or otherwise not consistently active.

The leagues are …

The national big dogs

U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA): Clubs are invited by U.S. Soccer and only play each other. Many are professional clubs (MLS, NASL). No additional tournaments. Players cannot play high school soccer while enrolled in the DA. Launching a girls version in fall 2017.

Elite Clubs National League (ECNL): The girls version has existed for several years. U.S. Club Soccer is launching a counterpart for boys in fall 2017. It competes head-to-head with the Development Academy, offering no MLS affiliations but more flexibility. Teams can compete in outside tournaments but usually not traditional State Cups (U.S. Club Soccer is starting to do its own, which is yet another rant), and players can often play in high school.

U.S. Club Soccer National Premier Leagues

Not to be confused with U.S. Club Soccer Premier Leagues, which also exist.

Elite Development Program (EDP): A hybrid of many things spanning I-95 from New York to Northern Virginia. The top division is considered a U.S. Club NPL and therefore a qualifier for other competitions. Divisions below that are tiered and regionalized. In some areas, it has become the de facto primary league. Farther south, it attracts teams looking for “elite” play — teams often move over their local league’s top division. But it’s not exclusive — the lowest divisions have teams that aren’t ranked anywhere near the top 300. The teams on the map are ranked in the top 300, sometimes reaching down to the league’s sixth tier (Championship 2). For purposes of the map, teams below the NPL division are grouped regionally regardless of division. That’s EDP-North (1N, 2N, PN1-2, CN1-3), EDP-Central/East (1C, 2C, 2E, PC1-2, PE1-2, CC1-4) and EDP-South (1S, 2S, PS1-2, CS1-2). Several clubs are moving their top teams to the ECNL but will likely have other teams remain here. Some teams also play in other leagues and are listed with their base leagues.

New England Premier League (NEP): Also a hybrid of sorts. The Premier League is the top division of the New England Premiership. The NPL division is much larger than the EDP’s NPL division. Teams listed here are any teams in the NPL division (excluding FC Stars and FC Boston Bolts, which are moving to the ECNL) and any other teams in the top 300. Divisions: Premiership (NEP-P), Premiership-1 (NEP-P1), Championship (three regions: NEP-CC, NEP-CN, NEP-CS), League 1 (NEP-L1N, NEP-L1S) and League 2 (NEP-L2).

New York City Soccer League (NYCSL): Another large hybrid league, and this one’s especially confusing. The NPL division is the top division. Then comes Metro (NYCSL-M). Then the Premier League, which has multiple tiers (NYPL-1, NYPL-2, etc.). Though it’s called the NYC Soccer League, it reaches out into suburbs in other states. Next year, East Meadow SC will move its top team to the ECNL.

Virginia Premier League (VPL): A club-centric league. Games are scheduled so that each club’s teams in each age group play its counterparts in another club on the same day. No promotion/relegation. (Disclaimer: I live in Vienna and have had kids in that club’s rec program, and I know quite a few coaches, board members, etc. I also happen to think they should ditch this league. Their top girls teams don’t have enough competition; some of the boys teams have too much.)

Regional elite leagues (not U.S. Club Soccer)

Atlantic Premier League (APL): Teams in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Two divisions in fall, one division in spring. Map accounts for all D1 teams in either season except Penn Fusion SA Elite and Continental FC Barca, which are leaving for the ECNL.

Club Champions League (CCL): Like VPL, scheduling is club-centric, with no promotion and relegation. The league covers Virginia and Maryland and also operates CCL2, which includes CCL clubs’ B teams as well as few other clubs’ A teams. The map accounts for all CCL clubs and the top CCL2 teams except Braddock Road and Maryland United, which are leaving for the ECNL. The site cleverly hides schedules and results, so a lot of the home fields in the map are educated guesses.

Local leagues

National Capital Soccer League (NCSL): A traditional local promotion/relegation league covering the D.C. metro area and sometimes beyond, reaching down to Fredericksburg, up to Baltimore and out to West Virginia. The teams on the map are ranked in the top 300, sometimes reaching down to the league’s fourth tier. It’s included here because it has 15 teams in the top 300, far more than any other local league. (Disclaimer: I have a son who plays in this league. His team is neither U14 nor in the top 300 in the region.)

The other local leagues, in order of number of teams represented:

Thruway League: West and Central New York.

Connecticut Junior Soccer Association (CJSA): Elite and Premier Leagues.

Connecticut Club Soccer League (CCSL): A U.S. Club Soccer league.

Pennsylvania West Classic League (PA West): The top teams also play in the Eastern Regional League, many skipping the spring PA West season.

DELCO: Eastern Pennsylvania.

Eastern New York Premier League (ENYPL): The name says it all.

Vermont State League: Another well-named league.

Virginia Soccer League: Central and Southeast Virginia (Richmond to Hampton Roads).

Westchester Youth Soccer League (WYSL): U.S. Club Soccer league in eastern New York. Top division is called Premier League and is difficult to find on the site.

Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League (Cosmopolitan): New York City.

Fall Classic League (FCL): Maine. I hope they have lighted fields.

Inter-County Soccer League (ICSL): Pennsylvania East.

Northeast Soccer League (NSL): Mostly Massachusetts, with some from New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Joining U.S. Club Soccer in the fall.

South Jersey Soccer League (SJSL): Again, the name is apt.

The map does not have separate dots for the Eastern Regional League (ERL), a qualification-based U.S. Youth Soccer league. Most ERL teams also play in a local base league, and each ERL team is noted in the descriptions.

x x x

I did a second version of the map as well, limiting this one to the DA plus 100 teams. Again, I’m sure some teams in the 200s can beat some teams in the 80s. I just wanted to get another, slightly cleaner look at it to demonstrate that there are some objectively good teams out there that are near each other and don’t play each other.

Then for those who would rather see static snapshots than play around with a Google Map, let’s take a look at a couple of big areas. Here’s the D.C. metro area in the larger map with 300+ teams in the region:

You can see the inroads EDP (blue circles) has made, especially in Maryland, and you can see the hodge-podge of other leagues dividing my homeland of Northern Virginia.

When we limit the regional map to 100+ teams, it looks like this.

In contrast, New York looks a little more cohesive:

Here it is at 100+:

That’s several DA teams (black circles/white stars), a couple joining ECNL (reddish circles/white stars), a whole lot of EDP North and EDP Central (blue and purple circles), and then a few in the NYCSL (hiking guy in green), particularly on Long Island.

That should be enough to start the conversation. I’m also happy to share my data. I may do it by Google Sheet, or I may go back to trying to figure out Github. Suggestions welcome.

Then be on the lookout later this week for a story about whether this has gotten absurd.

Washington Spirit 0-1 FC Kansas City: History and repeating

Something new: Mallory Pugh became the first U.S. teenager in the NWSL and, as far as I know, the first U.S. teenager in a pro women’s soccer league.

Something old: The Spirit couldn’t turn their chances into a goal, losing 1-0 for the third time in four home games.

In most respects, though, both teams exceeded my expectations. Maybe I’m just getting old and pessimistic. But the Spirit’s oft-sputtering offense created some chances even without Tori Huster in the midfield to drive them forward. The defense had nowhere to go but up after conceding six in Seattle, but they went beyond “avoiding catastrophe” to “limiting chances.” FCKC’s defense is simply superb, and the offense capitalized on its one good chance.

“We’ve been working all week on getting in the box and finding space,” Newfield said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Syd claims she flicked it over to me on purpose.”

When told Opta had ruled later in the game that Leroux would get an assist on the play, Newfield quipped, “They must have heard her talking at halftime then.”

The Spirit had a few good chances, but two weeks after her offensive explosion against Sky Blue, Francisca Ordega’s touch deserted her. Cheyna Williams got into good spots but shot straight at Nicole Barnhart multiple times. The best chances were from Kristie Mewis — the first after Arielle Ship’s slick move on the left …

… the second on a free kick …

… and another on a free kick.

Unfortunately for Mewis and the Spirit, Becky Sauerbrunn is apparently psychic and had positioned herself right where that ball was going to go.

“When (Nicole Barnhart) was setting the wall, I asked, ‘Do you want me to come back?'” Sauerbrunn said. “She said yeah. Literally, I was trucking back, and Kristie Mewis nailed it off my chest.”

Was that how you drew it up, Vlatko Andonovski?

“I’m gonna say that I was happy with the restarts.”

First time I’ve talked with the FCKC coach after a win. He’s amusing.

And KC needed this. They have playoff potential as usual, but five points in five games won’t cut it.

Andonovski insists that they’re not just going Route 1 to Leroux.

“We were changing it as the game was going on. Sometimes we were a little more possession-oriented and looking for those gaps and opportunities, and sometimes we were direct. We were going to take what they give us. When they put pressure on us and overload numbers in our defensive third, we had to go over the top and find the runners. Then there were times they were sitting a little bit lower, and we started building it from the back.”

Besides, direct play gets a bad rap at times. If someone can whack a 50-yard diagonal ball that sends Leroux into a foot race against a terrified defender, that’s worth trying a few times a game, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the Spirit’s ambitions are going to be a bit lower this season. Before the rash of injuries, they were a long shot to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Now? Nearly impossible.

But tonight’s game gave a few glimpses of potential. Cheyna Williams just seems to be a touch or two away from having that breakout second season that so many NWSL attackers have. When healthy, Mewis and Huster are a powerful midfield engine.

And that new kid out on the left wing in the second half looked pretty good, too. I wonder if Jill Ellis, who was sitting right in front of the pressbox, happened to catch her name.

Survey: How many (too many) youth soccer leagues in your area?

Development Academy! ECNL, for girls AND boys! A different U.S. Club Soccer league! A traditional U.S. Youth Soccer league! Something else your local clubs set up and convinced you that you need to drive 300 miles for a league game!

I’m doing a project on soccer leagues and whether we’re making families travel too much to play travel soccer. I’ve seen it quite clearly here in the D.C. metro area, but I’d like to hear how it is elsewhere. Is this a nationwide problem, or is it just in a few regions?

So if you’re a coach, technical director or other soccer admin-type, won’t you please take a couple of minutes to fill out this survey?