The sprawling attempt to prevent travel soccer sprawl

Let’s play Soccer Optometrist.

Better like this?

Or better like this?

That’s the result of my attempt to demonstrate something I’ve been investigating and analyzing for the past two months in a couple of stories — the opus on all Development Academy issues and the five-point plan for reducing the confusion and unnecessary travel in elite soccer — and the first full-fledged Ranting Soccer Dad podcast, in which Mike Woitalla and I pointed to travel itself as the best place to cut costs in travel soccer. The logic is pretty simple — it’s tougher to cut coaching costs and much tougher to cut field costs than it is to cut the bills on hotels and airlines.

So the hypothesis I’m testing with these maps: Elite soccer players don’t need to travel like Odysseus to find competitive games. The Development Academy (adding girls’ teams this year) and the ECNL (adding boys) would be better off if they played each other and top U.S. Youth Soccer teams currently playing in the Eastern Regional League and National League.

I also learned two important lessons:

1. Don’t try to put 332 data points on a map of the Northeast U.S.

2. Most youth soccer clubs have atrocious websites.

But I did compile complete-ish data for most teams playing at a serious or semi-serious level in Region 1 (the East Coast from Virginia to Maine). I put the raw data on Github because I have delusions of becoming a data journalist. (And so people can check numbers at a glance and dive deeper if they wish.)

On the spreadsheet and the maps, all clubs are listed with their 2016-17 leagues EXCEPT the ECNL and DA, which have announced their fall lineups, plus a couple of clubs that have qualified for the National League. I did NOT go through and try to figure new qualifiers for the ERL or calculate promotion/relegation in EDP and local leagues. (But there’s a little bit of pro/rel later.)

The rankings are all from Youth Soccer Rankings. All rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but this site has the most comprehensive results database. It has the occasional error, mostly because teams often don’t use consistent names (“PREMIER 01 GIRLS FC BULLDOGS” or “PREMIER FC BULLDOGS,” etc.) and because a couple of leagues (looking at you, Virginia Premier League) have sites that simply don’t make it easy to look up results. But it does a remarkable job of compiling and analyzing scores, and I chose the U17 level because that group is old enough for results to be relatively meaningful. I used girls leagues because boys DA teams generally aren’t ranked because they rarely play outside the DA.

I have a plausible reorganization of the “national” leagues in U.S. youth soccer — the Development Academy, the ECNL and the U.S. Youth Soccer regional/national competitions. On these maps, I call that “Division 1.” I’m a little less convinced with what I’m calling “Division 2,” for reasons that will be come apparent.

Here’s how I broke it down:

CRITERIA FOR CURRENT LEAGUES (the “Before” view in the before-and-after of my reorganization; the numbers all refer to rankings)

DIVISION 1: 64 teams

  • Elite Clubs National League (ECNL): 6 t10, 9 13-32, 47th, 82nd, 104th
  • Development Academy (DA): 4 t12, 2 35-75, 129th, 8 new teams
  • Eastern Regional League (ERL) and/or U.S. Youth Soccer National League (Natl): 2 t20, 8 21-50, 10 51-100, 5 101-200, 2 below
  • Two independent teams ranked in top 100

DIVISION 2: (105 teams)

NPL (U.S. Club Soccer) regional leagues

  • New England Premier League (NEPL): 6th, 6 40-100, 2 below 200
  • NPL Northeast: 3 t50, 4 51-100, 6 101-200
  • New York Club Soccer League (NYCSL) – NPL Division: 2 t20, 5 51-100, 2 101-200
  • Virginia Premier League (VPL): 2 50-100, 4 101-200, 3 below 200

Non-NPL regional leagues

  • EDP – 1st Divisions
    • North (NY East/CT): 2 t50, 1 51-100, 3 101-125
    • Central (NJ): 3 t50, 2 51-100
    • East (NJ/PA East): 2 t50, 3 51-100
    • South (PA East/MD): 1 t50, 3 51-100
  • New England Premiership – 1st Division (NEP): 4 51-100, 5 101-200
  • Club Champions League (Va/Md): 1 t50, 2 51-100, 4 101-200, 3 <275, one unr.
  • 11 independent teams in top 200 (11)

DIVISION 3 (162 teams)

I only mapped this on the rather jumbled 332-team map. I may go back and do some local case studies at some point. But for posterity, here’s how I came up with a third division.

Complete leagues (or divisions of leagues)

  • EDP – 2nd Divisions: majority in top 200; all but 2 in top 300)
  • EDP – Premier divisions (third tier): 7 101-200, 10 201-300
  • Connecticut Junior Soccer Association – Elite: 2 101-200, 4 201-300)
  • National Capital Soccer League – Div. 1 (NCSL; DC/MD/VA): 3 101-200, 3 201-300 (disclaimer — the NCSL has collected some Dure family registration fees over the years)
  • NEP – 2nd Division: 3 101-200, 3 201-300
  • Northeast Soccer League – Elite (NSL; NE): 2 101-200, 1 200-210, only 4 teams
  • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1 (second tier): 2 101-200, 3 201-300
  • PA West Spring Classic League – Div. 1 (SCL): 87th, 3 101-200, 2 201-300
  • Thruway League – National (NY West): 11th (also ERL/Natl), 54th, 173, 218th, unranked

In the top 300 or champion in a league with multiple teams over 300

  • 5 from CJSA – Premier
  • 2 each from EDP Championship Central and Championship North (fourth tier)
  • 3 from Jersey Area Girls Soccer (JAGS)
  • 2 from Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier A (LIJSL)
  • 2 from NCSL – Div. 2
  • 3 each from NEP Championship North and Central (third tier)
  • 3 from NSL – Premier
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 2 (plus fall champ that also plays LIJSL)
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 3
  • 2 from Rock Spring League (PA East)
  • 2 from SCL – Div. 2
  • 3 from Thruway League – Presidents (second tier)
  • 2 from Virginia State League – Division 1 (VSL; plus 2 teams playing up)

Champions or top U16 teams in these leagues/divisions/states

  • Baltimore Beltway Soccer League (BBSL, Md.): top team 466
  • Blue Ridge Soccer League (BRSL, Va.): champion 373 (also beat team playing up at U17)
  • Central Pennsylvania Youth Soccer League (CPYSL): top team 412
  • Lancaster County Soccer League (LANCO, PA East): top team 344
  • Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier B (LIJSL): champion 238
  • Mid New Jersey (MNJ): top team 468
  • Monmouth Ocean Soccer Association (MOSA, NJ): champion 414
  • Maine State Premier League (MSPL): champion 383, plus team (69) that played up
  • NCSL – Div. 3: champion 287
  • NEP – League 1 (fourth tier): champion 253
  • New Hampshire State League (NHSL): champion 542
  • NSL – Select: champion unranked
  • Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer – Div. 4 (PAGS, top tier, fall league): champion 318
  • Vermont State League (VtSL): top team 334, top-ranked team 328
  • West Virginia: remaining top-ranked team 323

So how did I do the “reimagined” maps? Like so:

DIVISION 1: Add champions of Division 2 leagues. (EDP-1N champion New York SC Elite NPL is already in DA.)


  • Remove those who were promoted.
  • Add champions of:
    • EDP – 2nd Divisions
    • CJSA – Elite
    • NCSL – Div. 1
    • NEP – 2nd Division
    • NSL – Elite
    • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1
    • SCL – Div. 1
    • Thruway League – National (already in)

Here’s how it turned out:



That’s an improvement, but perhaps less so than Division 1.

The Division 2 issues:

  • Pennsylvania West somehow dropped to one team. They have some company at the western tip of New York and in West Virginia, but that’s not a league. Possible solutions:
    • Play up an age group in a local league.
    • Cross the regional boundary and play in Ohio.
    • Just drop to Division 3 unless they’re utterly dominant.
  • Roanoke Star, all the way in southwestern Virginia, also might need to cross a regional boundary and play teams in and around Greensboro.
  • Virginia’s high school season is in the spring. (So is Delaware’s, though only for girls.) I should probably split the “DMV” region along the Potomac.


Do we care about high school soccer? Depends on the region. I found most elite teams currently play few to no league games during their high school season. A lot of lower second and third tiers that often play through high school season, depending on the region. In my densely populated area (Northern Virginia), that makes sense — players who aren’t on the top travel teams won’t make their high school teams. That’s surely less common in more rural areas.

High school play is the biggest wedge between the Development Academy and the ECNL. The latter allows players to play in high school. The former doesn’t — sort of. Players can get waivers if their admission or scholarship to private school is contingent on their participation on the soccer team.

If we combine the DA and ECNL, we’d have to let players play in high school. If some teams want to skip high school soccer and play more league games, we can work that out.

Final note: This plan wouldn’t necessarily replace existing leagues. The NPL (U.S. Club Soccer’s network of regional leagues) would get some reorganization, and it could split the second tier with the EDP or share it. (The sprawling EDP already has some NPL divisions in other age groups, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them cooperating.) I do think Club Champions League should reinvent itself as a series of showcase events rather than a “league,” which is another rant.

The rest of the pyramid remains intact, perhaps with the stipulation that teams would need waivers if they’re a certain distance from the league’s geographic center.

There’s no way to prevent all lopsided games. But with this system in place, at least teams wouldn’t travel 300 miles for an uncompetitive game. If they still want to fly to Disney World for a tournament, they’re still free to do so. (Can I join your club?)


Parents demanding more from youth soccer experience

A two-fer here. For FourFourTwo, I explained that soccer parents’ complaints are no longer as easy to dismiss as they may have been when no one understood the game.

Source: Parents rightfully demanding more from inconsistent youth soccer experience | FourFourTwo

Then a related piece for Soccer Wire:

Source: Dure: Are pro coaches really better than parents? | Soccer Wire

June 16, 2016


Mapping the chaotic youth soccer scene

The sprawling, chaotic, multi-layered Google Map from Hell: Select soccer clubs and leagues across the Mid-Atlantic region, where even second- and third-tier teams routinely drive hours for games.

Follow-up coming in July …

Source: Dure: Mapping the chaotic youth soccer scene — Soccer Wire

April 29, 2016

Single-Digit Soccer: Give U10 travel the boot

Tomorrow, I’ll coach my U8s for the last time. They’re a wonderful team, most of whom I’ve coached off and on for the past two years (four seasons).

Next year, we move up from concurrent small-sided games of 4-on-4 to the bigger fields with 7-on-7. We’ll have goalkeepers and refs.

What we won’t have will be a couple of our best players. They’re going to travel soccer. A few others have considered it or tried out, and the experience has been simply horrible. I feel like I’ve spent the last two weeks talking parents off ledges. Two years ago, when I saw a ridiculous political situation working against a couple of players I knew well, I spent this time rebuilding confidence so these kids wouldn’t miss out.

I’ve seen plenty of gossip. “Oh, this club isn’t any good because it doesn’t have any teams in the Premier Champions Club League. I’ve heard that’s better than the Champions Elite Premier League or the Academy Premier Champions Academy. Someone on a message board told me Club X only practices twice a week, while Club Y practices eight times.”

You know what? The whole thing is crap.

A lot of parents don’t need me to tell them that. A lot of coaches will disagree. “Oh no,” they’ll say, “these are the peak development years, and we need to get the best players in quality teams with quality coaches.”

Maybe so. And you can still do that without all this mess.

If you still don’t believe me, Mr. Tryout Coach, let me sum it up with words I’ve heard often from parents that should frighten you to your very core:

Baseball is so much easier to deal with.

That’s right, Mr. Elite Coach. I’m a baseball parent, too, and they’re right. Our kids aren’t going to Little League practices and dealing with this crap. They just play and learn. Some areas are trying to ramp up with “travel” baseball, and they’re meeting resistance, captured in this wonderful Washington Post piece that has made the rounds among youth sports parents.

Does this sound familiar?

Travel ball, by contrast, is not cheap — participation fees average about $2,000 per player per year. And teams may invite players from anywhere in the region. Since tournaments and games are usually in other towns, players and their parents must spend many hours commuting.

Some travel ballplayers resemble professional athletes: Year by year, they go from one travel team to another, switching teammates and uniforms, with the name splashed across the front of the jersey usually signifying something other than their home town.

For the most part, Little Leaguers play in what we soccer people would call “House” league, maybe making All-Stars at the end, through age 12. Then it’s Babe Ruth or other organizations until high school. And many baseball folks want to keep it that way.

We keep hearing that the mark of a good coach is how many of his or her players return to keep playing. (That’s not true, but we’ll save that for another rant.) So we parent coaches try to do that. And then you undermine us with a system that angers 70% of your parents and kids.

I deal with parents who want to be assigned to whichever team practices at the closest field to their house. You want to take all these kids, pool them together and assign them based on your club’s supposed needs. And if there’s no room in the program with the professional coaches, that’s OK — they can drive over to the next town. You don’t mind driving through the inner suburbs at rush hour, do you?

And I deal with parents who are terrified of their kids facing some kind of stigma from playing “House” or “recreational” soccer. And I deal with kids who walk around their third-grade classes like they’re the bomb because they’re on “travel.” Congratulations, kid — you had an October birthday (or August, but your parents held you back in school), you’re faster and more aggressive than most kids, and so you got a big rep dominating the 3v3 and 4v4 magnetball games in the younger age groups. Truly, you are superior to the kid who just missed the cut.

You’re driving away future players, particularly the late bloomers who don’t shine at the all-important U9 tryout. And you’re driving away future fans, giving people a negative impression of soccer as some cutthroat status-oriented enterprise.

And the funny is this — you all know you shouldn’t be doing this.

Here’s the quote you’ll see in a million PowerPoint presentations from Alfonso Mondelo, MLS director of player development:

The problem in the U.S.A. is they start travel soccer at too early an age. That’s totally detrimental. It becomes more like winning and collecting hardware than about having kids play and learning from playing.

Here’s the U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model, February 2012, p. 66-67:

The U-10 age group is when children are often asked to compete before they have learned how to play. This too much too soon syndrome is another symptom of the flux phase. Therefore, US Youth Soccer recommends U-10 players should not:

• Be involved in results oriented tournaments, only play days, jamborees or festivals with a participation award.

• Be exposed to tryouts.

• Be labeled recreational or competitive.

“But soccer isn’t like baseball,” Mr. Elite Coach is blubbering by this point. “We need to make sure good players are challenged and getting good instruction!”

Yes, that’s fine. And here’s how:

A lot of clubs are coming up with transitional “pre-travel” programs at U8. They may play with their regular House/rec teams (some don’t, which is yet another rant), but they also get one session a week with the club’s Serious Professional Technical Staff — which, in all seriousness, is better about teaching skills than most of us parent coaches could be. At the very least, they can demonstrate them a lot better. Then they assemble teams for “crossover” games with other clubs.

This system works pretty well at U8.

And it would work at U9. And U10.

It’s the best of both worlds. The kids get to keep playing with their buddies and with parent coaches who care about them. Those who seek it also get professional training and a chance to represent their clubs.

By U11 or U12, fine — split the travel kids away. Middle school kids are more mature (well, in some ways). You’re almost old enough to specialize in one sport, though it wouldn’t hurt to spend the winter or summer doing something else.

And if you wait until then, that’s another two years for kids to have a positive experience that they’ll remember fondly. They’ll turn into soccer fans — or players. Or both. Their parents won’t scream in horror at the mention of the word “soccer.”

And the sport will be better off.

The bad news: You can’t expect clubs to police themselves. This has to come from on high.

So, U.S. Soccer — it’s up to you.

(If you’ve read this far — first of all, thanks. Secondly, you may have noticed that I’m working on a book called Single-Digit Soccer, and I’d appreciate feedback on this and any other topics. There are some voices of reason emerging from the wilderness — see the Changing the Game project — and I hope my work will encourage others to emerge.)


Single-Digit Soccer: What age for travel? Tryouts?

We’re in the midst of travel tryouts, in between massive thunderstorms. That means a bunch of second-graders are out showing their stuff, hoping to make the cut for U9.

Of course, we’re not supposed to be doing that, according to … well, everyone. No one seems to be making the case for starting travel soccer at the U9 level, and yet everyone’s doing it.

Consider the U.S. Soccer “Best Practices” guide (PDF). They recommend “a few organized matches per season” and “little or no travel” through U10. (I’m not saying I agree with everything here. They say 9-year-olds should NOT be organized and hold their positions. The reality: Competitive 8-year-olds with a real interest in soccer want to play real games. They’re sick of “magnetball” — particularly if they’re little guys who don’t fare well in a scrum.) did a neat state-by-state survey (PDF) asking when “competitive play” begins. Most states started around 10 or 11. Most directors surveyed said they’d rather start a little later.

Then there’s this essay based partly on the book Game On by Tom Farrey, which suggests that we Americans are the only ones pushing our kids to play such organized sports so early in life. (The English parent on my team would disagree.) It points to a real issue with having travel tryouts so early — the “early bloomers” could end up getting all the coaching attention. I think my club is trying to address this problem by having programs geared toward House players as well as Travel players, which is one reason I like my club!

I can see a couple of advantages to having tryouts and travel soccer early. Some kids really want that level of competition. And serious players can get serious coaching without being bogged down by the daisy-pickers who drive us U8 parent coaches to distraction.

But can we do that without putting 8-year-old kids through a meat-grinder tryout at an age in which it’s really difficult to spot the best players?

I think so, and the answer may be what some local clubs are doing at the U8 level. Offer additional programs to your House league. And don’t have tryouts for them. The most serious players — who, not coincidentally, will usually be the best players as well — will sign up.

Give everyone the “free play” so treasured by the youth soccer cognoscenti these days. Then give the most soccer-savvy players a chance to do a little more.

At least, that’s the hypothesis I’m sticking with for now. That might change tomorrow. These aren’t easy questions with easy answers. But the good news is that no one’s listening to me.