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Getting to Know MLS Next and ECNL
At the end of my last piece summarizing the Hudson Valley youth soccer landscape, I promised to turn next to what are considered the absolute highest level youth leagues in North America, MLS Next and ECNL. There are other elite youth leagues across the country, but no teams in our area play in them. MLS Next and ECNL have their issues for sure, but both offer incredible, exclusive playing opportunities so it’s important to be aware of them as you plan for the future of your young baller.
The closest clubs to us with teams in either of these leagues is about 1 hour south of New Paltz (though this could be changing soon). The two most important of these are NYCFC and Red Bulls, with training grounds at 280 Old Orangeburg Rd, Orangeburg, NY and 24 Melanie Lane, Whippany, NJ, respectively.
Just know this, MLS Next and ECNL require “club commitments” rather than “team commitments” the way that EHYSL and EDP leagues do. This means a club in either of these leagues needs to field a team at every age division from U13 to U19. Now you understand why your kid’s all-star super team, which only costs $150 a season, is barred from competing against the “elite” teams. Yes, it’s anti-meritocratic and anti-democratic and undermines talent development. Welcome once again to American youth soccer!
(Does that mean you can’t find high quality competition in our area? Or that you can’t build a pathway to the pros without them? No and no. Given the challenging barriers to entry — the league registration fees, the club commitment, the family strain to name just a few— many great opportunities exist outside of participation in these leagues.)
The Youth Super Leagues
The MLS Next is yet another youth soccer league. Just like EHYSL, EDP/NYSC, NPL, GA and UPSL Academy, except not exactly. As the name implies, MLS Next is the youth system of Major League Soccer, the US’s professional soccer league (North American soccer’s NBA, MLB, NHL).
Understanding what it means to be on an MLS Next team would be really straight forward if all the teams were connected to MLS clubs, but in reality most MLS Next youth clubs do not have a 1st team playing at the professional level. You have to understand a bit about its history to make sense of this.
MLS Next replaced what was called the US Soccer Development Academy, which launched in 2007 and collapsed in 2019/20. The forward-thinking idea behind the DA was for a single governing body, US Soccer naturally, to create one league for the best youth players in the country, albeit for males only. When it ended abruptly in 2020 the word on the street was it couldn’t survive the “financial challenges” of COVID, but in reality it just wasn’t an effective program and understanding why is important for evaluating the promise of MLS Next.
The US Development Academy Drops the Ball
The DA started with U15 as the youngest division and it wasn’t until six years later, in 2013, when they added the U14 and U13 divisions. US Soccer’s foray into elite-level teen soccer exposed the talent puddle, more like a raindrop, at the base of our system and they took the next logical step of starting the professional system earlier.
I can’t explain their snail pace once they had this awakening. It took them another three years to open U12 programs. Think about that a second. In the history of US youth soccer, the first attempt at a unified, professional system of training only began in 2007, and it collapsed without ever approaching the grassroots.
In fact, even before its total collapse, the DA dropped its U12 programs. Huh?
At its core, the idea that birthed the DA was an example of America at its best. It is an example of classic American optimism, a reformist project, kind of like the New Deal or the Affordable Care Act. Yes, I’m being totally serious :)
So why, then, didn’t the DA continue its bold, ambitious plan and create a professional standard of youth training all the way down to, say, U8? Why didn’t it solve the talent problem it rightly identified from the start?
US Soccer says they backed out after succeeding in empowering the local clubs to take on this critical project but that’s nonsense. Nobody defends the US grassroots system. With the pull out, they promised to continue to offer supportive resources, but I can tell you they haven’t done anything meaningful in this regard around here. And anyway, offering manuals, coaching workshops, standards of play and other forms of long-distance guidance does not build an effective soccer culture (it’s not a way to build any culture) and culture has always been, and remains, our fundamental problem.
How the DA Continued the Tradition of Underdeveloping Talent
One popular and probably false narrative about the DA’s demise is the programs put too much pressure on kids and their families, stressed them out, exhausted their resources, etc. And there is plenty of evidence of this happening in individual cases. But by abandoning youth soccer, the DA re-opened the door for the former major organizations like the recreational, volunteer-based AYSO and the thousands of smaller, local ones, to refill this vacuum as the expense of our kids. Once again left to their own devices to introduce our kids to this incredible game, the old problems have persisted. Once again, we have enshrined the haphazard and often outright misguided state of early youth development that continues to undermine real talent growth in our country.
It’s time for another nod to my good friend and inspiration, Tom Byer, who’s spent the better part of his career trying to convince the entire soccer world about the preeminence of how we introduce the game to kids starting in U4, not waiting to correct their bad habits or irrecoverable underdevelopment after U12.
So if the DA failure wasn’t due to families and players walking away, or to its remarkable success, what was it? The most compelling answer comes from the men and women on the ground, as it almost always does. In this case, the refs.
Referees arguably see more youth games than anyone, even the coaches. And twelve years after launching the DA, the refs let it be known that the quality just wasn’t there. This was supposed to be the elite of the elite of the elite and the refs were remarking that the games weren’t any better than regular league games.
So why do I believe the poor-talent theory rather than the too-demanding one? Remember, I’m a fanatic for the beautiful game. I love it and I believe in it. In its glory, its power, its capacity to inspire. In its irrepressible ability to overcome any obstacle. If you ask me, wherever the beautiful game is happening, it will overcome all obstacles. So if the DA was producing the real game, it would have flourished. That’s all there is to it.
When the MLS finally got to looking toward its future, its need for mountains of fresh young meat, the DA looked like an Emmanuelle’s shelf midway through the pandemic. WHERE’S THE ABUNDANCE?
So when MLS stepped in, they fixed the problem right? They learned from the DA experiment and took over all of youth soccer. Don’t I wish.
MLS NEXT Today
And so this is the backstory that gave birth to MLS Next.
The DA’s demise was part of a two-part deal to create truly the most competitive male youth league in the country, since MLS teams would now take on the responsibility of building their own youth academies, or so it seemed. There aren’t really enough MLS teams in the US & Canada to cover our massive landscape — total 29 — and, further, in vast swaths of the United States there aren’t any teams in even the minivans driving rangeand so MLS Next has allowed a select group of non-MLS affiliated clubs to participate. As you might imagine, most of these were former DA programs.
Is this new system any better or just lipstick on a pig? Are the MLS Next teams generally better than the DA ones? That is the real problem they were built to solve after all. And honestly, it’s just too soon to say, but the bottom line is MLS Next, with 598 teams representing 133 clubs and 12,000 players from U13 to U19, is widely considered today’s premier, premier league. (For a complete current list of MLS Next teams, click here.)
One key difference from the DA days is that the small number of MLS-affiliated programs do offer no-fee enrollment to the select few young players who make the roster. This is ground-breaking. It’s the first time in US youth soccer history that we’ve removed the cost barrier to elite soccer and, by the way, this is the financial system deployed forever in Europe and South America. Phew…that only took tens of thousands of kids pathways stunted.
But just keep in mind, we’ve simply replaced one elitist youth system with another. The professional club affiliation is an improvement, but MLS Next has not yet, anyway, done anything more to support early youth development. But why would they? What’s the incentive?
What we’ve learned so far from the latest experiment in elite youth soccer is there’s still not enough pressure on professional clubs to get involved in early youth development. This is because of how few MLS teams there are. With only 29 teams in Major League Soccer, despite our broken early youth system they are all still flooded with players. If you’re waiting for club owners and managers to acknowledge the underperformance of their teams, don’t hold your breath. This won’t come from the top. What we need is to make it difficult for the major clubs to find players.
To get a sense of the paucity of professional opportunities in the land of plenty, consider this: the northeast United States is home to the country’s four most densely populated states: NJ, Rhode Island, Conn. and Mass. If we can lump them as a single block since they border one another, they would form a small European country. Together they are home to nearly 21 million people with a population density of 382 people per kms (kilometer squared). These four states are home to just 2 MLS teams, the Red Bulls and New England Revolution! (New York, with its 19.5 million residents, is the 8th most densely populated state with 170 per kms; it has one MLS team, NYCFC.)
Now let’s compare this to the top 5 soccer countries in Europe arranged by population density,
The “Northeast block,” 382 per kms has 2 professional soccer clubs
United Kingdom, 281 per km squared has 72 clubs
Germany, 240 per kms has 36 clubs
Italy, 206 pkms has 20 clubs
France, 119 per kms has 46 clubs
Spain, 94 pkms has 42 clubs
So despite our “northeast country” being far more densely populated than these soccer-succesful ones, our best kids have almost nowhere to play. Is this starting to make sense?
Admitting strong clubs without MLS teams into MLS Next has built a strong competition pool for young players and this is good thing for development, but it’s done nothing to change the pitiful opportunity structure for those who emerge from this system at the top. If it ends up that the MLS Next provides no real pathway to the pros, it won’t be long before our most ambitious players head elsewhere and MLS Next dies on the vine from a lack of distinguishing talent, just like the DA.
ECNL & ECRL
That’s enough about MLS Next.
The Elite Clubs National League, ECNL, is another premier-type, highest league option for players in our area. To call it an option means there are teams within driving range that compete in ECNL. The closest for us is World Class, just 60 min south of New Paltz (and right across the street from NYCFC).
ECNL launched in 2009 as the premier option for girls only, just two years after the DA announced its boys-exclusive program because gender-equity is one area where American soccer rocks (hello women’s national team), and the girls side is still their best program, but you may also find local clubs with boys teams in ECNL and you should take this as a sign of the club’s high quality.
ECNL is no joke. In fact, they’ve got the best track record as pathways to the best American colleges and because MLS Next is primarily focused on creating pathways to MLS or the National Team, the launch of the ECNL boys program makes a lot of sense.
Since its inception, ECNL has grown quickly, currently topping 115 clubs across the country. A sign of this growth is the more recent development of Elite Club Regional League (ECRL), a program of ECNL that ensures competition is more local. Is ECRL “as good”? It depends on where you live. Given the northeast is one of three youth soccer hotbeds of the nation, there’s no reason to dismiss ECRL teams in our area.
Last thing of critical importance that distinguishes ECNL from MLS Next: ECNL does not require players to forgo high school participation. That’s right. If junior makes an MLS Next team and you decide to spend the money, drive the distance and give up all your weekends year round, your little rockstar will have to sit in the stands while the varsity MVP soaks up all the high school glory. This seems a small price to pay to me, but it’s a legitimate concern for many potentially star athletes and a very good reason to opt for an ECNL team instead.
If you already knew about MLS Next and ECNL I’m sure you have more to add and I encourage you to do so by commenting here. If not, this should give you a good place to start. MLS Next also publishes their game schedule and if you love youth soccer as much as I do, the best thing you can do is check out a game for yourself. I guarantee you’ll be impressed: MLS Next Northeast Schedule
For a full list of requirements, see: https://tbusc.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/MLS-NEXT-Rules-and-Regulations-2021-2022.pdf
Here’s a Google map with all the MLS teams, https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1XR7UGQ_Gu3O_Ip-IW7ejKcKsAN4&ll=39.18396359679399%2C-92.51029567724922&z=4