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The Youth Soccer Universe in the Hudson Valley
Picking a local soccer program for your kid can feel like a shot in the dark.
While there are many opportunities for kids to play in our region (with more popping up almost weekly) many are hard to find and/or make sense of. Some programs may seem solid and then peter out when they lose a particular coach, and the process for getting into the highest-rated programs can be opaque. Around here, there is no obvious path from the playground to the pros.
But rest assured, quality experiences are out there and it is definitely possible to put together a strong development pathway for the committed player in the Hudson Valley.
This guide does not claim to be comprehensive — I find encyclopedic lists mostly unhelpful anyway — so much as, I hope, to answer some of the key questions you have for your young player. When describing the various kinds of programs, I also try to include the kind of player, or player level, I think they are best suited for.
This is written for parents, guardians, anyone looking to introduce a young budding genius to the galaxy’s greatest game, or even the passerby just interested in a deeper understanding of youth soccer development.
Let’s start at the beginning…
Recreational Soccer, or REC
This is the most ubiquitous kind of program in our area for introducing a child to soccer. Most REC programs offer fall and spring seasonal programs for kids as young as 3 years-old (“4U” means under 4).
These programs are generally low-cost and low-burden. If you need to miss a week (or several), you don’t have to feel like you let down the team. They are also, typically, run by volunteer parents of the players, so though you could get lucky, the chances are that the quality of instruction is not the main draw.
If you’re looking for a fun activity close to home for you and your child, at an affordable price with low-stress, REC could be right for you. While you could still encounter the wild, screaming parent at a REC game — many of us discovered our own inner soccer maniac at REC — overall there is also a strong and healthy community pressure to tamp it down and remember that everyone’s here, primarily, to have a good time.
But keep in mind, if you’re serious about soccer training, if you believe in the value of being challenged from even an early age, or if you’re kept up at night by your kid’s 6U coach telling him/her/them to kick it harder, REC programs are probably not your thing. Don’t worry, there’s hope.
Excellent REC programs in the area: Rondout Soccer Club, Kingston Area Soccer Club, New Paltz Soccer Club
(In case you’re moving, AYSO programs are the imperialists of REC soccer. You can find them everywhere.)
Avg cost: $75/season
An alternative, or as the name implies, supplement to REC soccer is Supplemental Clinics, or just “Clinics.”
Typically private, and more costly than a REC program (sometimes very costly), the primary purpose of clinics is to develop the player’s skills. Run by professional trainers, clinics do not require seasonal enrollment — some even offer a drop-in option — and most provide high-level instruction. Clinic sizes are generally small, say 8 - 15 players max, and good trainers can tell you the topic they are going to work on in that session.
Clinics are designed to build players, not teams — a key distinction in youth development. No local player can fully develop without clinics. That sure sounds opinionated, but in the absence of a casual soccer culture, clinics fill a vital void. Without them, and the professional trainers who run them, our kids have little exposure to how a real soccer player moves and to learning how to make the thousands of decisions they need to make every time they step on the pitch.
While there’s no reason you couldn’t use clinics as a substitute for REC entirely, it’s more typical in our area that only advanced players opt for clinics. This is a mistake. It’s not just the cost that prevents more families from doing this, though that’s a very real issue too. Many families forego clinics because they just don’t appreciate how important individual development is to fully enjoying this game. Soccer has the deceptive appearance of being easy to play. But really participating takes a lot of technical development that you won’t achieve without serious training.
Missing clinics is likely why most REC players across the US never develop past, let’s just call it, Stage 1. They never become confident ball handlers.
Clinic programs in the area: NCE and, hmmmm, La Finca Futbol (my first utterly shameless plug)
Avg cost: $10 - $60/session
It’s sad that there are no soccer programs in elementary or middle schools in our area. It’s insane, makes no sense, and puts a lot of undue pressure on our volunteer community.
School soccer starts in the 7th grade with modified programs. They only play in the fall, but when the season is active it’s very active. Training is typically 5 days a week interspersed with a short but intense game schedule. Program quality is hit-or-miss. If your kid’s school has a good coach, you hit gold. You won’t pay anything for the training, and the convenience can’t be beat. It’s so obvious that schools should sponsor quality youth soccer programs, but the rarity of this is what you get when school expenses are considered a luxury. In the 9th grade, most schools offer Junior Varsity and Varsity programs. They, too, only play one season.
School soccer has a lot to offer, but it’s unlikely to be as competitive as a good club experience. This could be the coach, but more likely the players, many of whom will have just started playing soccer a couple years earlier.
Everyone’s heard of travel. It’s considered the obvious next step up after REC for serious or talented players.
In our area, the most familiar travel league is East Hudson Youth Soccer League (EHYSL), which offers boys and girls programs from 8U to 19U. Starting in 9U, it offers a “premier” group within each age division, though this label doesn’t mean much until the 12U division, when your team location ceases to factor in when the EHYSL gods build the brackets.
Most local clubs with travel programs register all their teams in EHYSL, but if there is a stand-out team within the club, you may notice that just that team is playing in a different league, likely New York Club Soccer (our Elite Development Program), with games on Saturday rather than Sunday. This means, yes, your child could play on two travel teams with games both days every weekend. Fun!
Bigger local clubs, like Pathfinders, Fox Soccer Academy, Quickstrike, and Cedar Stars, don’t have any teams in EHYSL. That’s not because all their teams, or players, are better. I swear. They just don’t consider EHYSL serious enough. Or, more cynically (and don’t the cynics usually see some truth?) the brandname clubs know it helps justify the higher fees they demand (with the amazing exception of Pathfinders, where you can get an elite club experience for around $700/yr). In truth, there is a kind of groupthink force at work here that has willed this into reality. While some clubs definitely just sell NYCS league participation to attract consumers, you are likely to find a higher average skill level of player in this league.
This brings up another key concept in youth development. If you pay top dollar for your kid’s soccer program, you can’t always expect better players, but you should expect a quality trainer. If you’re not getting one, definitely start your next search. But, keep this in mind too: for kids up to 11 or 12 years old, their development will depend far more on how frequently they play with good players than on the quality of their coach. If you live in an area that happens to have a pool of great local players and just a decent trainer, you have struck gold. An environment offering even a great trainer with only modest players is not better, and likely worse, than being surrounded by a group of young ballers.
This changes when kids approach their early teens and become more capable of learning effectively from a trainer, but until then kids learn the most important lessons by copying one another and competing against one another, not by listening to Pep Guardiola.
EHYSL tries to schedule games no more than 90 minutes from each team’s home field, oftentimes far less. Entering a team in EHYSL is also relatively inexpensive (as these leagues go), so if you are paying a lot to play on a team that competes in EHYSL, just know that the bulk of your payment is going to support the club. Maybe your club offers professional trainers, topnotch facilities, and travel abroad options, so you don't mind the higher fees; if you're not getting all these perks, however, you might want to look around.
Travel soccer is the ideal place to develop a strong team spirit. If things go well, your player could continue on the same travel team for years, developing lifelong friendships.
It is not, however, the ideal place to develop the technical skills every player needs, since this requires individual ball drills and just lots of playing. Travel is primarily team-focused with just 2 days/week of training.
Other counterproductive issues for travel are the need to field a minimum number of players and the pressure on the coach to compete every weekend, typically from the very first weekend of the season. Progressive coaches and clubs do their best to minimize the importance of winning, but it’s mostly in vain. The entire apparatus is designed for competition! This reality led one very enlightened and highly successful travel coach to agree to just one season of competition a year. It’s an experiment we should all consider. The roster pressure means players will be admitted who might not be developed enough, while the game frequency means they won’t get the right kind of attention all season. If you’re on a travel team and this is ringing painfully true, remember, the answer is to supplement your team training with clinics!
Travel clubs in our area: Kingston Area Soccer League, The Rondout Highlanders, New Paltz Soccer Club, Dutch Elite, Tobar Futbol, Pathfinders
Avg cost: $200 - $500 per season
Considered an “elite” option, academy programs boast professional licensed coaches, exclusive top-rated facilities, and more playing and training opportunities than a typical travel program.
You should expect to travel great distances on weekends, 90+ min regularly, and you are expected to attend every match and practice. Teams may have sizable rosters, and there’s strong competition for playing time. Don’t be surprised to drive 2 hours and then watch your kid’s friends play most of the game.
These programs imply they are the best chance to advance to even higher levels of play, whether college or even professional. It’s not uncommon for them to have former pros or even current college coaches on their staff, so this makes sense. In fact, if you opt for an academy, you’d do well to ask about the pedigree and network of the staff.
Whether they produce is another question. Some in our area are too new to have any hard evidence, and the ones that have been around aren’t transparent about outcomes. That silence is revealing.
But is it worth it? It really depends. Academy programs that are professionally run tend to attract high level players, and for this reason alone, you may find them worth the investment. Remember, at the end of the day, kids learn the most from playing with players better than themselves.
MLS franchises have academy programs, but not all academies have MLS teams. And what’s called the First Team in academies with major franchises like Red Bulls and NYCFC are free of charge, but this is reserved for only the top top top players. Everyone else is paying a hefty sum. But, hey, you never know, maybe your kid will get called up.
Again, here’s a moment where some basic math is helpful. Putting feelings aside for the moment, an economical path forward if your child isn't invited to the Red Bulls First Team when they’re 9 is to play locally, or in a less expensive academy, and try out again when they turn 12 or 13.
Some academy teams play in the NYCS league (just like some EHYSL teams), others in USL or USL II, and the best of them play in MLS Next, or ECNL. Getting onto a team playing in MLS Next is not a guarantee that your kid is going pro or being offered a scholarship to a D1 school, but this is definitely where they are most likely to get that kind of exposure.
Academy clubs in our area: Pathfinders, Cedar Stars*, Quickstrike, Fox Soccer Academy, Real Ole, Joe Palumbo
*Offers MLS Next teams
Avg cost: $1500 - $3500 per year. No seasonal options
Olympic Development Program (ODP)
This is a really interesting supplemental opportunity. As the name implies, this program was built to identify players for the US Youth National team, or who might play in the Olympics. It started in 1977 and there is a program in every state. With a limited number of trainings and games throughout the year, you would participate in ODP in addition to the rest of your training.
ODP has to be considered a valuable addition to any top player’s regular program. Or does it? Until recently, I would have said it’s a must. It was always the program where you’d be sure to find excellent trainers and the state’s best players, but things have changed. Now that private academies have great trainers and many excellent players choose these (or local MLS Next or ECNL teams), ODP’s competitive advantage has slipped considerably. And it isn’t cheap either. Enrollment is typically around $800/year — and remember, this is on top of your club team experience.
That’s a wrap. I hope you have a better sense of the variety of playing opportunities in our area. Like I noted at the outset, part of the challenge in our area is the absence of a unifying youth soccer organization, let alone a single roadmap, so it’s easy to miss potentially great options or even to be lured into bad ones. Apologies to any great local clubs or trainers I missed. So while the diversity in Hudson Valley soccer programs may have seemed unnavigable, I hope now you won’t be deterred. Trust your instincts. While there is not one obvious path forward for everyone, now at least I hope you have a better sense of how to get what you’re after.
Up next, for the very committed with big dreams, I’ll try to make sense of MLS Next and ECNL, widely considered the best youth leagues in our (extended) region.