In 2007, the U.S. Soccer Federation shook the American player development model down to its filaments when it formed the Development Academy. By molding regionalized leagues that feed into a national Champions League-style format, the first domino clattered over in a defined move toward a more global youth development model.
The Academy may still be the most visible archetype of that mindset shift, but the idea is beginning to trickle down the tree. In 2009, U.S. Club Soccer became the sanctioning body for the Elite Clubs National League, which has since become the national club league of record for elite girls club soccer.
Two years after the ECNL crashed onto the scene, U.S. Club Soccer launched the maiden voyage of the National Premier Leagues, another mammoth step toward carving a more unified development model from the country's daunting geographic expanse.
The NPL has now completed two full seasons, and the start of its third is currently rippling through the 18 member leagues that speckle the map from California to New England. U.S. Club Soccer took some of the lessons learned from the USSF's successful launch with the Academy and applied them to an even more expansive national model.
The NPL welcomes teams from the U13 to the U18 levels, with a single winner in each age division from each regional league advancing to the NPL Champions Cup in the summer. It's not unlike what the Academy does with its Finals Week format, just blown up to accommodate more age ranges and both sexes.
After establishing boys teams in 2011, the NPL welcomed girls teams for the first time in 2012, another sign of the league's rapid growth. Two years ago, the NPL began with just the Northeast Pre-Academy League. Now, the NPL boasts thousands of members, hundreds of teams and has staked out a cozy niche on the country's youth development map.
"The Federation led the way with the boys academy, then the ECNL came and then the NPL came," U.S. Club Soccer executive vice president Christian Lavers told TopDrawerSoccer.com. "So there's sort of a staggered progression here of the platforms growing. The boys platform is a year ahead of the girls in the NPL, but that is growing tremendously as well. I think if you look at the growth in terms of the footprint of the leagues, the growth in terms of the quality of the clubs, the growth in terms of the size of the leagues, that's always a balance between having quality and having the right clubs. But I would say we've grown way faster than a lot of people would say was likely to happen."
Lavers understands the formational challenges of crafting a league like this out of thin air. He was one of the primary schemers in the ECNL's creation, and when that league took off, he began conversations with his colleagues about broadening the scope with a new venture. More teams. More leagues. More players. Why not create an Academy-like structure for teams that, for whatever reason, aren't playing in the Academy or ECNL?
And so the NPL was born.
"We want players to maximize potential," Lavers said. "They need to be playing challenging games that mean something over the course of the year. There wasn't really a competition structure set up to do that outside of the Academy and the ECNL. The same philosophies that support doing that within those platforms exist for other clubs and other levels. The NPL was our answer to that."
The NPL's national roster of teams is enormous, numbering well into the hundreds. Last summer, 118 teams across the league's six age brackets qualified for the NPL Champions League, which parrots international club competitions like the Champions League in its organization. Twelve teams won titles after slogging through a nearly 11-month season in their respective regional premier leagues.
One of the league's biggest growing footprints is its role in player identification. U.S. Club Soccer started its national id2 program nine years ago to identify top talent. The program relies on a national scouting and recommendation network to fill its annual training camps, which are typically fertile breeding grounds for next-level talent.
Before it gets to the national level, the Player Development Programs (or PDPs) take center stage. Introduced just last year, the regional PDPs are directly tied to NPL teams in their specific region. They invite the best players from those regional teams for an evaluation camp that lasts about a day and a half. The best players from those camps, which Lavers said are sometimes scouted directly by the USSF, are then invited to the national id2 camp.
"Those have grown tremendously," Lavers said. "We're looking to continue to improve. What we try and do is listen to the market, listen to what the clubs want, listen to what they say is working well and not working well and recognizing that you're not going to keep everybody happy. But we can make changes that are logical and that make sense for the majority of the clubs in the league."
For now, the NPL will continue on with its 2013-14 season and look to implement changes where it can. Lavers says the league is continually looking at things like membership size, defraying travel costs, analyzing the number of games played in each league and even adding a showcase for NPL teams to help with college identification.
As with nearly everything at this point in the game, the NPL is still ironing out its future path. But it has a foot in the door of a model most of the country views as the way forward, and that has its organizers excited for the future.
"The first goal is to have leagues all over the country in every major market, with the top clubs in the area being involved in the NPL," Lavers said. "We recognize the Academy and ECNL are the highest level of club competition in the country. The NPL should be a level just below that."