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How youth teams are straddling the ECNL, Development Academy divide

Written by Will Parchman

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Once the initial shockwaves subsided, we were left wondering exactly how the newly announced Girls Development Academy from U.S. Soccer would divide the elite girls youth soccer landscape in the U.S. And now we might have some semblance of an idea.

The ECNL, of course, has been the top girls club soccer league in the country since its foundation in 2009. It was a spin-off of US Club Soccer’s, an institution that shares a step in the U.S. development pyramid with US Youth Soccer. The ECNL was always a set-apart entity from U.S. Soccer, although USSF did heavily recruit out of its ranks for USYNT players. Pretty much every girls player of record in the current U17 and U20 setups, as well as the vast majority of the top women’s college players in the country, spent more time in the ECNL as teens than anywhere else.

That meant that U.S. Soccer’s Girls DA, which opens its doors to games for the first time this fall, was a direct competitor with ECNL. This, needless to say, did not sit well with everyone.

The broadest questions in the aftermath of the initial shock were how exactly the split would happen. Both U.S. Soccer and the ECNL have been adamant that a club would not have to devote the entirety of its resources to one league or the other. A number of the biggest clubs in the country currently have teams that compete in a variety of leagues in different associations. So while the ECNL and DA wouldn’t directly share teams – i.e., a single U17 team couldn’t compete in both leagues – they could set up different U17 teams with the express purpose of allocating one to one league and one to the other.

But we didn’t have confirmation of that fact. Until now.

Eclipse Select is annually one of the ECNL’s heavy hitters, and it’s pumped out youth national team talent like Zoe Redei and full national teamers like Amy LePeilbet. So what it does matters, and it’s likely a course other major talent producers with the means to do so will follow; clubs like PDA, So Cal Blues and Dallas Sting. While smaller clubs with more focused talent pools will likely have to choose one over the other (and some already have), the big ones can afford to segment.

What this means, essentially, is that Eclipse Select (and presumably others like them) will create two tracks for its players: either go DA or go ECNL. And in the present climate, it’s hard to imagine the ECNL track not suffering for it.

For one, U.S. Soccer is the behemoth in the equation, and it can easily brush aside the ECNL in the matter of resources. One of the primary reasons the ECNL was so attractive to top players wasn’t necessarily that it was particularly competitive from top to bottom. It wasn’t, as a number of regional scorelines can attest. Rather, the biggest value was in the national team pipeline and the college scouting. The ECNL offered unparalleled access to both college coaches and national team coaches at showcase events.

That probably won’t dry up entirely at ECNL events, at least not initially. But the migration will likely be noticeable as U.S. Soccer’s WNT scouts cannibalize their own events (they have financial reasons to do this, too) and increasingly turn away from ECNL’s spate of showcases and playoffs. And while the ECNL will still be a respectable place to play your soccer, and will still provided a pipeline to college soccer, it’s hard not to see that pipeline narrowing significantly with a direct competitor fronting vastly superior resources.

The question now in front of young girls soccer players in America is no longer about which college to choose, or even which academy. It’s which team in that academy. So clubs like Eclipse Select will open up two distinct tracks for its top players: DA or ECNL. This might not hinder overall development – it might even help it. But it’ll certainly muddy the waters as the nation’s top recruits puzzle through their next steps in an uncertain future.

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