ECNL commissioner Sarah Kate Noftsinger was recently hit flush with the true measure of the league’s expanding reach in the realm of elite girls soccer in the U.S.
Noftsinger recently ended up on a mass email with a group of ECNL alums from a diaspora of clubs, and they sent off a request asking Noftsinger if the league would start up an alumni club for its graduated players. After its fifth year, the league’s alumni base had grown with enough strength that an enormous group wanted to keep up their association. The moment wasn’t lost on Noftsinger.
“That’s worth printing out and putting on the fridge,” Noftsinger said.
The story of ECNL’s fifth year is one of continued transformation. By Noftsinger’s own admission, the ECNL is now out of its “toddler phase” and has permanently stashed the startup moniker. The league can now be more selective about the clubs it chooses to admit, which became more obvious than ever when the league expelled its first ever club this past year.
The league moves into its sixth season this fall after recently completing its most expansive year yet. In addition to its five national events from San Diego to New Jersey, the league carried its national playoffs for U15-U17 sides and finals for U14 and U18 sides in Seattle in June, and the last round of finals wrapped in Richmond, Virginia in July. With Richmond becoming an established ending point for each season, Noftsinger said Seattle remains in the picture for future playoff hosting duties as well.
As the ECNL becomes exponentially more economically and culturally viable and the market becomes flooded with the league’s growing cachet, opportunities are beginning to fly at the league from every corner. In addition to widening its relationship with the NWSL in the same way MLS has with the Development Academy, the ECNL is reaching a point where it’s begun to examine cost-cutting measures to lessen the burden on families. Over its first five years, the ECNL was slow to bring on big money sponsors to allow itself to become established on firmer ground.
Now that the league has moved on from the spongier surface of its early years, Noftsinger feels comfortable exploring those big name sponsorship avenues.
“There are some good ones,” Noftsinger said. “There’s stuff that’s in the pipeline, and it’s a matter of, I’m not just going to take somebody’s money just to take the money. It needs to mean something, and it needs to align with what the ECNL is trying to do.”
The U.S. Soccer-run Development Academy is making tangible strides to eliminate cost as well, and rumors continue to swirl that soon the league will mandate free-of-cost programs for all its member clubs. Noftsinger was explicit that comparing the ECNL to the DA is “apples to oranges,” but there are some similarities in the way both are going about whittling at the edges of cost for players and families.
“I think all these clubs, they may not formally say that everything’s free, but they do a really good job of, should there be a kid that wants to play, let’s find a way to get them that opportunity,” Noftsinger said.
The league is also on the cusp of sending its first wave of youth players into the full senior national team setup. Morgan Brian’s class was involved with the ECNL U23 league, but its first U14-U18 players are beginning to knock on the door. Two years ago, half the players called into the U20 WNT were involved in the ECNL. This past camp, that number skyrocketed to 19 of 20. Standouts like Taylor Racioppi, Cari Roccaro and Mallory Pugh are closing in on those opportunities.
It hasn’t happened yet, but the inevitable impact of the ECNL on the U.S. women’s national team is almost here. The next cycle of fresh faces will largely be ECNL alums. Though it’ll take years, the trend is impossible to miss: players with ECNL backgrounds are slowly coming to dominate the U.S. women’s soccer landscape. The league says 84 percent of its players move on to play college soccer at the next level.
That gives the ECNL a stake in just about every level of women’s soccer in the U.S. in the coming years.
“Our relationship with U.S. Soccer is outstanding,” Noftsinger said. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because the relationship we have with them, it’s a strong open relationship. It’s full of support. We would never claim to be the national team, we would never claim to be U.S. Soccer, we’re simply here to support our badge and to help develop the game, grow the game and get players wearing that badge that represent our country on the world stage.”
Lessons come hard and fast every year for the bourgeoning girls soccer league. The market saturation in certain parts of the country isn’t where the league would prefer, for instance. But the league is undeniably bullish on its progress.
“This league, it’s not about five years,” Noftsinger said. “It’s about the next 50 years for these kids.”