Soccer development in the United States is in a sort of Wild West 2.0 phase. While the nation’s youth soccer infrastructure is better positioned and more knowable now than it was even a decade ago, nearly all of its major league institutions are less than eight years old. In that way, those massive national leagues are still tweaking, shifting and prodding methodologies. Nothing is set in limestone as much as it is sandstone.
Nowhere is that more evident than in U.S. Club Soccer, one of the three major organizational pillars of national youth development alongside US Youth Soccer and U.S. Soccer. While the USSF’s resources and MLS ties allowed it to found the top youth league in the country and US Youth Soccer’s broad reach allowed it to build and expand on its longstanding ODP model via clubs, U.S. Club Soccer has largely operated in the viscera between the two.
Former MLS exec Kevin Payne’s appointment to USCS’s chief operational level brought a level of prestige to the organization, and its recent announcement of its Players First initiative caused some ripples in the developmental pool. Payne likened it to a ‘Good Housekeeper’s Seal of Approval,’ raising the standard for clubs by setting a series of benchmarks - training, coaching education, safety standards - for clubs to meet. USCS has been decisively club-forward instead of organization-forward especially since Payne’s hire. This follows that metric.
“We want to make sure that everybody knows that by being in NPL, you’re able to control your calendar, your finances, where you go to showcases,” said NPL General Manager Leo Garcia, who enters his second full season at the reins. “You’re able to control your player development opportunities. I think we need to do a better job at disseminating that information out to the parent level, who ultimately is our consumer along with the players.”
All this is swirling in the air like a dust storm as USCS’s 19 National Premier Leagues kick off their fifth season this month. A few of the leagues started as early as two weeks ago, but the majority of the NPL’s satellites get going this weekend.
While US Youth Soccer’s regional and national leagues encompass a dizzying array of players, and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy features a more narrow scope - the DA features half the number of teams that US Youth Soccer’s National League does - USCS is positioned somewhere in the middle. The organization has added just one league to the NPL in the last two years, signaling a relative end to the age of expansion and the beginning of a concerted effort to beef up the talent infrastructure already in place.
“It’s exciting,” Garcia said. “I think the level of the NPL leagues across the country has gotten better. I think we are at a point where the emphasis for the most part is not to get bigger or add more clubs, but instead getting better. We have some big clubs in the NPL, and we want to elevate their standards. I think you see that in the leagues, in the way the leagues are scheduling to how the admins operate to their website. Everyone is improving the standards of the NPL.”
The NPL began in 2011 with a single league and only boys teams. It’s exploded in the intervening years, adding girls leagues and entrenching itself into every geographic region of the country. The latest is the United Soccer Clubs, which ropes in teams from Central and South Texas, a decisively underserved part of the nation when it comes to talent identification.
For years USCS has perhaps been best known for its id2 camps, a U14 identification vehicle that feeds into the U.S. Youth National Team system in increasing numbers. The NPL carved its early niche in similar fashion. Its first league was the Northeast Pre-Academy League, which houses the pre-Development Academy team for the New York Red Bulls, among others. With rapid speed, the NPL moved to fill niches in the specific communities in which the leagues were ensconced. Whether that was with ECNL clubs or DA clubs or otherwise, the NPL leagues have become surprisingly adaptable.
“Some of our NPL leagues, they offer a product or an opportunity to academy clubs,” Garcia said. “We have pre-academy leagues that are the offsetting age groups to the academy. So instead of doing U14, U16 and U18, some of our academies do U13, U15 and U17 or a combination. So we provide additional support to the Federation in those markets where it makes sense. In other geographical areas, we provide a similar concept to the ECNL. So we have an NPL league for all the ECNL second teams. They follow the ECNL schedule, the league is built almost identical to the ECNL, they still travel. That works for them.
“It depends on what the region needs. We’re excited about the South Texas league coming to the NPL this year. We had all the key components there getting together and saying we want to control our calendar and how our players are developed and what kind of opportunities they have. And in some cases the Federation cannot provide these smaller type regional competitions, so I think it’s good for the NPL that we’re flexible.”
That flexibility helped the NPL carve out a unique corner of the development market in the U.S. Where it goes from here is now the biggest question.