The National Premier Soccer League is debuting a youth pilot program this fall, adding yet another organization to the rapidly changing youth soccer landscape.
NPSL officials confirmed that a four-team modified U19 Gulf South League will take place in September and October. The teams involved are New Orleans Jesters (La.), Port City FC (Gulfport, Miss.), Pensacola FC (Fla.) and AFC Mobile (Ala.). At this point, there is no official schedule for the league, but all contests must conclude by the last week of October. Each team will play six matches — two each against every other pilot program.
Kenny Farrell, GM/coach of the New Orleans Jesters and the NPSL chairman, envisions the pilot program to serve as the blueprint for an NPSL U19 reserve league, one that features flexibility for teams and players.
Farrell said the pilot program is meant to deliver a clear pathway for local players into higher-level soccer while allowing youth participants to retain affiliation with other youth teams or organizations if that flexibility is needed. Also, Farrell said each region could set up its own season structure if it wishes to avoid certain regional conflicts, such as high school soccer or significant club commitments.
"We have a massive opportunity," Farrell said of the vision to bridge the gap between the youth leagues and NPSL, which is often referred to as the fourth division of soccer in the U.S., although that is an official label. NPSL operates with 94 senior teams and there is planned expansion in 2021. "The infrastructure is built (the NPSL) and we can bring players through."
"Living in the South, this is really needed," AFC Mobile coach and technical director Steve Wieczorek said. "There's nothing aspirational in the region (citing no recent DA programs and limited Division I college soccer options). This gives local kids the hope to play in the NPSL and, at the least, provides them the level of competition and exposure to get recruited.”
This pilot program, which will be managed by NPSL and affiliated with the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), includes the following detail:
Since the NPSL is a mixture of standalone teams and teams that are part of an existing club structure, Farrell said NPSL U19 teams could create affiliations with local clubs to "borrow" players for the abbreviated season or simply use their existing youth club teams in that age band, whichever best applies.
The NPSL's standing makes it the league closest to youth soccer as NPSL teams are often stacked with current college players and even the occasional high school-aged player. Farrell said a greater opportunity for local youth players to train and compete with older, more experienced players could be a major draw for this NPSL endeavor.
In the wake of the Development Academy demise, MLS and USL have announced their own youth academy leagues. The crowded field vying for positions in the boys youth soccer market also includes significant operations from US Club Soccer, ECNL and US Youth Soccer, and now this NPSL pilot program.
"Our hope is to provide something very valuable, similar to MLS and USL, and do it concurrently," Wieczorek said.
"I applaud the (NPSL) in taking this on," Wieczorek said. "It's the right time and right place to do it."