In the United States, the elite level is divided between competing leagues. Each league claims that they offer the best chance for the player to experience world class competition and take their development to the next level. Additionally, each offers a “unique pipeline” to the athlete’s ultimate end goal, whether it be a professional route or a college scholarship. Nevertheless, there’s been countless controversies surrounding the state of academy soccer in the United States today. Most deal with academies’ utilization of the pay to play structure and how that inherently excludes certain minority and economic groups from being able to compete. Additionally, the idea that certain leagues are being formed solely for monetary purposes and not in the best interest of the athletes. There is no doubt that academies are by far the most expensive and most problematic level of youth soccer in America today.
There are two main elite leagues in the United States, the first being the U.S. Development Academy (DA), a league ran in conjunction with the U.S. Soccer Federation and then there is the Elite Club National League (ECNL), an independent, non profit, member based league.
Development Academy (DA):
Background: The Development Academy was founded in 2007 by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). Through the creation of the league, the Federation strived to, “develop world-class players by providing elite, driven youth talents with development environments, which meet the highest standards, that empower them to reach their full potential” (U.S. Soccer). The end goal is to create a more streamlined process of identifying young American talent and then funnel them into the U.S. Youth National Team system. More so, the hope is that this will translate into future success on the international level. Develop Academy competition begins at the U-13 level and runs through U-19 and as the age group increases, the number of teams per age group decreases. As a result, the number of spots on the roster also decreases. The explanation for this, according to U.S. Soccer is that it, “ensures the most elite players continue competing against each other, which provides optimal development and more meaningful competition” (U.S. Soccer). This has been one of the many of the critiques of the academy. Another point of critique is the ban on high school soccer. If an athlete were to be a member of a DA team, that athlete could not also play for their school. When the league was founded for boys in 2007, the athlete had the option to compete for their high school team. However, in 2012, the federation mandated that athletes could no longer do so. When the girls’ side was introduced in 2017, the federation took a stand against high school soccer from the getgo. Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco, and Julie Foudy are just some of the high profile figures who have spoken out against the policy. When interviewed about the topic by SoccerAmerica, Dorrance responded, “I’ve never been one to feel you shouldn’t give a kid an opportunity to represent their high school. There are a lot of really positive social ramifications of that choice that I would fully support” (SoccerAmerica). Yet, the DA continues to argue that immersing players in an elite environment is paramount for continued success and development. And according to the DA, this environment can only be found in their programs.
The Cost: The price of the development academy is a main point of contention between pundits and soccer moms alike. The elite level of youth sports has become increasingly professionalized, with teams and parents hiring nutritionists and personal trainers as well as utilizing cryotherapy and heart rate monitors to give their players an extra edge. With that being said, the prices have also skyrocketed tremendously. According to D.C. United, the average cost of to be a member of their academy is $2,800. However, that number fails to include other costs associated with playing at an elite level, such as hotel rooms for away tournaments, gas money, and extraneous expenses such as possible hospital visits and new gear.
The Demise: Amidst the Coronavirus crisis, the USSF announced that all Development Academy operations will cease to exist as a result of the financial impact of the Coronavirus. Some believe that Coronavirus was the straw that broke the camel’s back for because the league was already facing financial issues. Soon after the announcement, Major League Soccer (MLS) announced the formation of their own league. However many questions still remained unanswered. What does this mean for elite youth soccer in America going forward? Will this jeopardize future U.S. National Team success? And most importantly, where do we go from here? With so many moving pieces and players at stake, there is no cut and dry answer. Clubs with an established reputation and infrastructure will not be affected and continue to flourish, while clubs who solely relied on the DA to lure players, will struggle and face serious adversity going forward.
The Elite Club National League (ECNL):
Background: Compared to the Development Academy, the ECNL has received more praise for the structure of their league, the execution of their policies, their player-focused approach, and emphasis on growing the women’s game. The league was founded in 2009 by, “forward-thinking Directors of Coaching across the country who saw a need for change and special commitment to improving the daily environment for American elite female youth soccer players” (ECNL). Prior to the establishment of the Girls’ Development Academy in 2017, the ECNL claimed to be the premier league for elite girls’ play. Not too far after its conception, the ECNL became the most popular destination for players who dreamed of college scholarships and being scouted by the U.S.Y.N.T. Some argue that the creation of the Girls’ Development Academy stemmed from wanting to cash in on the success of the ECNL. However, many clubs chose to remain in the ECNL system because of its flexibility and the ability for players to represent their high schools.
Costs: To no surprise the ECNL, like the DA, is very expensive. According to a SoccerAmerica article, one season with an ECNL team could cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. That number takes into account other expenses too. To put that number into perspective, the average American salary is $56, 516 (CNBC). That means that the price to play in the ECNL is roughly 18% of one’s income. The astronomical prices shun top players away from elite leagues, hence, limiting their exposure to college coaches and professional teams. However, it is important to mention that some teams offer scholarships that cover the costs of admission.
The United States’ “pay to play” system is an outlier compared to the way other countries organize soccer. For young talented players training is either free or comes at a very reduced rate. In the Netherlands, Ajax (home to one of the most prestigious academies in the world) charges players a mere twelve euros a year and the club covers the rest of the expenses. (NYT)
When signing up to join a team that has membership in an elite league, the player’s family has to to do a serious cost benefit analysis: Is the price of admission justifiable? Will my player be missing out on other experiences? Are there any other options? Sadly, with the way soccer is structured in the United States today, there are few cost-effective options and the pay-to-play structure continues to further marginalize, marginalized groups.
Anson Dorrance on Girls DA vs. ECNL — and Why the Focus Should Be on the Youngest Ages.” 02/15/2017, www.socceramerica.com/publications/article/72332/anson-dorrance-on-girls-da-vs-ecnl-and-why-the.html.
U.S. Soccer Development Academy, www.ussoccerda.com/faq.
Emmiemartin. “Here’s How Much the Average American Earns at Every Age.” CNBC, CNBC, 24 Aug. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/08/24/how-much-americans-earn-at-every-age.html.
“History.” ECNL, www.eliteclubsnationalleague.com/about-ecnl/history/.
Sokolove, Michael. “How a Soccer Star Is Made.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 June 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06Soccer-t.html.