Cup and Elite Soccer are the highest levels of play in youth US soccer. They range from very strong regional teams to squads that win national championships and feed players into the national squads for their age groups. On April 15, 2020, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system buckled under the financial strain imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. What had been the primary feeder into the professional and national teams no longer exists. In the absence of this top-down US Soccer development program, however, many of the individual member clubs will likely continue in some form. North Carolina Football Club (NCFC), the largest youth through professional soccer system of its kind in the US, will be transitioning its academy team to the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). ECNL and US Youth Soccer (USYS) draw top players. Whichever league they play in, children who participate in cup and elite soccer have chosen to make the sport one of the most important parts of their life.
Classic/cup/elite soccer requires a more significant commitment of time and money than any of the other major ways to play youth soccer in the US. Teams generally practice at least three days per week and train on the weekends. Until high school years, clubs usually play nine to twelve months in the year. Many of these players will also play for their middle school teams, and are expected to play at soccer camps or find other forms of training when their season is not in full-swing. Coaches are professional and paid, parents are expected to take their kids sometimes several hours by car roundtrip, and annual tournaments can incur additional demands on time and money. Some of the most successful clubs can offer reduced fees for families facing financial hardship, but these clubs generally require that families be wealthy or be willing to give an arm and a leg for their child’s soccer career. Such high barriers to entry are exclusionary, but they encourage camaraderie amongst those willing to sacrifice together. Frequent training and overnight trips bond parents and players as team members spend significant portions of their lives together.
Large organizations like NCFC will have tiers or “pools” of cup players. The lowest ranking squad will look a lot like a strong travel team, and the top squad at NCFC competes in the country’s most elite national league. Your average ECNL team plays at a higher level and requires a more significant of time and money than their USYS state cup counterparts, but the best state cup teams from regions without ECNL teams are still stronger than a number of ECNL teams. It is common for teams in both leagues to have a tie to a professional or semi-professional team, as NCFC Youth players do with their professional organization or Arsenal Club of Pittsburgh with West Ham United. Competition to get onto these teams is intense.
Players at this level are often shooting for the stars. Tryouts and assessments at clubs like NCFC take place twice a year, and it is not uncommon for all but the very best players on the top squad to be shifted between teams. The goal is to make the strongest top-tier team possible and have the other squads develop players to join and improve the top team. A player on a top cup or elite team is more likely to identify with their broader club than they are to be able to play with the same group of players for several years.
This touches on a dark side of the highest levels of youth soccer. The more selective and competitive a team is, the more fluid its roster. Each kid strives for maximal individual success. Parents jockey with one another to claim credit for their kids and cast blame on the “weak links.” The more that parents and kids invest in soccer, the more they stand to lose. This dynamic can yield significant tension and drama not too different from the sort of obsession displayed on shows like “Dance Moms.” While team victories help the individual players look good, those aspiring to the professionals or the national team must ultimately be more dedicated to their own development than to that of the team. As is often the case in highly-competitive settings, classic, cup, and elite youth soccer encourage more individualism than community.