Travel soccer is a common path for youth soccer players committed to the sport but not competing at the highest levels. Though it varies by region and league, children can generally start playing on travel teams around one they turn eight or nine years old. This level of play goes by different names—North Carolina Football Club (NCFC) calls it “Challenge” soccer—but its different leagues are defined by their intermediate level of commitment and play. These travel teams generally pull from one part of a city or county and “travel” by car to play others in the region. NCFC has a team for ages 9-19 in each of the following areas: Raleigh, Cary, Garner, Wake Forest, Holly Spring, and Durham-Chapel Hill. Players and families may drive an hour or two for games, but aside from the rare tournament, generally stay in nearby suburbs and neighboring counties.
Until high school, it is common for clubs like the NCFC travel teams to play throughout the school year, playing as normal in the tolerable months and in indoor facilities in the winter. Once players reach high school age, however, they generally play for their schools in the fall. Then, come winter and spring, they return to their travel teams. At NCFC, many of the travel teams have several players from the same schools. While these players do not play year-round with the exact same team, they enjoy the benefit of doing so with at least a few of their friends. In some areas, unfortunately, travel soccer falls off when kids can start playing for their high school. In others, high school teams or even travel tryouts can shift players in and out of squads—sometimes tragically barring kids from playing with their friends and longtime teammates. Though somewhat exclusive in selection and not always overlapping with school districts or other social groups, travel teams bring kids and their families together several times per week, sometimes for many years.
Logistically and economically, travel teams are more demanding and exclusive than their recreational counterparts but less so than cup/elite teams. Most travel teams, like recreational teams, rely on volunteer coaches. At NCFC, that is the case as well, but their web of travel team coaches can turn to a couple of NCFC staff members in charge of supporting the organization’s travel teams. Coaches in travel leagues are more likely to have had significant playing experience themselves. The costs of additional days of field usage, short road trips, and additional administrative support make travel teams more expensive than rec soccer, but still cheaper than cup teams. The more successful travel teams will often select players who train at soccer camps over the summer and sometimes in other skills sessions. Attending these together can bond players, but the cost of attendance can exclude some and encourage division within teams. More frequent practices, longer drives to away games, and more serious commitments of time and money can encourage deeper bonds between parents and players, but often at the expense of the less privileged who cannot afford to participate. Nonetheless, the barrier to entry for travel soccer is relatively low, and larger programs like NCFC have funds to assist some cash-strapped families.