Understanding which youth soccer league is best for you in each age group is important. Please remember I am speaking to a national audience, so I’ll touch on most levels and ages from 6-17. Age 9- 10 is where many parents find out that youth club soccer is a bigger deal than they thought. The biggest problem for this age is, many parents think that the highest level league is better for their kid. For some it’s a status thing, but the root is they are just not experienced or educated on this matter. This is all totally normal and you will be okay, because you are trying to learn.
What is your end goal in soccer?
If your overall goal is to make the high school team or play at the college level, then you can’t worry about what league at age 7-12. The age 10-12 time frame is massive, when it comes to getting skills outside your club. Either private 1on1 or small group. The large groups of 12+ make it hard to develop the skills outside of what they do with their team.
I have seen so many players at the age of 10 who playing rec or in a 3rd tier youth league and end up playing D1 college soccer and even starting as a true freshman. How did they do it you must ask. Well from age 10-14 they really worked hard on their technical game, away from their club team with Global Futbol Training. It’s not like they all did private 1on1 lessons, but they did do small group training once a week for most of the year. These same players continue to work with me when they come back from college, so they have that desire to improve even though they are now playing top tier college soccer. The best thing is that they were ready to compete at the highest level at age 15-16 years old when college coaches are recruiting.
Rec compared to academy soccer ages 6-9
Most players start out their first few years playing rec soccer. Of these families, most don’t have a clue that there is a higher level called academy. The way people find out there is academy is the club/academy coaches will recruit at the rec games. Academy is where you pay coaching fees and practice at least 1 extra practice per week. Rec soccer is usually a once practice per week for 8-10 weeks with one game on the weekends and a volunteer mom or dad.
Some of these rec coaches are better than the paid academy coaches. Academy has a mix of kids who are usually a lot more into soccer or their parents are. In rec soccer there are some players who are really good, but either their parents don’t want to commit to club soccer or they just don’t know about it. I think for the players and parents who really want to be pushed to higher competition then by age 8 you should move to academy.
Why many talented kids ages 6-9 quit soccer
We all have natural gifts and different things we enjoy more. I can tell you for a fact that many kids who are meant to play soccer long-term end up quitting is because they never learn the right skills to improve. Think about how hard it is to control a ball with the feet, which by the way are the most uncoordinated part of our body. You could get the most athletic pro basketball or American football player to dribble a ball and they will look so clumsy! So if you get a coach who doesn’t have any college or pro playing background in soccer and they will not know how to teach skill to a player who’s new to soccer. This equals disaster! The kid will get frustrated and think that soccer is not for them.
There is a difference of having a coach who is organized compared to a coach who knows how to teach each age group. I have seen coaches who have coached rec soccer for 10-20 years and they have no clue how or what to teach. They think they know and the parents might think they do, but they don’t. Yes, everyone knows toe taps and tick tocks/bells but that won’t make a player good at dribbling. That only helps them with coordination with the ball at its most basic point.
The last reason many talented kids quit soccer is because it simply is not in their ‘DNA’ meaning soccer is not in their blood. Maybe they like another sport better, maybe their parents don’t want to spend the money or take the time driving up and down the highway to practice and games. Soccer parents have to be almost as dedicated as the kids.
Academy to select soccer ages 9-10
This is the year when parents learn that club soccer is no joke in terms of time commitment. For most clubs it’s a business first. This means you pack the roster full to get more money for the coach and club. There is a big difference from the best players to the players who have not yet come out of their shell. Due to natural athleticism, some kids age 7 – 10 you can just tell will always play on one of the best teams and leagues. Then you have players who are straight athletes, with no skill. Last, the ones who have been getting good skills training, but might not be the best athlete.
In the end it’s mostly about what’s inside the player and what training opportunity are they getting. Meaning how much they really love the sport, how they can handle different coaching styles and how they were encouraged and taught along the way. There are some players who have the natural ability or parents who get them private training, but they really don’t have what it takes to continue playing soccer through high school. The key is that you know the kids don’t have to be super athletic to make a good high school or college career. I can promise you that keeping the experience fun is key. This doesn’t mean everyday will be fun. You could have the best job in the world, but there will be some days that are not fun. This is normal life.
When you know soccer is not meant for your kid
Some parents think that having their kid do extra skills training will burn them out. Honestly, if they don’t want to do extra training from ages 10-13 I would not even pay for club soccer. This means they probably are not meant to play high school or college soccer. Good news is you can stop paying all that money for club and just have them play for fun in a rec league. Some people would say, ah they just need to be kids. Fair enough, but I disagree. Tell me how practicing 20 mins extra a week for 8-12 weeks at a time is not letting them be a kid. Save your time and money, I’m telling you if they don’t want to practice and improve at this age they most likely are not meant to be soccer players.
Playing time over league status
Think about if you are living in a state that’s not big in youth soccer. I’ll use Nebraska, New Mexico and Arizona. I don’t ever hear about great youth teams or players coming from these three states [except Jason Kreis, former FC Dallas star]. Then think about North Texas, California, Northern Virginia, NJ, Michigan. These are all powerhouse soccer states, that are hard to compete in. If you are in one of these places, don’t get sucked in thinking you have to play top league. Remember that it’s all about development and technical training. Point is develop outside the club and play club to play and gain experience.
The best kids from Louisiana, New Mexico and Nebraska will still get college opportunity because there is talent everywhere, but mainly because they stand out in their state. These same players moving to North Texas [Dallas/Fort Worth] would not stand out. So if you are in a big soccer state, you have to not worry if you are playing in the #1 league or not. Kids in the higher ranked soccer states have harder time both physically and mentally. Reminding players ages 11-17 of this helps them to feel better about their situation.
Get my online soccer training program to get ahead
If you are wanting to know exactly what to work on with kids new to soccer have them first enroll in The Basics [online course] and have them spend 1 month doing it 10-20 mins per week, more if you want.
IF OR WHEN they become really good at my free fundamentals lessons, get them my ‘advanced’ ball control course. The advanced skills is literally all they need to become good at controlling the ball. This is where my students really learn the core skills that are needed even up to the college level.
For already advanced level players [The Magic] will challenge you. Some kids would really struggle at this one without me showing them in person, while others could pick it up. Most kids won’t need this till they are 12+ years old, unless the child is one of those fast learning 6-8 year old’s. For most kids ages 9-11, have them spend time on first the fundamentals and then add my advanced skills. I promise this will have them controlling the ball better than kids paying thousands of dollars to academy clubs. It’s really that simple. Plus you can always send me a video of them and I’ll give feedback.
Understanding the weekly grind in soccer
Every soccer player will tell you that they have days that are not fun. Either because their body hurts, tired from hot Summer and cold Winters. Or they are just having a bad season due to a team they didn’t gel with or even just poor play from lack of confidence. Communicating these things to the players helps them mentally and emotionally. This way when these times come, they understand that it’s normal to have these certain feelings.
If a kid thinks that every day should be fun, then they will think that the sport is not for them. It’s a culture that you work hard each day to improve, but enjoy your time away from soccer too. Have fun being a kid and don’t let soccer be your identity. It’s a passion, but we have to learn to balance our life. This means knowing that there will be good days and bad days, so don’t let hard times control our emotions. Don’t let others who are harsh to you bring you down.
Select soccer players ages 11-12
I can guarantee you that there many players who are playing in the highest level league that won’t start in high school or get to the college level. Then at the same time there are several kids at age 11 and 12 who are playing in a 2nd or 3rd tier that will develop later and end up being D1 and D2 college players earning scholarships.
The reason for the lopsided leagues is because there are kids who reached their peak at age 11. Then thers who have never had outside club training. Also there are players who are in top leagues because they came from a team that all moved over together. Other reasons are some groups of players/parents work a package deal where, 2-4 players come to a team together. So don’t worry if you or your child are only 11 or 12 years old and playing in a lower level league. If you like the coaching situation and the team you are on, then stay there.
Out of all the kids playing in the top league at age 11-12, several of them will end up quitting soccer in a few years, or decide that they don’t want to play college soccer down the road. So in the end, if your goal is to play college soccer, don’t compare yourself or your kid to others.
US Youth Soccer and US Club Soccer
This is all confusing, even to club coaches who do it for a living. Both US Youth Soccer and US Club Soccer fall under United States Soccer Federation [USSF]. Between and under these, there are so many new leagues popping up that I don’t even try to keep up. For younger ages 6-9 US Youth Soccer is where most kids play, even the top club teams.
For ages 11+ US Club Soccer is more competitive in terms of quality, development and opportunity. One of my clients sent me this article Understanding US Youth Soccer and US Club Soccer from Ohio Elite. It’s broken down very well.
Top tier soccer leagues for ages 12-17
From about 2017 – 2020 the “best league” was DA (Development Academy) but they folded during the pandemic. It’s said that lack of funds was the reason for folding. The day they folded the MLS had a new league. To be honest, I’m done trying to keep up. Every few years they add or shed leagues. The best thing is that you have a choice in which one you choose.
Back in 2017 US Soccer added girls to the Development Academy [DA]. At the same time ECNL added boys, after they were only a girls league. So the two have become very competitive. To me girls were doing just fine playing ECNL, as they brought so many players through who ended up playing college soccer and getting on the USWNT which won the World Cup. The reason for all these added changes, is for each league to make more money.
Opportunity that MLS and ECNL give you
To me MLS academy is more for the players who are trying to get on the US National Team. Then there’s the players who simply want to compete in the “highest league”. As of late it seems US National Team is only going to pick players who play in their system, but with so many going abroad they’ll have to pick who’s the best eventually. It requires more team training sessions, but not really better. So for the players who want to get extra training on top of club, they now don’t have much time to do that. Then for the players who don’t want extra sessions, they are forced to do so with DA. Some teams even have what’s called a recovery session the day after games [usually Sunday] where you show up, jog and stretch and then go home. Some kids drive up to 1-2 hours just for that.
3 reasons top level players were choosing ECNL over DA
In the last 1-2 years some of the best players hands down are playing ECNL for these 3 reasons.
1) so that they can play high school soccer. It’s said that the new MLS academy will allow HS soccer…
2) to have less “team trainings” to either rest OR train with a private trainer or solo
3) have time on Sunday’s for church and family.
Getting the same end goal
Then I see players who play DA signing for the exact same colleges as the ECNL players. Example in North Texas ‘Lake Highlands D1’ or in other states they call it something different. So you make the choice in what’s best for you, but to me it’s clear. If you are one of the best players in the state and you want to make the US National team do DA, but if you are not one of the best players in the state play ECNL. You will most likely still get amazing opportunity playing ECNL. It’s all about how you promote yourself, so don’t only depend on the club and showcase tournaments.
Don’t burn bridges and end up blacklisted
There are cases where unhappy or even unlucky parents and players end up moving clubs multiple times in a short amount of time. You have to be careful upsetting certain club coaches, because by age 15 there will only be about 5 options for a good team at the level you want to play. This doesn’t mean be scared of a coach or team, just be respectful and don’t end up in a heated argument. Keep your cool and always try to take time to think about your reaction in different situations. I have heard stories where coaches won’t play a certain kid all season, just for something that the coach and parent got into.
Play the game for you
In the end you never know when a kid will step away from the game. I have seen the top players in the nation step down from soccer around 16-17 years old. Most of them will tell you it’s because they got tired of certain coaches. Others will tell you that they just didn’t want to go through the day to day grind, plus balance school, family and social life. I think that some of them also get tired of the stress in performing for someone. This is why I remind my students that you play for you first. If you do that you will in return play for your coach and team. If you play for your coach or parents first, then to me that’s a problem. Remember to enjoy the game.