U13 is the magic number. At U13, the youth soccer landscape is transformed by the introduction of three top-level competitions. The Girls Academy (GA) only includes (you guessed it) girls. Only boys teams can play in MLS NEXT. And the Elite Clubs National League(ECNL) has both boys and girls teams competing for the title. So how do you choose when the time comes to decide? What is best between MLS NEXT vs. ECNL vs. GA?
Any of these organizations offer top-tier competition (and competitions). They all feature fast, technical and tactical soccer. And all of them provide access to a platform built for accelerated soccer development. That’s the goal, after all: these programs are each designed to raise the bar for youth soccer and help the United States compete on a global level.
But there are some important differences to keep in mind when deciding the right next step for your player. Let’s walk through those: first in a brief chart, then in more detail below.
What is the ECNL?
The Elite Clubs National League formed in 2009 and quickly lived up to its name. The competition has expanded to include 113 girls clubs competing in nine conferences and 131 boys clubs competing in ten. Each conference has 9-16 clubs competing in 20-30 games every season.
The ECNL is a club commitment, which means fielding an ECNL team in every age group. These clubs keep high standards for their facilities and coaching and guarantee opportunities for regular, top-level games. The required level of commitment is very high, but players are allowed to play other club or high school sports, which is not allowed with MLS Next.
The ECNL’s biggest claim to fame is as an elite resource for college recruitment. ECNL National Events are considered the best college recruiting events in the country, with hundreds of coaches and scouts in attendance. The organization’s dedication to helping youth players compete in college also includes a high-profile partnership with Trace.
Beneath ECNL is the Elite Conferences Regional League (ECRL), which offers a slightly lower level of competition. You can read more about the differences between the two here.
What is MLS NEXT?
Following the Developmental Academy’s dissolution in spring 2020, the MLS organized MLS NEXT to help create a pathway for elite young players to reach the top level. About half of the DA teams moved to ECNL, while the rest joined MLS Academy teams to form MLS NEXT. There are currently 133 clubs (28 of them MLS Academies) and 590 teams competing.
The MLS NEXT partnership with US Youth Soccer provides impressive infrastructure for training and playing. That might mean tons of travel, but it also means top-tier coaching, competition and opportunities for growth. There are, however, very strict rules about tournaments, and players are not allowed to play alternate or school sports. MLS NEXT coaches can also only coach in MLS NEXT.
There are very high standards for club entry into MLS NEXT, but not every team is affiliated with an actual MLS team. Official MLS Academy clubs tend to field the top teams, and probably receive the most attention and investment. The organization’s dedication to equal opportunity means these clubs (and usually only these clubs) will subsidize much or all of the considerable cost for families. Again, most MLS NEXT teams do not offer this — only those officially affiliated with professional MLS teams.
What is the Girls Academy (GA)?
The Girls Academy was also created in 2020 to compete with ECNL, this time to be the nation’s premier girls youth soccer program. About two-thirds of the former DA teams moved to the GA, while the rest joined ECNL. The GA soon partnered with MLS NEXT and US Youth Soccer to become the “official” top tier.
The GA currently consists of 69 clubs competing in seven regional conferences. They allow players to compete for their school, and have a more lenient substitution policy than their competitor. The GA framework also offers a lower-level league, the Developmental Player League (DPL).
MLS NEXT vs. ECNL vs. GA: What’s the Best Choice?
There are so many factors to consider when choosing a team that it is impossible for anyone to suggest one league over another. In some regions, MLS Next programs may be better than ECNL programs, and in other states or regions, the opposite may be true.
If a player is hoping to play for a college team, ECNL has created a well-organized, proven method of making that happen through ECNL National Events, which have become the must-attend evaluation opportunities for college coaches. That means exposure to the right people is all but assured.
If their sights are set on professional soccer, then MLS NEXT and GA are very geared to a framework for pushing players to that level. MLS NEXT is clearly working to pave a direct path for academy players to go pro. That being said, both organizations are too young to really know if that will pay off in the long run — and, for women in particular, the pathway to pro still tends to go through college soccer.
Price is also a major factor, and one that varies drastically from team to team. Competing in any of these three leagues will probably carry a hefty price tag — one article from SoccerAmerica puts the average cost to participate in the ECNL at about $8000 per year, once you include travel fees and other expenses.
The total cost associated with MLS Next and Girls Academy programs is unclear. But unless you’re on a scholarship (depends on the club) or playing for a no-cost or low-cost MLS Academy program, it’s fair to assume you’ll be shelling out anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 a year, once you factor in travel and other expenses.
Of course, the priority should always be player development. And on paper, for all three options, it is. The mission statements for all three leagues share a dedication to player development and growth. But every situation, every team and every player is different — so how do you know which experience will be right for your player?
MLS NEXT vs. ECNL vs. GA: How Should I Decide?
Any decision should be made with as much information as possible. Hopefully this article helps paint a clear picture in broad strokes. But when making a decision for your child, it’s crucial that you ask some important, club-specific questions about the coach, the team and the program itself. Reach out to parents, or people you trust in your local soccer community with the experience and knowledge to help you make this major decision.
Here are some starting suggestions:
- Does the club depend on recruiting, or do their high-level teams feature and integrate players from their own Academy?
- Is there a competitive soccer culture within the club, or does one team in each age group dominate?
- What is the club’s emphasis on technical development? Is there a consistent style of play throughout the organization?
- How high is the level of play in the club at the younger ages?
- What are the coach’s qualifications and experience? How many teams are they coaching?