Sunday, 14 Jul 2024

Choosing the Right Soccer League: MLS NEXT vs. ECNL vs. GA

U13 is a pivotal age in youth soccer, as it signifies the introduction of three top-level competitions: Girls Academy (GA), MLS NEXT, and Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). Each league has its unique features and benefits, making the decision of choosing the right one for your player a challenging task. In this article, we will explore the differences between MLS NEXT, ECNL, and GA to help you make an informed decision.

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What is the ECNL?

The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) was established in 2009 and has quickly gained a reputation for its high level of competition. With 113 girls clubs and 131 boys clubs competing in nine and ten conferences respectively, the ECNL offers a platform for players to showcase their skills. The league maintains high standards for facilities and coaching, and it allows players to participate in other club or high school sports. One of the key advantages of the ECNL is its status as a premier resource for college recruitment, with ECNL National Events attracting numerous coaches and scouts.

What is MLS NEXT?

MLS NEXT was formed by Major League Soccer (MLS) in response to the dissolution of the Developmental Academy in 2020. With 133 clubs (including 28 MLS Academies) and 590 teams, MLS NEXT provides young players with a clear pathway to reach the highest level. The league offers top-tier coaching, competition, and infrastructure for training and playing. However, players are not allowed to participate in alternate or school sports, and there are strict rules regarding tournaments. MLS NEXT aims to pave a direct path for academy players to turn professional, although it is still too early to determine its long-term success.

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What is the Girls Academy (GA)?

The Girls Academy (GA) emerged in 2020 as a competitor to ECNL, focusing on becoming the nation’s premier girls youth soccer program. With 69 clubs competing in regional conferences, the GA allows players to compete for their schools and offers a more lenient substitution policy. The GA framework also includes the Developmental Player League (DPL), which caters to players at a lower level.

MLS NEXT vs. ECNL vs. GA: Making the Best Choice

Choosing the right league for your player depends on various factors, and it is impossible to suggest one league over another definitively. In some regions, MLS NEXT programs may be superior to ECNL programs, while in other states or regions, the opposite may be true. If college soccer is the goal, ECNL provides a well-established pathway through its highly regarded ECNL National Events, which attract college coaches. On the other hand, MLS NEXT and GA are more focused on developing players for professional soccer, although the pathway to the pros for women usually includes college soccer.

Price is also a major consideration, as participating in any of these leagues can be costly. The average cost to participate in the ECNL is approximately $8,000 per year, including travel fees, while the total cost associated with MLS NEXT and GA programs varies depending on the team.

Ultimately, player development should be the top priority. Each league emphasizes player growth and development, but the experience can differ depending on the specific team and club. To make an informed decision, reach out to parents or trusted individuals within your local soccer community for their insights and seek answers to important questions about the coach, team, and program.

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Here are some suggested questions to start your evaluation process:

  • Does the club rely on recruiting or integrate players from their own academy for their high-level teams?
  • Is there a competitive soccer culture within the club, or does one team dominate in each age group?
  • What is the club’s emphasis on technical development, and is there a consistent style of play throughout the organization?
  • How high is the level of play within the club at the younger ages?
  • What are the qualifications and experience of the coach, and how many teams do they coach?

In the end, it is crucial to gather as much information as possible and make a decision that aligns with your player’s aspirations and development.


Choosing between MLS NEXT, ECNL, and GA requires careful consideration of various factors, including the player’s goals, regional factors, and financial implications. Each league offers unique advantages and opportunities for young players to develop their skills and excel in the game. The decision-making process should involve research, discussions with trusted individuals, and an assessment of which league best aligns with the player’s long-term aspirations. Remember, the ultimate goal is to provide the best platform for accelerated soccer development and enable the United States to compete on a global level.

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