Should You Play USL or ECNL?

While many youth clubs are now affiliating with USL, USL serves a very different role than ECNL and other traditional youth leagues.

About ECNL

ECNL is a traditional travel youth soccer league with teams in the U13 to U19 age groups. It has conferences throughout the country and is recognized as one of the top youth leagues.

ECNL focuses on getting players ready to play college in soccer and helping them get seen by college coaches so they can earn a scholarship.

About USL

USL or United Soccer League manages a series of professional and semi-professional soccer leagues.

The men’s leagues operated in the second, third, and fourth tiers under MLS as USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two.

The league also operates a semi-professional women’s league as the W-League and will also launch a fully professional women’s league, the USL Super League, in 2024.

Why Youth Clubs Affiliate With USL

An increasing number of youth clubs are adding USL League Two and W-League teams. Existing USL professional teams also add or partner with youth teams to give them a pipeline of potential future players.

For a youth club, adding USL teams helps increase the club’s exposure and branding as a top tier destination.

USL League Two and the W-League are traditionally summer leagues. The majority of players are current college players preparing for their college seasons.

Youth clubs with USL teams will often use the team to help the club’s alumni college players train during the summer, although most will accept players who played youth soccer elsewhere.

Current youth club players may also be invited to play for the USL teams. Normally, only a handful of the top youth players are invited. However, some clubs use their USL teams primarily for their current youth players rather than those who have reached college age.

Where to Play

Like UPSL vs ECNL, playing in the USL is not a substitute for youth soccer. Since USL teams only operate during the summer, teams have far fewer games and training sessions than ECNL teams.

If you’re currently playing youth soccer, you should consider whether resting in the summer will help you avoid injuries and burnout. While USL playing experience is good, it usually has little to no impact on college recruiting. The reason most college players play in summer leagues is that unlike youth players, college players have almost the entire spring off.

Getting invited to join a League One or Championship team can be a little trickier. Those teams have longer schedules and usually operate year round as fully professional teams (except the pay is usually bad).

Most USL Championship or League One teams that recruit teenagers will usually have the teenager play for their youth academy with occasional call ups to the first team. If you’re not being recruited to an academy, you should explore whether an MLS NEXT academy is a better fit.

Most players will receive more exposure and better opportunities playing in college showcases where numerous scouts are present compared to maybe being seen during USL games. Since USL players are mostly older, college coaches will rarely scout these games, and even MLS scouting is limited.

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