This article is meant to explain the whole wide world of youth soccer and where we fit within it.
Three Governing Bodies
Complicating an understanding of youth soccer in the US is the fact that there are three different governing bodies: American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA), and United States Club Soccer (USCS).
- AYSO was an organization begun in 1964 in California. It currently encompasses around 600,000 players in all states. Its structure appears relatively loose, and its presence is not very strong at all here in Southeast Texas (or actually anywhere in Texas). Most AYSO play is at a “Rec” level, in the sense that there are requirements that all players receive equal playing time, although there are some more competitive programs as well.
- USYSA was founded in 1974. With over 3 million players this is by far the largest of the three governing bodies, and is the one we currently are a member of.
- USCS is the youngest of the three governing bodies, having been founded in 2001 as the National Association of Competitive Soccer Clubs. This organization is unique in a number of ways:
– It is club focused in a way the other two are not.
– USCS members are allowed to members of other governing bodies as well (whereas clubs and leagues can participate in AYSO or USYSA but not both).
– USCS has an adult amateur component as well.
Express is affiliated with USYSO, but over the last five years has increased its level of connection with USCS as well, first by entering a few teams in the PDF league (a USCS sanctioned league) in 2009, then in the fall of 2013 starting to enter the Navy teams in the National Premier Leagues, the main form of competition for the USCS, and finally in the fall of 2014 by moving the entire academy program from HYSA (USYSA sanctioned) to PDF.
As AYSO has such a small presence in Texas (it was truly pretty much impossible to discover anything online about any AYSO regions in Texas) and Express has no involvement with them I will not discuss them here. I will launch into a discussion of USCS first, as it is easier to explain, then into USYSA.
US Club Soccer
The impression one gets when perusing the USCS website is that their attitude is, “Whatever the clubs want”. What I mean by that is that USCS does not impose many mandates on their participating clubs. League and game formats are largely unregulated. USCS sanctions many leagues at many different levels, from small local development programs like PDF (Player Development Friendlies), and many other small leagues around the country (one presumes, as there is actually no listing of these leagues anywhere), to the elite level of play represented by the Premier Leagues, National Premier League (NPL) and Elite Clubs National League (ECNL).
The NPL program began very recently, in 2011, with 9 leagues, and has now grown to 19 leagues. Interestingly, while there are geographic territories to each of these leagues, there is no restriction upon them as there is no strong state or equivalent structure in USCS below the national level. As a result, there are some overlaps in their leagues. In Texas, for example, there is the Texas Pre-Academy League (TEPAL), which includes Andromeda FC, Dallas Texans, Solar, and the FC Dallas Academy from the Dallas area, along with Texas Rush, Texans SC and the Dynamo Academy from Houston, Classics Elite from San Antonio and Lonestar SC from Austin. There is also the South Central Premier League which features 4 teams from the Houston area (Express, Eclipse, Dynamos and Space City) along with 2 from Dallas (Dallas FC and Liverpool America FC) and 2 from Oklahoma (Blitz United and Oklahoma FC). The winners of each of the NPL leagues go to a national final in the summer, which our U14 Navy team went to in North Carolina last summer.
Below the NPL there is an even newer, 2nd tier of leagues called the Premier Leagues. There are currently only nine of these leagues around the country, none in our area. On the girls side there is a slightly older (2009) league above the NPL, the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). They play in a national league divided into 7 conferences (some of which are further divided), and send top teams into a national Champions League.
US Youth Soccer Association
Despite the growth of Express’s involvement with USCS, USYSA is still the most important governing body for the club, and the organization which sanctions the leagues in which all U11+ teams play. Unlike USCS, USYSA has a fully integrated structure from top-to-bottom. In soccer a structure like this is usually referred to as a pyramid, and we will examine this pyramid thoroughly, starting at the bottom. I have created a map which shows all the boundaries of these associations. I will put images from those maps here in this article, but if you wish to play around with the map you can do so here. Please note these maps are not official, but just to give an idea of what the boundaries might be; unless the boundaries match state political boundaries I have had to guess where they are. There are different layers showing the different levels of the USYSA pyramid. I recommend selecting one at a time so it’s not too messy.
Local Youth Soccer Associations
These are the most local governing bodies within USYSA. The term is not an official one, but one I’ve made up to describe the Youth Soccer Associations with which we have the most contact. These local YSAs act as governing bodies of leagues, and at times they may also act as a club. These local YSAs run up to three levels of play: Division 4, Division 3, and Division 2.
- Division 4 is for Academy teams (U8-U10). No scores or standings are kept for U8. There are rules on equal playing time, and bracketing is done with the recommendation of the teams or clubs themselves. For example, Express could say that their top two U9 teams should be in the Strong bracket, the next two should be in the Average bracket, and the bottom two should be in the Weak bracket. The Local YSA will usually go along with what the club feels is the appropriate level of play for the team being placed. This can lead to manipulation, however, where a club may put a team in a weaker bracket to get them wins, or in too strong of a bracket or an older age group to try to gain an advantage later.
- Division 3 is officially considered a “Rec” league for players U11 and up. Players must play at least 50% of every game.
- Division 2 is the lowest level of “Competitive” soccer for players U11 and up. Coaches must still play players at least 50% of every game.
Here is a map of some of the local YSAs in our area, the Eastern District:
Not represented here are a few which, like Katy, overlap other YSAs and largely only provide Division 3 play. There is a large disparity in the size (as in number of teams within their leagues) and structure of these YSAs. HYSA (Houston YSA) is the largest of the area, but Timberline, Bay Area, and Spindletop are also large. On the other hand Angelina, Bluebonnet, Brazos Valley, Huntsville and Livingston seem to have almost nothing beyond in-house rec programs. When playing at the 2014 Klein Thanksgiving Cup I talked to the coach of a team from Brenham, in the Bluebonnet YSA. He told me how there was essentially no soccer available to kids in the area once they graduated from Rec programs at U12 until they got to high school (U15+).
Above the Local YSAs are the Districts—our state association is divided into an Eastern and Western District (ED and WD), and we are in the Eastern.
Each district has a Division One Association (EDDOA and WDDOA) which is responsible for running a Division One league in the district. In the Eastern District EDDOA runs three years of qualifying leagues from U11 through U13 to determine which teams will ultimately play at each level from Super 2 on up. I suspect this is done in large part because the local YSAs allow the teams to place themselves practically wherever they like (higher or lower than the teams perhaps should be) so they spend three years forcing the teams to sort out their level). On the other hand WDDOA starts Division One (and Super 2) immediately at U11.
The districts are also used to run Fall Championships for Division 2 and Division 3 starting at U11. The top teams from each District’s YSAs meet in a tournament to pick a district champion. Those champions and the 2nd place teams then meet in a 4-team tournament to determine the State Champion. The DOAs also operate Super 2 leagues, but here is where things get a bit confusing: in the Eastern District STYSA runs but EDDOA operates the ED Super 2 league. In the Western District things are even more complicated. El Paso, while technically a part of WD, is too far away to play in their leagues, so they have their own local league and then send teams (sometimes) to WD fall championships and Spring Cups. The rest of WD is divided into a North Zone and South Zone for Super 2, but the best information I can get on where that geographic divide is places Austin, San Antonio (but not the southern suburbs) and Corpus Christi in the Northern Zone, with the Rio Grande cities in the Southern Zone. The Super 2 league has at times been run by local YSAs, at times by WDDOA, and at times by South Texas. It’s all very confusing and just makes me happy to be in ED.
The State Associations
There are 55 state associations. While most associations follow their state political boundaries, five states are split into two state associations: California, Texas, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. So our state association is South Texas Youth Soccer Association (STYSA).
STYSA is responsible for running the State Classic League, a Division One league that comprises the six best teams from both the Eastern and Western Districts (that don’t already play at a higher level still), which begins at U14+. STYSA also oversees (but does not operate) the Super 2 leagues. STYSA runs the Fall Championship State finals for Division 2 and 3. In the Spring STYSA runs the Spring Cups (National, Presidents, Directors’, and South Texas Cup in competitive order from top to bottom), determining champions in each who will then represent STYSA in Regional Championships in the summer.
The entire USYSA is divided into 4 regions, and we are in Region III. This is further subdivided into three parts, West, Central, and East.
Region III runs two levels of Premiere Leagues, the Premiere Leagues and the Regional Premiere League (RPL). The Premiere Leagues are run for each section of Region III (West, Central, and East), so in our section it is called the Premiere League West (PLW). PLW consists of the 4 best teams each from the three western state associations (Oklahoma, North Texas, and South Texas), except that for reasons I’m unclear about this year the U14 Boys PLW featured only two teams from Oklahoma. The top 3 teams in the PLW will be promoted the following year to the RPL while continuing to play in the PLW (and the other RPL teams will continue to play in their Premier Leagues as well).
Region III also runs regional championships for the Spring Cups, sending representatives to the national cup.
The Top – USYSA
The four regions of the USYSA are as follows:
USYSA runs a national league, the US Youth Soccer National League (USYSNL), which, like the RPL, has teams which play in this league concurrently with their lower level league play.
USYSA also runs the national championship cups.
To help clarify what was written earlier I will summarize what the current states of the leagues we play in are:
Academy players (U8-U10) in our region have two options:
- Play in Division 4. This level of play is run by the local YSAs. Through the Spring 2014 season Express sent all their Academy teams to HYSA Division IV.
- Play in PDF (Player Development Friendlies). As of fall 2014 Express withdrew their Academy teams from HYSA and placed them in the PDF (Player Development Friendlies) Houston league, under the governance of USCS.
Division 3 is a rec league level which begins at U11+, differing from Rec leagues such as Express Rec by the fact that the leagues are not in-house, and that leagues are formed up to the U18/U19 age level, where most in-house club rec leagues end at a younger age. Division 3 leagues are run by the local YSAs such as HYSA. At the end of the fall season Division 3 teams that finish well in the league may participate in the Fall Division 3 Championship for Eastern District. The two ED finalists meet the two Western District finalists (and an El Paso representative, if desired) to determine a Fall Division 3 Champion for South Texas. There is promotion from Division 3 to Division 2; I suspect it is handled within the local YSAs and dependent in part on how many teams play the two levels.
Division 2 comes in several flavors:
- Division 2 is the intro competitive level for teams U11+. Like Division 3, Division 2 leagues are run by the local YSAs, and there is a Fall Championship series similar to the Division 3 Championship. The two finalists of the Eastern District Fall Championship have the right to promote.
- EDDOA Select is a new level of play introduced in the fall of 2014. This was introduced on the boys’ side only, for U14+, but there is no clear, unified picture of how this works. In some age groups Select is a single 5 or 6 team bracket. In some age groups there are many more teams (in the fall 2014 season the U15s had 21 teams in 4 brackets). If I had to guess I would say that EDDOA Select is an open Division 2 program for teams who are willing to travel outside their local YSA to get a better level of structure (and perhaps play?) than offered by their local YSA. EDDOA Select teams are part of the Division 2 championship, and the two ED finalists, whether they come from Division 2 or EDDOA Select, earn promotion to Super 2.
- Super 2 is a Division 2 level for teams U14+ that are willing to travel more and face a higher standard of competition, but do not qualify for Division 1 level. Super 2 is somewhat of a hybrid organization. It is organized by STYSA but operated by other actors (here in the Eastern District it is operated by the Eastern District Gaming League (EDGL), the league of EDDOA; in the Western District it is more complicated). At the end of the season, the bottom two Super 2 teams are relegated. It used to be they would drop to their local YSA’s Division 2, but with the new Select I’m not clear on what happens. The top 2 teams, I believe, earn promotion directly to Division 1 Competitive.
Note that all three of these levels of play are considered Division 2, and all have an opportunity to send teams to the Fall Division 2 championships, though Super 2 has a separate championship from the other two brackets which are just considered Division 2. The existence of Super 2 and now EDDOA Select indicate to me a measure of dissatisfaction that many clubs and teams have with HYSA and other local YSAs, and a desire to work in the better organized EDDOA/EDGL system even though they cannot qualify for Division 1 play. The cost for this is financial (EDGL costs more than the local YSA leagues) and travel (there are no true home games; games are scheduled at EDDOA approved fields, of which Express does not have any).
Interestingly in this first year of EDDOA Select, teams did not perform particularly well over Division 2 teams in the Fall Championships. Of the 5 age groups, only 2 of them had EDDOA Select teams in the finals, while in another 2 EDDOA Select teams did quite poorly.
Everything above Super 2 is Division 1, even though there are many levels within Division 1 in our area:
- Division 1 Competitive is the lowest level of Division 1, for teams U14+. It used to consist of a 6-team bracket, but after STYSA rejected EDDOA’s efforts to expand Super 2 from 12 to 18 teams it was expanded to two 6-team brackets, with promotion/relegation between the brackets.
- Division 1 Classic‘s name says it all: this is the original Division 1, with levels added above and below it over time. Division 1 Classic is a single 6-team bracket for teams U14+, and is the highest level still within the ED of South Texas. The bottom two teams relegate to Division 1 Competitive at the end of the season, while the top 2 teams can earn promotion to the State Classic League via a 4-team round robin between two teams each from ED and WD. At the end of the Fall 2014 season ED chose to put the 1st place Division 1 Classic team directly into the tournament, while the 2nd place team first had a play-in match with the 5th place State Classic League team (as both the 5th and 6th place teams facing relegation from State Classic were ED teams) to determine who would enter this 4-team tournament.
- State Classic League (SCL) is the next highest level of play for teams U14+, consisting of the top 6 teams (who don’t qualify for a higher level) from the entirety of South Texas (Eastern or Western Districts), with no restrictions on how many teams come from each district. The bottom two State Classic League teams are subject to relegation back to their respective Division One Assciations, though the Division One Associations have the right to re-enter those relegated teams in the subsequent promotion tournament for rising Division 1 Classic teams. The top SCL team enters a two-game playoff against the bottom PLW team to try and earn promotion to Premiere League West.
- Premiere League West (PLW) is the highest level of play for teams U14+ from the Western Division of Region III. Sort of (more on that later). The Premiere League West is the bottom level of two premier leagues run by Region III, and usually is composed of the top 4 teams each from South Texas, North Texas, and Oklahoma. I say usually because in the Fall 2014, at the U14 Boys level only, there were only 2 Oklahoma teams. The bottom team from each State Association is subject to relegation to that State’s top league (State Classic League for South Texas). Note that this means that a team can be relegated even if they finish higher than a team that doesn’t face that risk. It is theoretically possible, even, for a 4th place team to face relegation if their state association’s teams fill the top 4 slots. The top 3 teams, regardless of state affiliation, can promote to the Regional Premiere League. Oddly, although it is impossible for South or North Texas teams to get to the PLW before their U14 year, the Premier League West Fall 2014 standings show a U13 level with only 4 Oklahoman teams in it, and no results, so I’m not entirely sure what that is about.
- Southern Regional Premiere League (RPL) is the next level of competition, and as you must spend a season in PLW to qualify, is only open to teams U15+. This is an 8-team league with 3 teams from the West, 2 teams from the Central, and 3 teams from the East sub-regions of Region III. This league is run concurrently with the sub-regional leagues; teams participate in both at the same time. In order to achieve this games are not played every weekend, rather weekends are scheduled were all the RPL teams will meet and play 2 or 3 games.
- US Youth Soccer National League (USYSNL) is the exception in the explanation that PLW is the highest level to which a U14 team can play, as the National League has a complicated qualifying process that can allow teams to enter other than by winning the RPL. The league is formed from 16 teams, and teams can qualify based on previous year’s standing in the National League (only the top 4 automatically retain their spots), by doing well in their respective Region’s Premiere League (2 for each region), or for winning their Region’s Spring Cup. In the U14 year there are no slots from the previous year’s standings, so those are open to application. Likewise, if a Region does not have a Regional Premiere League champion (due to their being no RPL at that age level) alternate methods are used to choose each region’s participant.
You may notice that there is a bit of a gap here. Academy programs end at U10; Division 3 begins at U11, as does Division 2 (the local YSA “flavor”, not EDDOA Select or Super 2). But Division 1, Super 2, and EDDOA select all begin at U14. So what do the more competitive teams do from U11 to U13? They play Eastern District Qualifying, which is run by EDGL and brackets teams each season. At the end of each fall and spring season teams that finish at or near the top of their bracket can request promotion to the next higher bracket, while teams at or near the bottom of their can choose to be relegated to the next lower bracket, or appeal the relegation. What I mean by this is that, unlike at the higher levels, there is not a “hard and fast” rule that x many teams get promoted and relegated out of each bracket. Rather, there is input for the clubs to request placement, though it is not completely left to the clubs to decide. As the age groups get older EDDOA is more stringent about bracketing in an effort to make sure teams end up at the right level.
This is, by the way, not how it’s done in neighboring areas. Western District begins Division 1 and Super 2 immediately at U11, and North Texas seems to do things similarly.
STYSA charges itself with running competitions with the following goals:
- Determine a Fall Champion in Division II, Super II, and Division III.
- Determine the STYSA State Champion which, in the U14 through U19 groups will represent STYSA at the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series.
- Determine the Presidents Cup Champion which, in the U13 through U17 age groups, will represent STYSA in the Region III Presidents Cup Regional Competition with the other twelve states composing Region III.
- Provide a format where a team doing above average in one level of play may test itself against the next higher level of play.
- Provide a format where teams may enter a STYSA sponsored competition with teams that they may not normally play against.
Provide a quality competition during a period of the year when other sports may decrease the number of teams playing soccer.
Item one is covered by the Fall Championships discussed in the sections on Leagues, Divisions 2 and 3, while the rest of the list refers to the Spring Cups. Items two and three are self-explanatory. Of the remaining 3 goals, it seems to me that 5 and 6 are somewhat obsolete. I doubt that soccer sees as much of a reduction of number of players in the spring as it used to, and with ever more teams leaving their local YSAs to play in District-wide competitions there seems to be less of an opportunity to play teams not normally seen.
As mentioned earlier, there are four levels of cup:
- State Cup, aka US Youth Soccer National Championships and also National Cup is the highest level, intended for the top-level Division 1 teams (ie SCL and above) U13+. Play begins with a round-robin group at the District level. The top teams advance to a State final. The winner of the State Cup then represents South Texas at the Region III finals, and the winner of that tournament represents Region III at the nationals.
- Presidents Cup is the second-tier, intended for lower level Division 1 and top Super 2 teams (Division One Classic and Competitive and the top few Super 2 teams), U13+. Like the State Cup, play begins with a round-robin group at the District level, with opportunities to advance to State, Regional, and National Championships.
- Directors Cup is the third tier of cups. This cup is intended for mid-to-lower Super 2 teams, Division 2 teams, and top Division 3 teams, from U11+. Like the other cups, play progresses from District to National.
- The South Texas Cup is the bottom tier, intended for Division 2 and 3 teams, U11+, who do not play in the Directors Cup. Unlike the other cups, this is run concurrently with a Spring League. Division 2 teams and Division 3 teams play for their own championships, and there is no higher level than state champion.
A few notes: although the cups have an “intended” target, teams can request to play up. They may not play down. Teams requesting to play up one or more levels may be required to “challenge” for the opportunity (ie play in through elimination games). Also, with the exception of the South Texas Cup, teams play in the cup in lieu of league play in the spring. Although Western District also favors cup play only in the spring, North Texas does not—their cups are held simultaneously with leagues AT ALL LEVELS.
This is not an exhaustive list of the world of youth soccer, but hopefully this clarifies a lot of things. If you have any questions, please let me know.