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How relevant are US Youth Soccer State Cups after rise of ECNL and DA?

For decades, the State Cup was widely recognized as a true youth soccer state championship event, where the winning team in each age group had a bona fide case to be considered the absolute best of the best for that year.

Although the event remains a highly competitive showcase for US Youth Soccer’s state associations, and qualifier for potential advancement to regional and national events, the title of ‘state champion’ has become increasingly less descriptive in recent years as a literal term, as the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) have completely re-shaped the national landscape of “travel” soccer teams.

Both the Boys DA and Girls ECNL now have more than a decade of growth and expansion under their belts, resulting in a long-term shift away from the traditional US Youth Soccer-sanctioned State Cup events for a significant percentage of the nation’s top-end talent. The advent of the Girls DA has accelerated the exodus of talent away from the State Cup over the last several years, perhaps more than any other single factor.

And as if things aren’t confusing enough, US Club Soccer’s creation of multiple different state, regional and national “Championship” pathways have added to the dilution as well, by drawing even more teams out of the old State Cup brackets.

On the other hand, many US Youth Soccer affiliated state associations across the country are still objectively the premier competitive platforms in their markets, especially in lesser-populated areas with little to no ECNL or DA presence. And even in many larger markets, top clubs all over the country still take a great deal of pride in competing for State Cup titles, and find ways for their best players to participate through dual rostering – a loophole made possible as US Club Soccer and US Youth Soccer each have direct connections to U.S. Soccer, and therefore cannot regulate each other’s individual player registration statues.

However, State Cup events have maintained the lion’s share of their historical prestige in younger age groups, where many ECNL and DA clubs still enter teams in US Youth Soccer affiliated leagues.

From a branding perspective, US Youth Soccer didn’t help itself by attempting to rebrand the entire State > Regional > National competition as the “National Championship Series” all the way down to the state level. This confused the parents in most states right at the same time so many teams were moving to other competitions, a fact proved by the fact most states have re-adopted the “State Cup” brand. Losing so much talent to DA and ECNL clubs was certainly a disruptive event to the entire history of the traditional state cup competition structure, so rebranding at the same time seemed to have the effect of confusing the local soccer politic into thinking it was a new thing right at the time when they probably should have been reemphasizing the tradition and prestige so many of us grew up dreaming about winning.

So, exactly how much effect have the ECNL, DA and other factors had on the overall relevance of the traditional State Cup format?

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