Looking across the San Diego Surf Complex this weekend, one could see hundreds of young ECNL athletes getting their first taste of a national event at ECNL San Diego. Ranging from the U12 to U14 age groups, most of these athletes were playing games against teams outside their conference for the first time, getting the opportunity to measure their developmental progress against competition across the nation’s top youth soccer league.
From a coaching standpoint, it was more than just the first national event of the year and more than a beautiful location. ECNL San Diego brought together teams from both ECNL Girls and ECNL Boys for one event, allowing club directors and leadership to watch and evaluate their teams in both leagues. This was just the second time in league history that ECNL Boys and ECNL Girls shared a complex and competed side-by-side.
Of the 50+ clubs that attended ECNL San Diego for ECNL Boys and ECNL Girls, 32 organizations were ECNL “All-in” clubs – clubs that compete in both ECNL Girls, which started in 2009, and ECNL Boys, which was founded in 2017. The ECNL “All-in” clubs have a rich history of high-level performance in teams across both genders. Their representation in the ECNL Girls and ECNL Boys helps to internally align their developmental pathway and club culture while raising the quality of the league and strengthening the bond that exists between the league and all its member clubs.
Events such as ECNL San Diego allow clubs to build their culture and deepen connections between teams. For clubs such as Santa Rosa United, it means boys teams can watch their clubbmates from the girls side in a game and the girls can do the same for the boys. Coaches can lead their team in the morning and then spectate and cheer on another wearing their badge in the afternoon.
It’s full club bonding; an opportunity that doesn’t come every weekend.
“The ability to see the girls side and the boys side is fantastic,” said Josh Sterling, Santa Rosa United Vice President. “One thing we talk about at Santa Rosa is having ‘one club.’ There’s a boys side and a girls side, but we’re truly one club. We don’t get the chance often to support each other like we can here at ECNL San Diego, so it’s been awesome in that regard. An incredible facility, incredible weather and so many games over the weekend. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Santa Rosa United is in its second year with ECNL Boys, joining the league in 2020. However, it’s been a member of ECNL Girls for much longer. Sterling said being able to have their boys and girls teams participate in the same league, with the same rules, and also to be able to attend events such as ECNL San Diego, has made catering to their athletes much, much easier.
“Having the boys and the girls in the same league is great, because we’re all working from the same place,” Sterling said. “To be able to have that structure club-wide, and across both genders, it’s awesome.”
For clubs like Washington Premier, ECNL San Diego was the first opportunity of the year to get in competitive games. The club traveled down from Tacoma, WA, to participate in the national event, and for their ECNL Girls teams, it was the first ECNL action of the season. For all their teams, though, traveling out of state and performing against the best of the best was a very unique and welcoming experience.
“For our U12s, this is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to travel out of state,” said Scott Ford, ECNL Girls Director. “I think having an opportunity where they can be together, where they can build those friendships that will become lifelong, that’s special. They’ve really enjoyed that social aspect too, being together on the field, but also off the field as well. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve traveled and stayed together as a team, and they’re having a great time. They’re enjoying the competition and being together.”
Washington Premier has been an “all-in” club since the boys side joined ECNL ahead of the 2019 season. The organization had been a member of the ECNL Girls for years and seeing the success being in the league had for their club, they made sure to join ECNL Boys as soon as the chance arose. And the move has paid dividends.
“We’re very proud to have both our boys and girls in the ECNL,” Ford said. “We were in the ECNL on the girls side, and because of that experience, the quality of the competition, the national base, the college coach exposure, when the opportunity came to join on the boys side, we pursued it. By doing so, as a club, it’s given us a proven pathway, structure and system for our U13s through our U18/19s. We have this journey that the boys can go on now, with the great competition in the Northwest Conference and then national events like this, that the girls have always had. It’s a great selling point for us as a club, that our program is involved in the highest level of girls and boys soccer across the country.”
In addition to the team building and camaraderie surrounding clubs at events like ECNL San Diego, it can also prove to be a great launching pad for successful seasons on both the boys and girls side. Last year, Washington Premier had its ECNL Boys U15 squad reach the ECNL National Finals in St. Louis, and the club hopes ECNL San Diego can be used to build confidence within its younger teams, motivating the players to make their own playoff push by providing them a small sample of these cross-conference matchups.
“It was a fantastic run by our U15 boys team last year,” Ford said. “We’re looking to try and replicate that on the boys side and get more teams to the postseason. The competition those boys faced along the way only helped them grow as players. I know they’re excited for the season and to try and get back there, so they can have another opportunity in a national championship, and it can begin here in San Diego.”
The weekend’s event was perhaps a different feel for Del Mar Sharks, as the club is based in San Diego already. However, the club is treating ECNL San Diego just like every traveling club, as a chance to get better on the field and closer off of it.
“Yeah it’s great to have boys and girls teams here and having them watching each other play, supporting each other,” said Kelly Wherry, Del Mar Sharks ECNL Director. “It’s great to be here in our hometown, for the first event of the year and the first event for our U13 teams to participate in. To be playing against the best competition in the country and to do so with our boys and girls teams at the same venue, it’s an exciting weekend for sure.”
Del Mar Sharks has been a longtime ECNL Girls member club, and having an event like ECNL San Diego helps continue to push the development of their athletes, along with showing them what makes the ECNL great and creating excitement for the future and how committed of a club they are to the players.
“ECNL San Diego shows our players that this is the platform to be in, to help them get to the next level,” Wherry said. “It’s great to be a part of the league on the girls side for as long as we have. We’re proud to be here in our own backyard and it shows the professionalism of the league. This makes our players more excited for the rest of their time with our club.”
At ECNL San Diego, and all ECNL national events, the athletes participating receive an experience unlike any other. There’s exposure to different playing styles, as there are distinct tactical differences in clubs and teams from different conferences, which allows athletes to get a better understanding of the game and increase their own playing capacity. There are scouts from colleges and professional clubs along the sidelines, creating excitement for the next playing opportunity. And there are opportunities to grow as a club on and off the field.
ECNL San Diego was the first national event for the 2021-22 season, and the first of many national events in these athletes’ careers. For ECNL “All-in” clubs and for all attendees, it was another step forward in the pursuit of a national championship.