By Jacob Born | March 30, 2021
MLS was founded in 1993; the NWSL in 2012 and before it, the USL W-League in 1995, the WPSL in 1998, the WUSA in 2001 and the WPS in 2008.
The NBA was founded in 1946; the WNBA in 1997.
The Little League World Series was founded in 1947; the Little League Softball World Series in 1974.
The list goes on and on.
For every sport in the United States, there’s a familiar pattern. A men’s sports league starts and thrives, and the women’s league doesn’t exist. In general, women’s sports leagues are a much more recent development.
But that’s not the story of the ECNL.
The ECNL was founded in 2009, when the state of youth soccer was in significant flux in this country. US Soccer had established the Boys Development Academy, which was shaking up long-established structures in the sport, and Christian Lavers, current ECNL President, was coaching in it. So much of the focus in the sport was about improving the boys game and its programs, but Lavers and others felt that a similar need for change existed in the girls game.
But no existing organization was ready to do anything to change the youth girls game.
So Lavers, Doug Bracken (current ECNL Vice President), and a few other leaders across the game made the decision to do something unprecedented – to start a new female youth league from scratch, one that would be completely centered around and dedicated to female youth soccer players, and one led by club soccer professionals. US Club Soccer reached out to sanction the organization, and a new era began.
“When Doug and I first presented the concept of the ECNL to 50 or so clubs in Las Vegas in March 2009, we never dreamed what the league would become,” Lavers said. “There was no shortage of people who thought we were on a fool’s errand, and that this idea would come crashing down hard.”
The ECNL kicked off its inaugural season in the fall of 2009, with 40 founding clubs and approximately 2,000 players across three age groups (U15-U17). Twelve months later the ECNL secured its first official sponsor, as Nike Soccer saw the promise and opportunity created by the league and dove in, and then in the fall of 2011, the ECNL hired its first employee, Commissioner Sarah Kate Noftsinger.
In her six seasons as commissioner, “Skate” saw the ECNL expand to more than 60 clubs and more than 10,000 players from U14-U18. Along the way, the ECNL created its own National Showcase Events, which quickly became the gold standard in women’s soccer in collegiate showcasing and atmosphere, introduced the Champions League and North America Cup at the ECNL Playoffs and developed player identification programs at the regional and national levels.
During the 2014 season, with the league continually growing, the ECNL made two hires that would become monumental for the future of the league. Those two hires were Jen Winnagle and Marisa Leconte.
Winnagle and Noftsinger had known each other through youth soccer, having played for the same club coach. They were both still in the sport; Noftsinger with the ECNL, and Winnagle at VCU, where she had played collegiate soccer, and had returned after working as an assistant coach at the University of Richmond for five years.
Winnagle and Noftsinger reconnected for a short time when both were at Richmond, but it was over an informal lunch meeting where a possible future in the ECNL was first discussed.
“I just had lunch with Skate; we knew each other from the soccer world,” Winnagle said. “She was a volunteer coach at Richmond when I was also coaching there. We went down memory lane and then she started telling me about her role at ECNL. I was aware of it because of recruiting during my last year at Richmond, so I had known of the ECNL during its infancy from a coaching perspective.”
The two stayed in contact and a few years later, Winnagle joined the ECNL as the league’s first-ever Member Services Manager.
“At that time in my career, it just felt right to take the leap of faith, and join the ECNL as the new contender in the female youth soccer space,” Winnagle said.
Leconte’s hire came at the same time, and she too came from a collegiate athletics department. After graduating from Marshall University, where she was a member of the women’s soccer team, Leconte made a stop at United Soccer Coaches (previously the NSCAA) before heading to the University of Minnesota to work in the athletic department. It was at Minnesota when she saw a job posting for the ECNL. Through mutual connections, Leconte started having conversations with the ECNL and after impressing the league with her skill set and work ethic, she was brought on to be the league’s Programs Manager.
“I was doing a fellowship at the University of Minnesota in their athletic department when I realized I wildly missed soccer,” Leconte said. “When I applied at the ECNL, coincidently, the associate athletic directors and AD at Minnesota had just come from VCU, so they helped me bridge that gap. And throughout the process, I kept thinking about how I didn’t have a league like the ECNL and how much I wanted to be a part of it now.”
Throughout Winnagle and Leconte’s first years with the ECNL, the league continued to grow, blossoming to more than 85 clubs, expanding its player identification programs, establishing a scholarship program to assist ECNL Alumni and female coaches in continuing education for advancement in the coaching field, and introducing “The Zone,” an area at National Events focused on athlete recovery and education and creating a new social experience onsite.
In late 2015, Noftsinger left the league to become the Director of Marketing & Fan Engagement for the Atlanta United FC and in stepped Winnagle to become the ECNL’s Interim Commissioner. Two months later, Winnagle officially became the league’s second Commissioner, transitioning into the new role as the league faced new challenges but continued on the upward trajectory. Shortly after her transition, the ECNL also hired another former collegiate soccer player, Kristin Brunner, as the league’s Member Services Manager, taking over Winnagle’s previous position.
“The fall of 2015 was a time of incredible change and challenge for us, but looking back it was a great inflection point for our league,” Lavers said. “Skate had done an incredible job here – something that all of the soccer world would soon see in her work and impact at Atlanta United. Jen stepped into the opportunity and fully embraced it at a time where we also had to re-examine our vision and values in a changing youth environment with the announcement of the creation of US Soccer’s Girls Development Academy.”
With her new role, Winnagle saw opportunity. At their initial lunch, Noftsinger and Winnagle discussed the ECNL and how there had not been a similar league and opportunity when they were growing up. Now, at the helm, it was her chance to continue to give back and continue to grow and improve an incredible soccer platform celebrating the female athlete and improving the development experience for all players.
“I’ve talked with countless colleagues, coaches, former players, all of whom wish this type of platform was around when we were playing,” Winnagle said. “It’s a common theme for players from my generation. I wanted to give back and continue to push women’s soccer in a positive way, and be a part of a team that continued to change the youth landscape in a positive manner for today’s players and the next generation.”
As the league continued to grow, another opportunity beckoned. The ECNL had seen so much success since its inception, more than doubling in size in just seven years and solidifying itself as the premier youth soccer league in the United States, that it was time to bring that same success to the boys side.
It would be the first time a women’s league founded a men’s league at any level in sports.
“For years we had been asked by clubs and coaches to start something in the boys’ game, but we always hesitated,” Lavers said. “When we finally decided to make the jump, we knew that the ultimate challenge would be to get a new boys league to match the incredible quality and professionalism of what the girls league had built over almost 10 years. To do that, we had the same people work in both leagues – there was no one better than our own people.”
ECNL Boys was established in 2017 with 57 inaugural members. Behind the scenes and leading the charge was primarily a staff of women.
“I think it speaks volumes that for several years in its infancy when the ECNL Boys started, the day-to-day was largely run by women,” Leconte said. “That’s something you really don’t see, women really taking hold of running a men’s organization. We were all involved with that and we’re really proud of building the boys side from the ground up as women.”
With two leagues to handle and both growing at an incredible rate, Leconte was promoted to Events Director for the ECNL, responsible for everything related to national and regional events.
As Winnagle and Leconte continued to shape and grow the league on the outside, they also continued that same growth inside the league. The growing league required a growing staff, which allowed the ECNL to hire a multitude of positions. With Leconte’s new role as Events Director, she filled out her staff with multiple new hires for event coordination and player identification programming. With two leagues and double the players and coaches, there also needed to be more support in the Member Services area. Today, former athletes Blayne Fink and Becca Wenger remain in Events and in Member Services respectively, with more additions likely to come.
All the hires created the necessary infrastructure for the ECNL to continue its incredible growth across the sports landscape. In the two years that followed, the ECNL Boys ballooned to 131 teams, and also named PUMA as a league sponsor. Gatorade added the boys league to its long-standing sponsorship of the girls league. The ECNL Girls established the ECNL Regional League, which was quickly followed by the ECNL Boys doing the same. Both leagues expanded their respective age groups to U13-U19, added more unique programming for players. Both leagues fielded ECNL All-Star teams at the International Champions Cup Futures in competition against some of the biggest brands in world soccer. The Girls National Training Camp welcomed professional women’s teams Paris St. Germain and Manchester City, while the Boys National Training Camp partnered with the Bahamian Football Federation.
With such success on the field, the ECNL needed to make another important hire off the field, naming Andrea Wheeler as the Boys Marketing Manager in September of 2020. Coming to the league after experience in the athletic departments of Alabama State, Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central, where she also played collegiate softball, Wheeler quickly and prominently became the marketing voice of the ECNL Boys, continuing along the path created by Winnagle, Leconte, Lavers and ECNL Boys Commissioner Jason Kutney.
“I entered the league working in the boys side and to me, the fact that I was even being considered for that role just spoke volumes about the ECNL,” Wheeler said. “Being a woman and being interviewed to represent the boys, to be their voice and do all their marketing and social media wasn’t an opportunity I ever expected and was grateful for. And that was before I found out how many women had done that before me and how many women were leaders in the league office. I was taken aback. And then to be offered and accept the role, it was a breath of fresh air.”
Joining the ranks of impactful and important women within the youth sports role was a pivotal moment for Wheeler. The office culture reflected the positivity the league implored on the field and created an environment where everyone could succeed and felt comfortable.
“The ECNL culture was night and day different,” Wheeler said. “Just for me to have the support of someone who’s been in my shoes, or whose shoes I want to be in one day. To be able to speak the language of women in sports with other professionals inside the ECNL, it makes your day to day a lot easier. And you will always have their support.”
September 2020 also marked the rebrand of the ECNL, where the league renewed its mission to Raise The Game, a total commitment to create the best possible environment for players, coaches, referees and administrators, with a determination to constantly question convention and challenge the status quo in youth sports.
The league’s rebrand was a commitment to lead, with eyes set on new horizons, and to pursue them relentlessly.
Born out of the belief in a better way. Continued in the ever-evolving pursuit of excellence.
In 2020, the ECNL also announced the creation of the Super Cup, a one-of-its-kind competition platform bringing together the best of the best within a club and across multiple ages, for unrivaled competition and player development.
Wheeler was quickly promoted to Director of Creative Services, head of an entirely new department. She brought on Diana Hernandez as the league’s Social Media Manager and Jaquie Tun to be the league’s Graphic Designer.
“As a female who was given a chance in sports, when the opportunity was there, I wanted to give it back,” Wheeler said. “I think that’s everybody’s responsibility to give women a chance in sports. It just so happened to be a cherry on top for me that I was able to give two very talented young women an opportunity to prove themselves in the athletic industry.”
Throughout the ECNL’s history, wherever the league has been, so too have been women leading the charge. What started out as 40 teams playing nine games a year has become a league featuring both genders, two levels of competition, and thousands of teams spread across age groups and playing levels.
When Lavers and Bracken wrote the business plan and vision for a new league in 2009, it was out of a desire to create a league that catered to its athletes unapologetically, and to holistically develop each person on and off the league. Along the way, the ECNL became a league unlike any other, practicing what it preached by putting women in leadership roles and allowing them to succeed, showing its athletes it stood by what it was teaching.
And with the league’s eyes set on new horizons, the ECNL will continue to lead the next generation, with women paving the way.
“The ECNL, the passion and commitment from those that are working in the league, it comes daily from leadership on down,” Winnagle said. “It’s been quite an evolution from when I started. The league is full of change and it’s important to recognize that. It’s really unique that our staff has such diverse backgrounds. These unique backgrounds coupled with the common thread of collegiate athletics makes the ECNL staff unlike any other. It’s important for all of us to make sure both leagues are the absolute best in class.”