The ECNL Regional League: “Raising the Game”

America runs on Dunkin. Just do it. Great brands have great slogans. Words like these might be written in a tinier front or said quickly at the end of a commercial, but the power of a tagline done right cannot be underestimated. A brand in part becomes powerful because of the commitment spoken via their slogan. Members and followers look to gain a larger sense of an organization’s value system via a slogan. 

Raise the Game. That’s the Elite Club National League’s slogan. Since 2009, the ECNL has been dedicated to providing opportunities for players, coaches, and clubs to raise standards surrounding all aspects of the female youth game in the United States. They have achieved this through the thoughtful and intensive selection of member clubs. They have achieved this through setting up quality tournaments around the country with a top-level competitive ambience that elite athletes dream of. They have achieved this through the staff they have hired dedicated to the safety and welfare of ECNL participants. In looking at the league’s set up, initiatives, and decision-making for over a decade, you would be hard-pressed to find words that fit the ECNL better.


Last year, the league set in motion yet another component of their greater mission by establishing the Regional League (RL) platform, a second tier of competition in the ECNL. As of the currently-paused 2019-2020 season, the Regional League consists of nearly 60 clubs split into six leagues around the country. The ECNL RL operates under a slightly different structure, but provides, as commissioner Jen Winnagle describes, a “proving ground for players and teams who are not members of the ECNL to ultimately compete against ECNL players and teams.”

ECNL Commissioner, Jen Winnagle

Why was the ECNL RL developed? Winnagle explains, “The level of play is rising all around the country. There’s a deeper, richer pool of talented players that are seeking a platform to compete and we want to provide a clear pathway for them. We also want to service more players in our member clubs who are looking for a great experience. Finally, geographically…there are different needs in different areas and we want to service those areas appropriately.”

The ECNL understands that the female youth soccer landscape in the U.S. is ever-evolving and, with that, the best ways the organization can raise the game are also ever-evolving. It’s a process that requires a continuous evaluation of where and who around the country needs increased attention and/or support. 

Similar to the ECNL member clubs, RL teams compete in a year-round season. The top RL teams with the best standings from regular season play then qualify for the postseason, and ultimately a chance to compete in the ECNL Open Cup. Now, this is where things get fun and interesting.

These top RL teams have the opportunity here to play against other top RL teams and ECNL member teams from all over. Winnagle says, “The Open Cup is a true blend…It’s putting everyone on the same playing ground and seeing where you fall.” Those in the Open Cup compete for the Open Cup championship and ECNL RL clubs that have multiple age groups qualify for this competition show themselves as one of the top clubs outside the league. 

Strikers ECNL U14 team

For the ECNL, raising the game has always meant a degree of exclusivity, a feeling of great players play here and then do great things. However, what has been so remarkable about this league, and perhaps what has contributed to its longevity and pedigree in an often turbulent American youth soccer space, is that “eliteness” does not come with cutting off avenues to a coveted field of play.

Rather, the ECNL recognizes the need to shine a light on those areas sometimes in the shadow of the giants. These are the teams in Alabama, Idaho and other smaller states and soccer communities. These are the players that, for any number of reasons outside of their athlete status, cannot be a full-time member of the “best clubs,” but have the skills to compete. This is what the Regional League is about. This is what holistic, meaningful “raising the game” is about.



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