Over the last 20 years, premier youth clubs have changed the landscape of Buffalo soccer. Long gone are the days of Buffalo Premier and Germania, both important at times when AAU basketball and Pee Wee football still had their clutches around youth sports, yet also predecessors to a what's currently a robust, fiercely competitive environment.
Welcome to 2017, where premier youth soccer clubs - any organization that plays the majority of its matches outside the Western New York Junior Soccer League - have proliferated like the city's food trucks and breweries.
If you asked the average local soccer fan to define GPS or ECNL, note the differences between Empire Buffalo and the Empire Development Academy, or explain the relationship between Buffalo Soccer Academy and the Western New York Flash Academy, few could do it.
And these details - as well as a broader perspective of youth soccer - are vital at a time when local soccer-playing girls see Maddie Pezzino, co-New York State player of the year for Grand Island, get recruited to a college power like Florida State, or soccer-fanatic boys witness Liam Callahan, developed through the local youth soccer system, become the first Major League Soccer draft pick from the Buffalo area.
While representing their own hard work and individual ability, Pezzino and Callahan also embody the fruits of systems designed to develop and produce better soccer players.
Maybe we've reached a time when Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan are no longer the role models for our youth - maybe the ones we aspire to be like aren't that far away.
A common conversation in the households of families with young athletes revolves around this question: "My kid has a bright future in soccer. Where do I go to get the best training from the best coaches at the best price against the best level of competition?"
The answer is not easy, and perhaps there's not just one answer. Players have different goals, much like the clubs profiled in this series.
Our task is to lay out the options and inform by interviewing key members of the organizations, then answering pertinent questions; the intent is not to say "this club is better than that club."
This is not to exclude other organizations like Delaware Soccer Club, Soccer Shots, Buffalo Soccer Club and West Side International Soccer, among many others, who all fill key cogs in the youth soccer machine.
While they will likely have their own series in the future, the first task is to survey options for premier-level soccer players.
*Read about the clubs: