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Alexis Tsaprailis: ECNL vs Ontario Pathways

The road to the future is always evolving, and Alexis Tsaprailis is making her way.

Started playing the beautiful game at the age of three, born in from a small border city known as Sarnia, Ontario, Tsaprailis’s earliest memories are with a ball at her feet. She was raised in a soccer household as her parents both played all their lives and met each other at Western University while both playing at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) level.

Tsaprailis’ parents have coached her since the beginning,  and Jim Tsaprailis, Alexis’s father, has always been her head coach during her earlier years. 

Tsapralis started playing house league soccer until the age of six, from there her talent was obvious and she began playing with her father’s boys team at Sarnia FC. She played with boys a year older than her until the age of 12. During this time her game began to develop, where her play became more physical and increased her speed of play.  Training was very competitive and intense, and these years shaped her into the player she is today.

“I was always hungry and constantly looking to find the next challenge,” said Tsaprailis. “Throughout my entire youth career I always played a year up from my age, even with the boys group.”

Around the age of 12 the opportunity to play for the London Whitecaps in the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL) arrived for Tsaprailis. The commute was a huge commitment,  it was an hour drive for the family, but it was a sacrifice the family deemed worth it because the OPDL is the best development league in Ontario.

“We chose London Whitecaps over other options because they were not only affiliated with Sarnia FC, but they already had an affiliate to Vancouver Whitecaps, the professional team,” said Jim.

Spending approximately five years with the London Whitecaps, Tsaprailis enjoyed every minute of her time there and had a wonderful experience. In her last year with the Whitecaps she made it to the Charity Shield final, but unfortunately missed it because of a sprained ankle.

This final was one of the only challenges left for Tsaprailis at the OPDL level, as at the age of 15 while playing with and against 17 year olds, Tsaprailis was top 10 in the U17 OPDL scoring charts, while playing as a center midfielder.

“We decided to move from London Whitecaps to Michigan Hawks to play in the ECNL and face a new challenge,” said Jim.  Alexis was aware that the training and the competitive environment would be a challenge and bring out the best in her game.  Joining the Michigan Hawks was a big step forward for Tsaprailis, presenting her with a large challenge that brought excitement right away.

“The Michigan Hawks offered a remarkable experience and I already had connections and relationships with numerous players in Michigan,” said Tsaprailis. “This familiarity added to the appeal of the team.”

Michigan Hawks play in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which they claim represents the epitome of excellence in American youth soccer, for boys and girls, as the league, clubs, players, and everyone involved seeks to constantly “Raise the Game ” for the future.  It offers the best avenue for exposure and recruitment to US college soccer.  Unlike the OPDL, their league runs similar to the European schedule, where they play year round and are off during the hot summer months.  The ECNL also organizes several college showcases throughout the season that allows players to play in front of 500 plus college coaches during each event.  “It was awesome traveling to Arizona and Florida and playing against the best teams from California, Texas and Florida, just to mention a few,” said Tsaprailis.  The financial costs to register are very similar between both leagues, but the ECNL requires increased cost for travel to league games and showcases.  

“In my opinion, the ECNL sets a new standard, the level of athleticism of the players is incredible. I always strive to compete at the highest level and in the best environment, and the Michigan Hawks, with their intense competitiveness, overall talent and outstanding coaching, perfectly align with my aspirations,” said Tsaprailis.

“My teammates at the Michigan Hawks are extraordinary. Out of the 16 girls on my team, 14 had already secured scholarships to division one schools in the US including the Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Ivey League, despite still being in grade 11 and not having graduated high school.”

Both Alexis and Jim believe the ECNL presents a more demanding league compared to the OPDL. This stems from the fact that in the ECNL, each state typically has a maximum of two or three teams, ensuring a concentrated pool of exceptional talent. Every position is filled with players of equal strength, tactical and technical abilities, only the best and most dedicated players are selected for these teams.  

In the OPDL, up to 28 clubs from Ontario alone participate, approximately 500 kids per age group. According to Jim, this leads to a significant drop in talent across most teams, and only the minority of players truly represent the best in Ontario. While OPDL aims to showcase Ontario’s young talent and be the premier youth league, there are many players who do not possess the necessary physical and technical skill level to maintain a highly competitive league.  In contrast, the ENCL is a nationwide league, where teams are limited and it attracts only the best of the best players.

“The best players need to play and train everyday against the best players, that is where you get the best development and best competitive environment,” said Jim. “For us, we play regular season league games all over the US Midwest, including traveling to Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, St.Louis and Chicago.”

The players in the ECNL must show incredible commitment and dedication to their sport, fitness level and overall health. These players prioritize soccer and are fully invested in their performance. They sacrifice to play the sport they want to have a future in, and it’s shown in the level of play.

“I consider myself a physically skilled player, but I often found myself among the smaller players on the field in the US. Every player in the ECNL possesses remarkable speed, agility, and strength,” said Tsaprailis. “The players are bigger, faster and much more physical.”

“If I was able to go back a few years, I think it would have been beneficial to go to the US sooner.  It could have possibly helped me develop faster and start my recruiting process earlier. Unfortunately due to the recent pandemic, that was not possible.  By starting at the U17 age group, I felt that I was behind in the college recruiting process, compared to my teammates.  I just know that I’ve developed and matured as a player in the short time I’ve spent here.”  The physical, time and financial demands are not for everyone, but the ECNL definitely raises the bar, said Tsaprailis.

The first season with the Hawks was very competitive that Tsaprailis enjoyed every minute of. She fit in with her team that was in need of another central midfielder.  They were excited to have me and loved my work ethic, playmaking ability and my ability to score from distance.

The Hawks organize an exceptional annual combine in the local area, attracting around 260 college coaches, including those from the Power Five Schools. Tsaprailis displayed outstanding performance throughout the three-day event, attracting significant interest. 

“We chose to take our time before making a commitment. Although Bowling Green extended an offer, we requested the opportunity to play more of the ECNL season before finalizing our decision,” said Jim. “Fortunately, they were understanding and supportive, granting us the necessary time to aim for our ambitious goals.”

Very soon after, Tsaprailis tore her ACL during a match in Cincinnati. Such injuries are a possible risk in sports, and although it was a setback, she quickly decided to undergo surgery to speed up her recovery and return to the field as soon as possible. However, this also meant that there was no chance of Tsaprailis being scouted by other schools including her planned New Jersey showcase in May and the U17 ECNL Champions League Playoff that her team qualified for at the end of the season in San Diego. The concern now was whether the schools that had shown interest would still remain committed, as the injury posed a potential setback. 

“We visited Bowling Green, and the coach was incredibly supportive, offering reassurance and maintaining the offer. Since she is meant to begin in the fall of 2024, she has ample time to recover and regain her form. The coach’s belief in her mental resilience, commitment and strength was incredible to hear and feel that support, that’s when we knew it was time to commit,” said Jim.

“Initially, Bowling Green wasn’t on my radar, but It’s quite amusing how everything eventually falls into place. Despite my recent ACL tear and subsequent surgery, the coaches at Bowling Green have been nothing short of amazing,” said Tsaprailis. “They have faith in my abilities, instilling confidence in me. It feels truly incredible to have a team that believes in me so strongly.”

Six weeks since the surgery, Tsaprailis has already resumed training, engaging in strength training, ball mastery, and passing exercises. Steadily progressing under the supervision of her personal physical therapists, mom and dad, and the speed of her recovery has been incredible. The surgeon referred to her as a ‘Rock Star.’ While injuries like this are never desirable, her and her family are making the most out of the situation. 

Tsaprailis on her way back from injury is still looking into the future. In the short term she’s aiming to be recognized as the Freshman of the Year at Bowling Green during her first season. Additionally, aspiring to participate in the year end national NCAA D1 tournament and relish the extraordinary experience of playing against the very best, while pushing to obtain a championship ring by winning their MAC conference. 

Long term Tsaprailis wants to continue to play at the highest level, have a successful college career and dreams of playing professionally in Europe one day, 

“If you love what you are doing, you have to keep going after it no matter what. There will always be bumps in the road, but it’s worth it in the end. I travel hours to get to training and games and back the day before I have a test in school. I prioritize my schooling, soccer, family, friends and nutrition in order to be successful in all aspects of my life,” said Tsaprailis.  “I wouldn’t change my experience for the world!”

“I have been very fortunate to play with and against some very wonderful soccer players and for some very exceptional coaches in both the OPDL and ECNL.  I can’t thank my parents enough for providing me the opportunity to experience both leagues and continuing to make lifelong friendships and memories, playing this wonderful game.”  

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