The requirements for soccer play are multifactorial and distinguishing characteristics of elite players can be investigated using multivariate analysis. The aim of the present study was to apply a comprehensive test battery to young players with a view to distinguishing between elite and sub-elite groups on the basis of performance on test items. Thirty-one (16 elite, 15 sub-elite) young players matched for chronological age (15-16 years) and body size were studied. Test items included anthropometric (n = 15), physiological (n = 8), psychological (n = 3) and soccer-specific skills (n = 2) tests. Variables were split into separate groups according to somatotype, body composition, body size, speed, endurance, performance measures, technical skill, anticipation, anxiety and task and ego orientation for purposes of univariate and multivariate analysis of variance and stepwise discriminant function analysis. The most discriminating of the measures were agility, sprint time, ego orientation and anticipation skill. The elite players were also significantly leaner, possessed more aerobic power (9.0 +/- 1.7 vs 55.5 +/- 3.8 ml x kg(-1) x min(-1)) and were more tolerant of fatigue (P < 0.05). They were also better at dribbling the ball, but not shooting. We conclude that the test battery used may be useful in establishing baseline reference data for young players being selected onto specialized development programmes.