How Colorado became an unlikely hotbed for U.S. women's soccer development

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

You've heard of Horan and Pugh, but that's only the start. How do two Denver-area clubs compete with those drawing from much larger areas? A confluence of factors, FFT found out.

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DENVER, Colo. – It’s the first stage of Denver’s dusk; evening is stealing the day’s last light. Late September in Colorado leaves only a couple of hours to practice after school lets out. Knifing winds rushing north over the open range leave kids covered to ankles and wrists as they ready themselves for the day’s session.

A few months from now, practice will begin by shoveling snow off these fields. Today, though, Real Colorado’s team of under-19- and under-18-year-old girls sit in circles, stretching, while their coaches lay cones. Soon, players are up, jogging the width of the artificial surface, jawing with the man who directs the crowd.

“I owe you 25 cents,” a player yells back to Lorne Donaldson, the ex-Jamaica international overseeing the session. He’s been chiding more than the teen who owes him money. He wants more vigor from the group.

“No, it’s 50 cents,” he says. His players take his demands in stride. It’s impossible to be too serious when arguing over a quarter.

This is the environment that has produced Mallory Pugh, the teenage phenom who snared a roster spot with the U.S. women’s national team at the 2016 Summer Olympics. It’s produced Jaelene Hinkle, another player who has seen time with the most famous women’s team in world soccer, and it’s also groomed Janine Beckie for Canada’s top squad. Recent U.S. senior-team call-ups for Jaelin Howell, 18, and Sophia Smith, 17, have further cast a spotlight on this Englewood-based club.

“Too high, Maisie.” Donaldson’s chiding, again, but it’s playful. His players have broken off into groups of three and are warming up, lofting 25-yard balls over one partner to another before running onto a return ball. “It’s supposed to be a pass,” he says, telling Maisie her last ball was so high, it’s “going to come down with snow on it.”

Donaldson’s personality has become famous in youth soccer over his 37 years on the Denver scene. With a blunt honesty softened by a piercing humor, Real’s Director of Coaching is often referred to as a “character,” though in the best way. Even as he’s setting a standard in girls’ development, peers don’t quite know how to describe him. All they know is he’s made Real Colorado into a power.

Donaldson coaching

In youth soccer, power can be measured in results -- Donaldson’s U-18/19 team sits top of its division in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy league -- but most tie success to the players you produce. By that measure, Donaldson’s thriving, too, and not just in terms of the likes of a Pugh or Hinkle. Real Colorado currently has five players in U.S. Soccer’s women’s U-level player pools, and, according to the club’s website, 23 players from its 2017 girls’ class have opportunities to play at the college level.

Let’s spend 90 percent of our time with the younger players, and not 90 percent of the time with five percent of the players.

- Lorne Donaldson

Other youth clubs, like So Cal Blues in Rancho Capistrano, California (south of Los Angeles), push as many players into college at an even greater volume at U.S. Soccer’s youth levels (11 players, for So Cal Blues, in the pools), but Real’s increased presence at the senior level has turned a spotlight on the club. Yet even within the Denver area, Real is not the dominant girls soccer force.

Slightly to the south, in another suburb of what’s only the 21st-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., there is a club that has six players in the U.S. youth soccer pools and, five years ago, sent a player straight from high school to Paris Saint-Germain in the top division of French soccer.

Lindsey Horan has become Rush Soccer’s proof of concept. At 18 years old, while her peers where going to college, the now-full U.S. international elected to move to Paris and sign a professional contract worth six-figures annually. One year later, Horan made her senior national team debut. Now she is a regular starter in the U.S. midfield. In the process, Horan, along with players like Pugh, Hinkle, and Beckie, has highlighted the unique phenomenon that is Denver youth soccer.

That Denver is experiencing a boom of girls soccer talent has become undisputed. What’s disputed is why.

Why has a medium-sized city far from the talent bases that seed other sports become, per capita, some of the most fertile ground in U.S. women’s soccer? Why, after Horan’s breakthrough, has the Denver area been able to maintain this pipeline? And why, despite the potential for this to be blip in time, do people believe the Denver girls’ soccer scene could yet move forward?

With anything remarkable, there’s no single explanation. If there were, the Denver phenomenon would be replicated in cities all over the country, and easily so. Instead, a series of factors dating back 40 years, when the original NASL’s Colorado Caribous brought pro soccer to Denver, have converged, creating a confluence that may be impossible to replicate anywhere else.

“Why did Rome produce all those great philosophers during that era?” Tim Schulz, the president and CEO of Colorado Rush, asks while explaining what’s happening in Denver. Schulz came to Denver in the early 1980s, toward the beginning of a long professional playing career which included spells in the California Bay Area and St. Louis. Toward the end of his time on the field, he returned to Colorado, eventually transitioning to become a part of Rush.

“I think there’s a teacher that instills it with that group of people,” Schulz explains, “and then they really start bonding and challenging each other. I think that’s really going on with Colorado Rush.”

NEXT: A wave of coaches lay roots in Denver