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

ISI Photos-Brad Smith
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The importance of coaching rings true to Donaldson, too, perhaps because, like Schulz, he’s devoted his life to it. And undoubtedly, the quality of coaching is a main driver in producing great soccer players, both in Colorado and beyond. That doesn’t, however, explain why the coaching landscape in Colorado is distinct, or how that distinction is helping produce a disproportionate number of elite prospects.

To Donaldson, though, the history, breadth, and quality of coaching in Denver sets the area apart.

“Colorado is not looked at as a soccerbed,” Donaldson concedes, “but the Caribou was here back in the 70s, folded in the late 70s. But what happened, there was another club here called the [Denver] Kickers, who was the U.S. national champion through the 80s.” The team won U.S. Amateur Cup titles in 1977, 1978 and 1983 and won back-to-back national amateur championships in 1994 and 1995. “They were the best club, and they had some of the best players from all over the world, because there was no professional league.

“After the [Colorado] Foxes,” a team that played in the old A-League from 1990 through 1997, “a lot of those players stayed and coached. And they’re still coaching. Even if you look at Major League Soccer and the guys who played for the Foxes – I was part of the Foxes; I was a player; I was one of the coaches – like Chad Ashton at D.C. United, Tommy Soehn [was] the coach at New England, Robin Fraser is [an assistant] at Toronto. You can go on and on, and you can find a lot of those guys are coaches. Tom Stone is coaching at Texas Tech. But a lot of [the former Foxes and Kickers players] kept coaching.”

Donaldson goes on naming an impressive list of coaches. “The Rush came along and actually put a bunch of that talent together,” he notes. For whatever reason -- the environment, access to the outdoors, cost of living, its family-friendly lifestyle -- Denver convinced many of these disparate talents, coming from all over the world, to stay in Colorado.

Real Colorado's fields

Is it a coincidence that, roughly a generation later, Colorado is experiencing a boom in soccer talent?

“They stayed here, and they passed on their professional experience,” Schulz says, wholeheartedly buying Donaldson’s theory. “There are a lot of good coaches here in Colorado.

“Now, what does that translate to? You know, I take that back. A good player doesn’t make a good coach, but it certainly helps … I think that a coach, if they can instill back to that word passion, again, I think you’ve got yourself a winner, versus just the technical and tactical.”

It’s an aspect of coaching Schulz pauses to emphasize, one that explains why former players, in particular, may have more success with elite youth talent than, say, somebody approaching the game with a more academic point of view.

“Too many book coaches, book scholars,” he says. There truly is nothing worse, at the youth level, than a coach whose carrying around their dog-eared copy of Inverting the Pyramid. “I don’t think kids relate to it. It’s about emotion, and saying, ‘wow, that was good,’ and crying with them. Get mad. And then they feel the emotion. I think that’s when you’re coaching.”

Schulz is no blood-and-guts, pace-power-and-passion dinosaur. His passion for instilling a technical standard comes through just as loud as his pleas for emotion. But it is in thoughts like these where you get the pure, distilled version of nearly three decades of youth coaching experience. It’s also where you start to see the similarities between him and his rival at Real Colorado.

“One thing we do here, at Real Colorado,” Donaldson explains,” is [we make sure] the kids understand it.” Make the connection with the kid. Don’t just make sure they’re following direction. Make sure they know where the direction fits in the bigger picture. Just like with Maisie and the rain-drawing pass, it’s important kids know why there’s a specific way things have to be done.

“When they walk away, they walk away with a smile on their face,” says Donaldson. “Every kid, when they walk out of here, you can look at them, there’s a smile on their face …

“When we don’t like [the effort], it’s hard love. We get after them. Not everything we say, they’re going to like, but they know we have their best interests, and we’re trying to push them to where they’re going to be.”

These words aren’t rare among youth coaches, but they’re delivered with the conviction of experience, as well as with proven results.

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