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

ISI Photos-Brad Smith
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When you see the tempo and precision of a Real Colorado practice, the words become more than coaching platitudes. They’re commandments, ones that not only resonate beyond the mere meaning of the words but suggest there may be something special about Donaldson and Schulz.

“Tim brought out the best in me,” Horan says, five years after leaving Rush. “Before I had him, I was just comfortable. I liked soccer, I had it in me, but I needed someone to pull at it.

“Tim became my coach. That was my person. He was the person who inspired me and motivated me to be this player. He still inspires me ...

“Having him throughout my youth career was so special to me, because he was that guy. He pushed to a whole new level. He was on my you-know-what every single day, training me, helping me.”

My job was to take [the club] over and go to the board of directors and say, ‘listen, I’m not taking this thing over so we can sit there and not be a big player.

- Lorne Donaldson

And from what Horan knows from her friends who, including Pugh, went through Real Colorado, the relationships are the same with Donaldson.

Donaldson and Schulz being exceptional at their jobs would go a long way to explaining what’s happening in Colorado, but that claim would also be suspiciously convenient without a broader theory of support. After all, what are the odds that, if Lorne and Tim are truly two of the handful of elite talent developers in the country, that they would end up in the same city, at the same time, coaching rival clubs, largely specializing with the same genders and age levels?

None of that is a coincidence. It’s a product of something far more obvious: Competition. It was 20 years ago that Donaldson joined Real Colorado, back when the club was called Douglas County Blast. “They used to call it Douglas County Last,” the club was so bad, according to Donaldson. Back then, roughly a decade after Schulz had joined Colorado Rush -- a club that now touts over 60 nationwide Rush satellites, and has a growing presence overseas -- there was a clear, singular Goliath in the Denver youth soccer market.

“My job was to take [the club] over and go to the board of directors and say, ‘listen, I’m not taking this thing over so we can sit there and not be a big player,’ ” Donaldson remembers. “Some had the vision, but they couldn’t see how. They couldn’t see how anybody is going to challenge the Rush in this community, or nationally. I said, ‘you know what, as long as there are players, and there are good coaches, I think we can.’

“There are a lot of players, even when I took over, they were going to the Rush. And they said, ‘Well, we’re losing this team. They’re 16s, 17s, and 18s, and I’m like, let them go. That’s only five percent of your players. 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.”

Colorado Rush fields

Even today, Real is a much smaller club than Rush. Back then, though, after Donaldson elected to effectively tear down and rebuild “D.C. Last,” the club became bare bones. That nadir of significance, however, meant Donaldson and his staff could focus on bringing the youngest players through with the coaches’ new approach. As that youngest class moved through the system and new players made up the numbers left behind, Douglas County Blast faded into memory. Real Colorado emerged.

“I didn’t think that made any sense,” Donaldson said, about the idea of keeping players when the club wasn’t ready to develop them. “I said, let them go. And a lot of those kids, they used to come to the Foxes camp, and they knew me as a Foxes coach. I said, ‘no, no that’s better for you to go.’ We don’t have a structure for you right now ...

“We said, you know what? Let’s start from the bottom, and we just worked our way up. So all the older players were gone, and just kind of build and build and build. And everybody bought into it.”

Wouldn’t you rather have a player that does 50 mistakes but tries 100 things than a player that just stands there, and the coach is yelling, 'Try something!'?

- Tim Schulz

That was 1996 or 1997, by Donaldson’s estimate. Come 2001, once the first full class of Donaldson’s Real products had made it through the program, 10 girls were earning offers to play college soccer. The next year, 16 girls received offers to continue their career collegiately. In 2007, Keelin Winters, one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s best midfielders at the dawn of the league six years later, came through the program, and by 2012, a year after Hinkle earned a scholarship to Texas Tech, 27 players were moving on from Real Colorado to collegiate soccer. From a club stripped to its studs to a program that nearly guarantees a college-level player, Real Colorado had established itself as Denver’s second girls soccer power.

“Lorne is a competitor,” Schulz says of the man who’s become a rival. “He’s not going to let another club say, ‘Well, why are they better than us?’ We’re neighboring clubs, and he’s a competitor. He played national team [for Jamaica]. He wants to compete, and I’m positive his goal is to produce good players, too. It’s his DNA.”

He also had a bar to shoot for. Had Colorado Rush not set a standard in market, Donaldson would have probably still been successful. He would have undoubtedly turned around D.C. Blast, produced some great players, and still gone on to establish a well-deserved reputation as one of youth soccer’s better coaches.

But just as Roger Maris might have never hit 61 home runs without Babe Ruth’s 60, or Mike Powell would have never jumped 29-feet, four-and-a-quarter inches without Bob Beamon’s leap (29’ 2 ½”), Donaldson might have never taken Mallory Pugh to her heights had Schulz and Rush not raised that bar.

“Sometimes you just cower and say, ‘oh my gosh, we’re fighting so hard every day, slugging it out,’ ” Schulz says of Rush’s battle with Real. “But it makes you stronger.”

“I was talking to one of my coaches back at Rush today,” Horan said, in September, “and they had a game against Real. It is the biggest game of the year, whenever we play Real. And it goes the same way for Real playing Rush. It's just how it is, and I think that's the coolest thing for Denver. You have those big games, and you just want to keep beating them.

“We hate Real. Not like the players, themselves, but it's the same for them. They hate Rush, because they're two good teams, it's a rivalry, and I think it brings out the best. It's awesome.”

That, as much as anything, may be the most important part of what is happening in Colorado. To understand how Real and Rush got here, you need to know about the history of soccer in Colorado. You need to understand the massive influence coaching has at the youth level, and you need to realize that there might, over the past 40 years, have been something special about the amount coaching talent coming to, through, and staying in the Denver area. But to understand why the programs are now putting multiple teenagers into senior national team camps or sending an 18-year-old straight into the starting lineups of elite European teams, you have to recognize the nature of competition, acknowledging the fact that Rush and Real, Donaldson and Schultz, are unlikely to be this successful if they don’t have each other.

“That’s what drives it,” Donaldson concedes, about Real’s relationship to Rush. “That’s what drives me.”

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