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

ISI Photos-Brad Smith
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Pick the right Friday night, show up at Clement Park in Littleton, Colorado, and you’ll see the magnitude of what Donaldson is up against. Across 26 improvised fields, with sizes ranging from “Tiny Tot” short to regulation size (on the night of FourFourTwo’s visit), Rush is conducting its monthly event, one intended to bring out all genders and ages of the massive club.

In one part of the event, high school-aged kids are getting detailed instruction in front of a full-sized goal, part of a Friday Night Finishing class being conducted for all comers. At the other end, the infant brothers and sisters of current players are getting some of their first soccer training, establishing memories sure to fuel the next generation of Rush talent.

Around the games, parents freshly changed from work catch up with their peers in between sessions with their cell phones. Two tables overburden with pizza boxes feed a crowd that appears to number near 250 while the event’s unofficial mascots are scattered around the complex: no fewer than nine puppies accompany their new owners, six of which are some shade of gold; and surrounding the fields, SUVs capable of hauling multiple children, pets, and sets of sports equipment, many of the luxury variety, often lay bumper to bumper, the elevated roofs with black sports racks leaving the cars indistinct from each other.

The SUV helped define Real practice, the day before, even if the magnitude of the event was drastically different.

Three teams across two fields made up Real’s Thursday night in Englewood, but in the parking lot overlooking the session, in the hours just after school had let out, parents sat, waiting, occasionally with a smaller child (occasionally playing with an iPad), as their teenagers finished.

Here, the trope of the suburban soccer mom with a minivan full of carpooling children has been replaced by someone whose household can not only afford the costs (which can reach up to $5,000 per year for Development Academy players) but is resourceful enough to allow a parent, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, to watch a child’s practice from the car.

These are the other realities of Denver’s soccer phenomenon: the Denver area itself, and the nature of pay-to-play soccer. While not every player at Real or Rush will be paying the club’s full fees, many are, and for families who have more than one child in programs, the costs can be especially steep.

I don’t have empathy for lazy people. I don’t care what you pick, but pick it and go do your very best. Just get at it. Then you’ll satisfy your soul. Pick something and get at it.

- Tim Schulz

Yet for a urban area which, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, ranked ninth in per-capita income, Denver is inexpensive, ranking 42nd in terms of cost of living among U.S. cities, according to data updated mid-2017. In Denver, you can earn just below levels of Boston (fifth) or San Francisco (fourth) while spending like Saint Paul, Minnesota (48th) or Asheville, North Carolina (49th).

Then there’s the layout of Denver. As much as any city in the United States, Denver is a collection of suburbs, defined as much by areas like Lakewood, Aurora, Englewood and Littleton as the city itself. Look up Pugh’s hometown, and you won’t see Denver. You’ll see Highlands Ranch, 12 miles to the south. Same for Golden’s Lindsey Horan, who technically is from west of the city. Functionally, though, both stars may as well be from Denver.

This is the cliched reality of youth soccer in the U.S., one under increased scrutiny as the U.S. looks to overhaul its development system. This isn’t a sport that’s built on the streets of New York, Chicago, and the country’s dense urban areas – not yet, anyway. That’s basketball’s territory. Soccer is a suburban sport, dominating places like So Cal Blues’ Rancho Capistrano, the Chicago suburb of Naperville or the sprawling towns of central New Jersey. When kids reach the age where serious resources have to be thrown at their development, the game thrives in the Littletons and the Englewoods, where field space is never a problem.

Theoretically, at least, that’s how so much of soccer development works in the U.S. To Schulz’s mind, though, socioeconomics always take a back seat to something more basic.

“I think there’s a teacher that connects with a student, and then something happens, and the teacher needs to have those desires and passions,” Schulz reiterates, when asked about the virtues of suburbia. “I’m not so sure either altitude, money,” are good explanations for the Denver youth phenomenon, he says, and to an extent, he’s probably right. There’s only so far any one explanation can go to explain what’s going on in Denver.

NEXT: Horan the prodigy, and the need for local success stories