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

ISI Photos-Brad Smith
We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

The explanations that are exclusive to Denver, though, come back to the people. There is no Tim Schulz in other markets across the U.S. Something close? Perhaps, but Schulz’s ability to help grow Rush into a multi-state, multi-country club hints he may be a special force. In a different way, you can say the same for Donaldson. That, in the span of two decades, he took a wayward club and put it into legitimate competition with Rush speaks to his talents.

But there is also the talent of another key individual in the Denver scene, perhaps its most famous. Lindsey Horan has been to Paris and back, landing in Portland after her return, all while providing a proof of concept not only for Rush but, as Pugh came along to affirm, the entirety of Denver youth soccer. Still only 23, and already having five years and 43 caps of international experience to her credit, Horan represents the type of player many soccer fans have wanted for so long, a player that doesn’t need four years at college soccer’s finishing school.

Hard work. Honesty. Integrity. Those are the basis of anything, and I think they can stand the test of time. And in any profession. I think if you have those qualities, you can survive anywhere.

- Tim Schulz

At 18,  she was on her way to a 20-goal season in France. In the process, she was providing an example for the rest of Colorado.

“Once a club forms [a role model],” as Schulz calls Horan, “or makes one, you need to take advantage of that and show them off more. It’s not about just training and hours on the ball. It’s about a role model.

“We want these kids to fall in love with the game, and then they go do it on their own. Our training sessions are not going to be enough. If you put a poster child in front of them, a boy or a girl, and say ‘she was here, she went through the same problems you did,’ I think you start developing a passion then.”

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Horan clearly has more natural talent than most. Even now, playing among the world’s best, her ability to reach elite levels across multiple positions -- forward, attacking midfielder, central midfielder -- speaks to her preternatural tools. But to explain all that in terms of natural ability does a disservice to Schulz and Rush’s contributions.

It also flies in the face of how Horan would explain her development, as well as her continued link to Colorado soccer.

“I go home [in the offseason] and I call Tim, and I call some of the coaches to go out and train,” Horan says. “I go with the academy boys. Mal and I will link up … We find the best of both worlds.

“Back home, in the offseason, I have my friend [Louisville FC’s] Paulo [DelPiccolo], who is a Rush alum, and we get a bunch of players together. There's Real kids. There's Rush kids. There's a few Rapids. We all come together and play, and a lot of them are professionals. It's the coolest environment for me ... I think it does make Colorado special.”

It also keeps Horan prominent on the Denver scene. Had Horan went to Paris, enjoyed a long career but pulled up roots from Colorado, she wouldn’t be such a role model. An icon, yes, but someone who Schulz could point the next generation of players to, in person, and say, ‘she was here’? That’s a poster child.

“It’s not like some fake thing they read,” Schulz says. “Or they go, ‘oh, that girl is playing for Man City.’ It’s something fathomable. But now, if this girl has the same problems, that girl can relate to her. I don’t really want the superstar to come out and show, ‘this has been an easy road for me.’ “

He wants the truth. “ ‘I cried. I lost. I got injured.’ And the girl says, ‘well, that’s me.’ They relate a bit more.

“We’ve been doing that for years. I bet you Lindsey had players she looked up to, when she was a little squirt.”

But now, Horan is that player being looked up to, and at a time when the U.S. women’s national team is as popular as ever -- and ways to watch, follow, learn about its players are more accessible -- Horan’s influence looms large. Combined with Colorado’s socioeconomics, the city’s inner-club competition, it’s legacy in the professional game as well as the presence of people like Donaldson and Schulz, the scene starts to make sense. There is no one, magic bullet explanation for why Denver is cranking out so much girls’ youth soccer talent, but there is one for why no other city is replicating what the Mile High City has got. No other place has the confluence of factors that’s made Denver into one of the nation’s hotbed for girls’ soccer.

Colorado Rush fields

How long that hotbed lasts may depend on those factors, yet an optimist can look at Denver and still see room for growth. There is, after all, a snowball effect that Donaldson added to Schulz, Horan added to Donaldson, and Pugh will likely add to Horan. The Sophia Smith and Jaelin Howell players of the world may be the next level, and once Real Colorado has three, four players in the senior national team, who knows how Rush will respond. There is a momentum in Denver which, going forward, may only increase as more resources are put toward the cause.

That future can be seen in the fields around Real Colorado’s Englewood training ground, if you squint hard enough. For acres to the west and south, the land is weeded dust. To Donaldson, that dust is the club’s future.

“That’s where a field is going to go,” he says, pointing to an elevated space to the east of his complex. “Actually, this fall, that one is going to go in. Up there, right up there,” to the south, “we’re trying to get four futsal courts … and over there,” to the west, ”we’ll try to get a clubhouse going.”

He also wants U.S. Soccer to build futsal courts in the middle of Denver. He’s not the only one, and Denver is not the only area pushing for such initiatives. If it happens, he says, he and his staff can start putting time in downtown, expand soccer in Denver, and maybe, in time, develop talent that can take their game to the suburbs.

“The problem is, it’s expensive land,” he says, back to explaining Real’s project in Englewood. “Am I going to be around then? Hopefully I’m around then, but maybe it happens when I’m gone. But that’s in the making.”

For now, so much of Rush’s future is like the future of U.S. development, itself: close, but still a concept, one which, not fully realized, is still mired in dirt.

“If we can get the loan, we’ll do it, but right now, because of the way this land is, it’s very expensive, and everything here to build it costs so much.”

For U.S. soccer, though, those costs may be worth it. In Horan and Pugh, Denver has produced two of the U.S.’ most exciting women’s talents in the last 10 years, and with Howell and Smith already getting senior team looks, there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.

Unfortunately for the rest of the country, though, it may be impossible replicate what’s gone on in Colorado. Turns out, the success of girls’ soccer in Denver is, in fact, a very Denver phenomenon.

Enjoyed this? You'll love more: USWNT  |  NWSL  |  Youth Development