Root to fruit: Rush Soccer flipping the script in partnership with USL's Penn FC

Many pro academy systems in the U.S. are built from the top down. But youth megaclub Rush Soccer is making a unique push into USL.

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Tim Schulz had a vision when he started working for a small soccer club in the suburbs of Denver 20 years ago.

The club in Littleton, Colorado, had just 600 members in 1997. It was just another star in a galaxy of youth soccer clubs around the United States. But Schulz wanted to build it into something bigger, and eventually, he wanted a professional team at the top of the pyramid.

Rush Soccer is now one of the biggest youth soccer organizations in the country. It has 48 partner clubs nationwide and another 36 abroad. And as Colorado Rush marks its 20th anniversary, it will become the first youth club to essentially reverse-engineer a soccer path from the youth fields to the professional leagues.

There’s now a professional path for our players … One day, hopefully all of our players on first team will be from Rush clubs.

- – Tim Schulz

Rush has partnered with George Altirs and the ownership group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to make its USL club the official professional team at the top of the Rush Soccer pyramid. The Harrisburg City Islanders, who have played in various versions of USL since 2004, will be rebranded as Penn FC beginning in the 2018 USL season, and the goal is for that club to serve as the first stop for players across the Rush soccer family.

“There’s now a professional path for our players,” Schulz told FourFourTwo USA. “The players currently there and the players who will get there from Rush, they are the role models for our 35,000 kids. … It’s a stepping stone for the players that are not quite ready for MLS or a team overseas. This would be a holding ground for our players at USL. One day, hopefully all of our players on first team will be from Rush clubs.”

Altirs will remain the majority owner of the club, but Rush aims to contribute financially in the future. For now, Rush gives Penn FC a wealth of youth partner clubs from which it can potentially benefit with “homegrown” players.

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City Islanders no more (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

The partnership with Penn FC was conceived partly out of the frustrating reality of professional soccer in the U.S.

Because the U.S. Soccer Federation does not allow training compensation or solidarity payments to youth clubs, the work done at local levels to produce professional players often goes unrewarded. Several Rush players have gone on to professional careers, including Conor Casey, Jeb Brovsky, Colin Clark and Todd Dunivant in MLS and Jordan Angeli and Lindsay Horan in WPS and the NWSL.

“Not only do they not give us any compensation for the development of a player, but there’s not even a letter of thank you or something to recognize this child came up through the system,” Schulz said. “It needs to change, and hopefully with the [USSF presidential] election and hopefully with the lawsuit going on, it’ll turn heads and the federation starts recognizing there’s a need for that.”

Schulz believes giving his youth club an outlet at which its players can begin their professional careers will provide several benefits, including the possibility that players might be able to be developed and sold from the USL squad. But he hopes the partnership does more than just act as a springboard.

NEXT: Taking aim at MLS academies