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What the Charlotte Independence affiliation means for the Switchbacks

How can two franchises be so close to each other, and yet be so far apart?

Conor Doyle in action while on loan to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Conor Doyle in action while on loan to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Photos Courtesy Isaiah J. Downing/Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

On October 26th, the Colorado Rapids announced they were renewing their affiliation agreement with the USL’s Charlotte Independence. While this news might have slid under the radar for most Rapids fans who are focused on the upcoming MLS playoffs, it was major news down the road in Colorado Springs for Switchbacks fans.

Ever since the USL announced the foundation of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in 2013, talk has swirled around the possibility of a Colorado Rapids affiliation. It makes sense, with the franchises being only an hour of travel time apart. That partnership however, never came to fruition. When MLS and USL began their joint developmental plans, the Rapids joined up with Charlotte, despite the distance between the 2 cities. The Switchbacks, under Team President Nick Ragain, made it clear from the beginning that they welcomed any collaboration with the Rapids, telling the Denver Post in May 2014 “We’re having discussions with them and we’re both trying to figure out what this looks like. Whether it’s a local partnership, or whether it’s something else. All that hasn’t been worked out.” The Rapids President Tim Hinchey, however, projected a bit more frosty tone, saying, “We have no relationship with that club.”

What is the source of the frostiness between the two clubs? Its been speculated that the Rapids were interesting in owning their own USL franchise, and where caught off guard by Colorado Springs being awarded it instead. In the same May 2014 article, Ragain addressed that speculation.

“We didn’t directly reach out — not that we didn’t want to reach out to perhaps the Rapids or perhaps another affiliate — but we were respecting the process,” Ragain added that from his understanding, there were conversations between both leagues and the Rapids prior to the announcement of the new Colorado Springs franchise.

“Were they appraised on everything? I don’t know,” Ragain said. “We were not involved in those conversations. But we are speaking and we hope for the best.”

Both franchises moved on, with the Switchbacks not finding a MLS affiliate, and embracing their independent status. And in their inaugural season in 2015, they found success on the field, and brought in loans from multiple sources as the season moved on, with Taylor Hunter and Chandler Hoffman from MLS Houston Dynamo, and Chris Christian from NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks. Towards the end of the season, a potential crack in the ice between the franchises appeared with the Rapids loaning the Switchbacks Charles Eloundou.

The relationship appeared to thaw further in the 2016 season when Rapids players Joe Greenspan, Conor Doyle and Dominique Badji appeared in the exhibition game between the Switchbacks and the Bundesliga’s 1. FSV Mainz 05. Both Greenspan and Doyle stayed with Colorado Springs as the season went on, joined by Zach Pfeffer later on.

As the 2016 season came to an end, and with the affiliation agreement between the Rapids and Charlotte ending, talk again turned to the possible official collaboration between the two Colorado teams. In speaking with Switchbacks front office members, the narrative had turned from “We’re independent and proud of it”, to “There is no downside to affiliating with the Rapids”.

Then in the final week of the season, a Colorado Springs Gazette interview with Coach Steve Trittschuh made the team’s feelings official. "It would suit both of us,. There would be a lot of advantages for both of us." he said. "Players could be down here in an hour, and we could send them back in an hour." The editorial by columnist David Ramsey was met with a lukewarm response from the Switchbacks fanbase.

With Wednesday’s announcement, its clear that the Rapids still don’t see the Switchbacks as a viable affiliation partner. What those reasons are, is still largely unknown. It could be as simple as a familiarity between the coaching staffs of the Rapids and Charlotte, or as complex as a general distrust between the Rapids FO and the Switchbacks FO. Rumors still persist that the Rapids want to own their own USL franchise. This would allow them to have full control over player development, something that is lacking in the MLS/USL affiliation structure. While its hard to believe that there would still be lingering resentment over the way the awarding of the Colorado Springs franchise went down, its not hard to see that an affiliation with the Switchbacks might complicate future plans.

For now, the Switchbacks have no choice but to accept the outcome. On Wednesday, the team said of a potential affiliation with the Rapids, “Our relationship with the Colorado Rapids will continue as it has. There is no technical affiliation but it is possible that we will continue to work alongside them in 2017 similar to how we did in 2016.”