The MLS Colorado Rapids and the USL Colorado Springs Switchbacks play exactly 75.3 miles away from each other along the I-25 Corridor. While the Rapids were one of the original MLS squads fielded in 1996, the Switchbacks are in their second year and making some noise near the top of the USL Western Conference.
Even though our USL partner is (at least until the end of the year) the Charlotte Independence, we’re seeing more and more interplay and partnership developing between these two Colorado clubs. So I began thinking: what is the future between the Rapids and the Switchbacks? Do we see a beautiful friendship developing?
Who better to ask than our own Burgundy Wave writer, Jason Smith (a.k.a., @AndJasonSez), who is a rabid fan of the Switchbacks and covers them for our esteemed blog.
South Stands: Jason, thanks for your time. I really look forward to your thoughts on this. But first, you and I met briefly when the Rapids and the Switchbacks played in the US Open Cup this past June. What turned you into such a passionate Switchbacks fan?
AndJasonSez: I’ve been a casual soccer fan all my life, but for whatever reason I never really found an affinity for the Rapids. When it was announced that Colorado Springs would field an expansion team in 2015, my wife and I decided to get season tickets. We immediately fell in love with the small town, family business feeling of the franchise, and haven't looked back ever since.
South Stands: With Conor Doyle, Joseph Greenspan, Dominique Badji, and others from the Rapids going on loan to play for the Switchbacks this year, one wonders if an I-25 partnership is developing. Have you heard any rumblings or any speculation about the future?
AJS: Nothing terribly overt, but the tone of the conversations when talking to people in the organization has changed quite a bit since last season. Since the announcement of the expansion team, there has always been a bit of standoffishness between the teams in both the fans and franchise. For awhile, using the “R” word on the Trailheads FB [the Switchbacks supporters group] page was a recipe for flame wars between fans of both teams.
That seemed to thaw a little on the FOs part towards the end of last season when the Rapids loaned the Switchbacks Charles Eloundou. That signaled the possibility of a working relation between the clubs, and a working relationship is good for everyone.
The Switchbacks are one of eight USL teams without an MLS affiliation, and until recently it has been a source of pride for the franchise both publicly and privately. The flexibility to be able to tap into every resource for players, as well as retain our players from last year have been cited as benefits of the lack of official affiliation.
Lately however, that tone has shifted, and a willingness to entertain the idea about affiliation with the Rapids has come around. Its gone from “we’re comfortable doing our own thing” to “I don't see much bad side. We love our neighbors up the road, and it makes sense to have a relationship.” With the Rapids affiliation contract up with Charlotte at the end of the season, and the Rapids showing a greater willingness to loan players to the Switchbacks, the question has come up quite a bit. When talking to team officials, its clear to me that their responses are definitely trying to butter us up for the possibility, even if only to keep the door open for the future.
(On a slightly unrelated note, I would love to know what Charlotte thinks of their affiliate loaning players out to another USL team.)
SS: How would Switchback fans react to the possibility of a Rapids-Switchbacks partnership? Pros? Cons?
AJS: When speaking with members of the Trailheads, the Switchback supporters group, the general feeling is “no, thanks.” Colorado Springs itself is a pretty independent city, and the idea of having to answer to someone in Denver about anything turns people off. The team has put a lot of their marketing this season into “My City, My Team,” increasing the Colorado Springs connection in marketing, and even replacing the Colorado flag on the kits to the Colorado Springs flag. And the for the most part, its been a message that has resonated with the fan base.
Having said that, if an affiliation was announced, I don't foresee a fan revolt or result in lower attendance. There are upsides to an affiliation, which I think the biggest one would be name recognition. When selling the team to people in town, its much easier for casual fans to understand “We’re the Rapids minor league team” than it is to say “We’re in the USL.” And with the Sky Sox moving to San Antonio in 2019, the Switchbacks will be the only remaining pro sports team in the town. Being able to market a team in partnership with the Rapids would help in winning over those fans and business partners who are suddenly in play.
South Stands: How would you hope it all plays out? Write your script for your Switchbacks!
AJS: I see several scenarios possibly playing out. One of the more intriguing rumors Ive heard has been that the Rapids want to own their own team, much like Seattle with the Sounders 2 or Portland with Timbers 2. Its been floating around since the Switchbacks started play in 2015, but has started coming up again after the mid-season USL Governors meetings in San Jose last week. Multiple people have been reporting that the Rapids look to field a USL team in 2018. While on the surface it seems odd that the USL would setup two teams an hour apart, but the USL really wants regional rivalries to be the foundation of the fan experience. With the Switchbacks closest conference rivals 10-12 hours away in SLC or OKC, it makes supporters traveling for games the exception, and not the rule. If the Rapids built “Rapids 2” and dropped them in Denver, Castle Rock/Douglas County, Boulder, or even Ft Collins, it becomes an instant rivalry. The “I-25 Classic” or something similar.
The other piece to this puzzle is the fight in Colorado Springs about building a downtown stadium as part of the “City For Champions” (C4C) project. The proposed stadium would be 10,000 seats, costs $92 million, and is slated for an opening date of “Early 2019” Colorado Springs residents are notoriously tight pursed when it comes to taxes and spending, and opposition against public funding for the stadium is pretty universal. Even if its 100% funded by private parties, opposition still exists for it being built. The Switchbacks have already been using priority seating at the new stadium as a perk for selling season tickets, despite a stadium not existing. Privately, the team has been clear that there is no plan B if the stadium project falls apart. “It will happen” has been a commonly used phrase when speaking to team leadership.
If the stadium project falls apart, this opens up a serious can of worms not only for the Switchbacks, but for the USL as well. The USL has filed with the USSF to be re-certified as a Second Division league. One of the requirements is that all teams play in a 10,000 soccer facility. The current home of the team, Switchbacks Stadium is configured to hold 4500, and will take creative solutions to go much beyond that. If the C4C project dies, its not certain that the ownership of the Switchbacks will want to invest further into the city owned Switchbacks Stadium. The USL has showed it wont hesitate to strip franchises of ownership who drag their feet on getting D2 ready (Rochester Rhinos for example) The ownership might look to get out of the soccer business.
And that’s when it gets interesting. If the Ragain family wants to divest of the team, and the Rapids want to own their own USL team, the USL could work to kill 2 birds with one stone. This would be the nuclear option. That could lead to a fan revolt.
But thats 100% speculation (and fear… lots of fear). If the Rapids don't want to renew with Charlotte, there are still plenty of suitors out there, including an expansion team in Reno, Nevada, as well as whatever expansion team is announced between now and 2017. I personally would prefer to remain unaffiliated.
Again, thanks to Jason for his time. What are your thoughts? Would you be concerned about the future of the Switchbacks? What are your thoughts on the Rapids-Switchbacks partnership? Sound off in the comments. We’ll keep you posted as events develop. Should be interesting!