Last month, the Rapids announced that their affiliation with the Charlotte Independence would end, and that going forward, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks would be their USL affiliate. Naturally, this announcement garnered both its fair share of criticism and praise alike.
How should Rapids fans feel about it?
From my perspective, this is an overwhelmingly positive thing for the Rapids. However, my view on this is probably similar to a great number of other Rapids fans. I have never been to a Switchbacks game, and aside from seeing them on Twitter and catching parts of an occasional game online, I don’t know much about them. I can’t name their head coach, their record in 2018, who their key players are, or anything about their style of play without some serious research into them. To be fair, if you live up north near Denver, the drive is often prohibitively long to go to a Switchbacks game, whereas the Rapids are less than 20 minutes away. (Editor’s Note: Check out @andjasonsays, @LWOS_COS, or their supporters’ group, the Trailheads, to learn more about the Switchbacks.)
So with all that being said, let’s dig into why having a local USL affiliate will benefit the Rapids.
1. Colorado soccer is finally linked.
One of the first things coming out of the press conference was saying that the Colorado soccer pyramid is now complete. And they aren’t wrong. There has historically been a gap between the Rapids’ Academy and the senior roster. While we occasionally have homegrown players like Dillon Serna or Kortne Ford establish themselves as starters (or at least reliable bench players), the Rapids miss out on getting other players game experience.
That’s where the USL comes in. They can act as the branch between the academy and college players and the full-time professional leagues. Having the Switchbacks will be a vital link between the Rapids and their U-23 team and academy system. While it worked okay with the Independence, it’s even more valuable to have the players right down the road.
2. Academy kids will get a greater chance to shine.
With all credit to Charlotte, it wasn’t exactly the best place to play the Rapids’ Homegrown and youth players. I don’t mean that as a slight against their style of play, their placement in the USL, or anything like that. I mean this strictly as a problem of geographical proximity. When you are supposed to form a partnership, but your stadiums are 1,500-plus miles apart, you can’t exactly make a quick drive over to catch a game.
I am really excited about what our academy is producing, and with new homegrowns Cole Bassett and Sam Vines on our roster, we could start having a very successful first team with lots of Colorado players. Looking at our five current homegrowns—Serna, Ford, Perez, Vines, and Bassett—we’ve got some serious MLS caliber talent there. That doesn’t even include homegrown players from other systems, like Caleb Calvert and Kellyn Acosta, and younger players like Kip Colvey and Niki Jackson. We’ve got about ⅔ of a roster with homegrowns and youth players alone, but many of them struggle to get serious play time.
Giving more academy players a chance to get minutes in a professional setting can only help with future prospects. Sam Vines is a perfect example. Everyone said Vines is going to be an MLS-caliber player, but he needs more minutes and more on-field experience before he’s ready to really compete as a full starter for the Rapids. That’s where Charlotte came into play last year—Vines played in 29 games with 25 starts and a total of 2,303 minutes. He was definitely a highlight for the team. Having him or any other promising academy player with the Switchbacks means we can play our best first team possible while also developing the upcoming roster.
3. More synergy between coaching and tactics.
Going off of the Vines example, having him get more experience is great and all, but the coaching plays an equal part in things. Tactics and formation choices have a tremendous impact on the quality of players you play. Hudson has shown he wants to play in the 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond formation, which don’t have much overlap with a formation such as the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 which tends to be more common in MLS. If you are a young player hoping to break into the Rapids senior roster, you would need to show that you could fit into one of Hudson’s formations well. What better way to do that than to demonstrate that on the pitch?
One of the key takeaways from the press conference is that the Rapids will be keeping eyes on Switchbacks games. Either Hudson or other members of the coaching staff will be watching every home game that the Switchbacks have. With the teams being so close now, the coaches can stay on the same page and work on ways to build upon each training session, regardless of where players are.
4. Proximity means greater training overlap with players.
One highlight of having the Switchbacks being just down I-25 is that players can spend time between both the Rapids senior roster as well as the Switchbacks roster. In the announcement, the Rapids said they will send a minimum of four players down to the Switchbacks, while maintaining the right to recall anyone they need, even on short-term loans. This leaves for flexibility in training schedules and availability, and means that injuries might not have as big of an impact if a player’s backup is match fit.
Plus, the Switchbacks are also at altitude. In fact, they are at a greater altitude than in Commerce City, at roughly 6,000 feet compared to approximately 5,280. Colorado soccer has the potential to be one of the most devastatingly effective second-half teams. Let the visiting team wear themselves out in the first half, and since they are playing at altitude they won’t be as ready for the second half. Having the opportunity to capitalize on that could make the difference between a tie and a win. Keeping your players at altitude will keep them ready to adapt to playing for either team, should the need arise.
5. Opportunity for cross-promotion.
Lastly, there is something to be said for trying to promote the sport in Colorado. Let’s be honest, the Rapids are in a market where they have to compete with teams in the four major sports in the US: the Broncos, Avalanche, Rockies, and Nuggets. As far as soccer has come in the last few years, we’re still in fifth place in a crowded market. With the affiliation, we can try to attract more followers in southern Colorado. On the flip side, we can promote the Switchbacks in Denver (hopefully with some offers for Rapids season ticket holders).
Everyone agrees that improvement is greatly needed with this team. After our worst season record amidst the huge success that new franchises like LAFC and Atlanta United are having, we need a complete turnaround to get back to being a perennial playoff team. Hopefully, having a local USL affiliate will be a small but crucial part in getting to the playoffs in 2019 and beyond.