Switchbacks FC president Nick Ragain established four keys to growing Colorado Springs’ United Soccer League club a couple of years ago, and all boxes are checked as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Back to 2016, these were kind of our four targets: Tier II, local broadcasting, affiliation and downtown stadium,” Ragain said in a conversation with The Gazette in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement.
Recognition as the second tier in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, topped by Major League Soccer, came to the USL on a provisional basis in 2017, officially in 2018, and Switchbacks home matches were broadcast by Fox/CW starting in 2018.
Tuesday’s press conference at Jack Quinn’s confirming an affiliation agreement with Colorado Rapids came a couple of months after the Switchbacks announced plans for a downtown stadium.
“We certainly can’t say that it’s because of just our hard work that all these things are aligning, certainly it’s been our goal, but there’s been outside factors that have really helped make it happen, so whether it’s a partnership with Weidner (Apartment Homes, a minority owner) or whether it’s a better situation with leadership in Denver,” Ragain said.
“We don’t control those things, but they’ve just fallen into place. It’s been pretty awesome to see.”
The affiliation agreement will see a handful of the MLS club’s players spending next season in Colorado Springs.
Some will live and train with the Switchbacks throughout the 2019 season, others will come-and-go at the Rapids’ request. Those decisions will be handled in part by Brian Crookham, the Switchbacks’ new general manager.
“He’s got such an in-depth knowledge of the USL and the collegiate system here in the U.S. that he’s going to be an invaluable piece of what we’re trying to do with this affiliation,” Rapids general manager Padraig Smith said.
Crookham will stay in his role as the Rapids’ senior director of soccer development but plans to travel south frequently, as he did when he orchestrated the Rapids’ previous affiliation with Charlotte Independence.
The proximity between the two Colorado professional clubs provides more options, he said.
“We’ll still send younger players. They will live here, they will train here, and they will compete for spots here,” Crookham said. “We also now have the ability to look at each individual in our first-team roster, and if we need to make adjustments, if we need to give them a little bit more on a weekly basis, we can do those things as well.”
Some of those young players could come from the Rapids’ development academy, a crop of talented young players Switchbacks coach Steve Trittschuh knows well.
“I’ve stayed involved with U.S. Soccer on the scouting,” Trittschuh said. “I scout the DA games, and I know the guys. We’ve talked about some of the guys that could be a possibility.”
Trittschuh and Crookham have a working relationship dating back to the days Trittschuh worked for the Rapids some 15 years ago, which helped ease concerns over ceding some control of player selection and tactics.
“We have a really good relationship,” the Switchbacks coach said. “We see the game and players the same way.”
Crookham got a head start on helping the Switchbacks, attending a player identification camp in Cameroon, according to Ragain, on the USL club’s behalf. He’s also started working with Trittschuh on evaluating the 2018 squad in preparation for next season.
“We’re going to prioritize No. 1 capturing players that are already here, trying to get the best group of returners we can because there is some talented players in the group,” Crookham said.
The USL looks much different, figuratively and literally, than it did when Ragain developed his initial wish list.
In 2016, the USL added five franchises to get to 29.
The 2018 season featured 33 clubs, while the 2019 season, the first following rebrand will have three leagues (USL Championship, USL League One, USL League Two) under one umbrella.
Each of Ragain’s four wishes helped the club secure a spot in the USL’s top division, the Championship.
Now the focus is on getting the two Colorado professional teams back to being contenders after neither side qualified for 2018 postseasons.
“Steve has done an incredible job — and (Switchbacks assistant) Wolde (Harris) — of managing players and identifying players,” Ragain said, “but at the end of the day, as the trajectory of the league continues to grow, we need more resources.”
Tuesday was sold as something of a historic day for soccer in the Centennial State with its impact reaching far deeper than the top two professional leagues in the U.S.