Switchbacks FC coach Alan Koch isn’t the only person trying to duplicate his success north of the border at Simon Fraser University in Colorado Springs.
Koch coached the Canadian university’s soccer program when it became the first school outside the United States to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). SFU quickly climbed to the top of NCAA Division II and reached the 2012 national semifinals.
“I love building teams,” Koch said, noting his turnarounds at SFU, Vancouver Whitecaps 2 and FC Cincinnati. “I’ve done it multiple different places, and we’ve done it very, very successfully. And we’re going to continue to do it here.”
Mamadi Camara, now in his first year with Switchbacks FC, enrolled at SFU a few years after Koch took his first professional coaching job with the Whitecaps. Koch later invited Camara to train with the United Soccer League club in the summer of 2016.
“It was so much fun and I improved so much that summer that when he reached out to me to come here, I was like ‘Hell yeah,’” Camara remembered.
Camara, a nimble 6-foot-3 attacking player, made the most of his time in college, winning three conference championships and earning Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2018. He then became the only Division II player invited to the 2019 Major League Soccer Combine. San Jose Earthquakes then drafted him with the 46th overall pick, but he did not sign a contract. Camara traveled to France and throughout Canada to try to find a spot to start his professional career but had to wait until Koch called ahead of his first full season in Colorado Springs.
Camara scored his first professional goal in the Switchbacks’ 2-1 loss at El Paso Locomotive on Wednesday and could feature in Saturday afternoon’s match against New Mexico United after entering the midweek match early in the second half.
“It feels great. It was a long time coming,” Camara said of his first goal as a pro.
“When I actually scored, it was like I couldn’t even enjoy it, because I was just focused on trying to get one more.”
The Switchbacks came up short in their attempts to equalize and were eliminated from playoff contention after the loss. Koch has publicly shifted his focus to assessing his team to determine which players he wants back for next season in the last few weeks.
“We have four big assessment tools ahead of us, and that’s why I’m glad that we’re playing against the likes of New Mexico and El Paso again and going to Tulsa because those are going to be tough challenges. Some players that maybe haven’t played as much so far this season are going to get those chances,” Koch said.
“We need to see some of those players embrace these opportunities and show that they can do it.”
Camara seems like a prime candidate for an extended audition. He’s made 10 appearances, starting just twice, but believes he can bring more to the team.
“I can bring a lot of energy on the field, both out of possession and in possession. I love to go forward and create some attacks. I just think I’m really dangerous in the final third, because I’m a big guy. I’m fast, strong. I can either create things for myself or for other people around me,” Camara said.
“I truly believe I can dominate in this league and even in the league above. I think if I’m at my best, mentally, physically, the sky’s the limit. That’s what I believe about myself, and I think that’s going to help me go forward.”
Switchbacks FC’s Premier League comparison
When equating Switchbacks FC’s situation to a club in the most popular league in the world, Alan Koch went with a recently relegated side.
“I don’t quite know an American sports analogy, but we’re the Huddersfield Town of the Premier League. And Huddersfield Town are no longer in the Premier League,” Koch said. “We’re trying to become the Leicester City of the Premier League. We’re not trying to become Man(chester) City or Liverpool or Arsenal. We’re not that type of club. That’s not the club’s philosophy.”
The small-market and small-budget Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball, the 2015 World Series Champions, might be the most applicable analogy in recent American sports history to Leicester’s unlikely climb to the top of England’s best league in 2016.
Koch said the Switchbacks’ grouping for the 2020 season with El Paso Locomotive, New Mexico United and Real Monarchs, the 2019 USL Championship winners, would be like Huddersfield Town playing a season with a majority of its matches coming against top clubs like Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. In a regular season that would include more matches against more level competition, Koch believes the 2020 team would have fought for a playoff spot.
“It’s not an even fight by any means, and we’re trying to get to that stage where we can make it an even fight by developing our players and utilizing (transfer) windows,” Koch said.
Weidner Field welcomes New Mexico
New Mexico United, due to the state’s COVID-19 health protocols, hasn’t been able to have a home game in 2020 until Saturday.
Though the game will be played at Weidner Field, New Mexico will be the home side and will have its fans in attendance for the first time this season thanks to Switchbacks FC’s front office making tickets available to United supporters through the team’s website.
It was a move appreciated by the New Mexico club and its supporters on social media and supported by Colorado Springs’ coach Friday.
“I think that should be a big part of all of our philosophy in 2020. Wherever you can show kindness, wherever you can show your neighbors help, we should be doing it in this day and age. We live in such volatile times, and I think for our club to extend an olive branch to New Mexico to help them, I think it is a fantastic initiative from our club’s behalf. We’re excited to play another game against, obviously, a competitor of ours and … welcome their fans into our stadium,” Koch said.
“This is going to be another unique challenge, playing a home game essentially with away fans in your stadium is going to be a unique experience. I’ve never experienced that in my entire coaching career. I’m excited about it, and I think it’s the right thing for our club to do. Kudos to our ownership and management for putting this in place.”