Don’t look now, but the sport of soccer is slowly starting to take over the state of Colorado. Sure, everyone knows the Rapids and are keen to their MLS Cup title in 2010, but the state’s other professional team has earned some attention of its own.
That’s right; Colorado has two professional soccer teams.
The Switchbacks Football Club started play last year in the United Soccer League. The startup franchise sits on the east side of Colorado Springs and is gaining traction as the premiere sports team in the area.
That all started with the first regular season game last year when the club kicked things off with a 1-0 win over Real Monarch, a Salt Lake City-based USL team. From that moment, the team started gaining support from the community, and it’s only grown since then.
The Switchbacks really put themselves on the map when they qualified for the playoffs in their inaugural year.
“We were really excited,” defender J.J. Greer said. “We set our original goal as making the playoffs and then we kept winning and winning and got more and more support. The elevation, the weather, I think that helped us out. Other teams didn’t want to come here.”
And why would they?
Colorado Springs sits 6,035 feet above sea level, higher than even Denver’s oft-reminded 5,280 feet. The elevation, and the thin air that comes along with it, has always been regarded as an advantage in Colorado professional sports, but the general perception is that everything sits a mile high. The Springs is above and beyond, and the Switchbacks were able to take advantage last season.
All year long, attackers outpaced opponents. While solid defensively, the offense led the way, topping the Western Conference in goals scored. All told, the team finished 14-10-4. Colorado Springs was a part of the U.S. Open Cup where the USL Switchbacks were given a chance to take on the MLS Colorado Rapids, pitting the state’s two pro teams against each other.
The Rapids came away with a 4-1 win, but the players on the field that day felt like the Switchbacks didn’t play their best, and, if given another shot this year, can play better. Contending with the MLS franchise that’s housed only an hour away isn’t a stretch.
“I felt like we could’ve done better against them,” Greer said. “Hopefully we’ll see them again. And hopefully we fare a little better. Personally, I have a little chip on my shoulder because they’re a higher level team. So, we want to prove ourselves against them.”
Competition on the pitch is great, but the hope for the organization is that they can work in conjunction with the Rapids.
The power of soccer can sometimes rival that of the NFL when it comes to fandom. Soccer fans, while not as commonplace in the United States as football fans, are undeniably passionate. The Switchbacks certainly see the benefits of having an MLS team up the road to help draw more fans to to Sand Creek Stadium, perhaps when the Rapids are out of town.
“I don’t ever want to compete against them,” head coach Steve Trittschuh said. “Having two teams in the state is great. You have the MLS-level team and then you have our level team. The soccer community from Denver on down, they know about us. There’s some good talk about us. Having the Rapids here is great.”
It’s certainly helping the soccer fanbase in Colorado swell in size. Like C38, the supporters group of the Rapids, the Switchbacks have an independent fan group that tries to enhance the game atmosphere. The “Trailheads Supporter Group” has really done its best add to the Switchbacks experience through tailgating, chanting during the games and waving flags and banners. Their Facebook page lists their membership count at 234, not a bad number for a group only in its second year.
“I think they’re growing day by day,” Trittschuh said. “More people are going to come out, they’re going to tailgate and sit in the corner of the stadium and try to cause problems for the other team. These people put this together last year and they’re growing it. It’s great support for us.”
Like the Switchbacks, the “Trailheads” name draws on the vast hiking community that can be found in Colorado Springs. The 13-mile trek up Barr Trail to the summit of Pikes Peak consists of countless switchbacks. Barr Trailhead, near the base of the Manitou Incline, sees hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers in a given week. The Switchbacks took popular elements of the area and incorporated them into their identity. They love the Springs. And the Springs is loving them in return.
On any given game night in the summer, it’s not uncommon to see members of city leadership walking in the stands, beer in hand.
Currently playing in the modest Sand Creek Stadium that can hold 3,500, the games have an intimate vibe. Fans experience game night with what feels like close, personal friends.
“The community is really rallying around us,” Greer said. “People are starting to recognize us when we’re out. They recognize the logo and they tell us they’re really excited for the season. We hope we can really build on that.”
If the Switchbacks keep winning, they’ll do exactly that.
The Switchbacks finished with 46 points in the regular season, good enough for second place in the Western Conference. Greer mentions the original goal of the team making the playoffs, but says they made an “adjustment” mid-season.
“The goal went from making the playoffs to finishing in first place and getting a bye,” he said.
They didn’t quite accomplish that goal, but they did indeed make the playoffs and won a first round game, which put them in the conference semifinals against Oklahoma City. They lost that game, falling in penalty kicks, but the success of their inaugural voyage has the team and its fans primed and ready for another playoff run in 2016.
In order to capitalize on early momentum, the team wanted to maintain its strong identity. From the time the season ended, Trittschuh started the process of keeping his roster intact.
“I have 15 of the guys back from last season,” Trittschuh said. “They had success and really what I wanted to do in this offseason is make us better. With the addition of a few guys, I want to contend in our division again and take that next step forward.”
The Switchbacks are doing things right. The United Soccer League isn’t Major League Soccer, but there’s a major league feel to the Switchbacks and the franchise’s early success. They utilized the natural advantage of altitude that only their hometown provides, piling up wins and creating an instant buzz. From the start, the Switchbacks have supplied the locals of southern Colorado with a winning experience.
While the USL counts only as a third-level professional sports team – similar to Double-A baseball – the presence of the team and its early success could be a turning point in the sports culture of Colorado Springs.
For the Switchbacks, that’s the plan.