Big Foot

The Colorado Rush changed the rules of youth soccer -- and stomped the opposition.

This fall, the Jefferson County School District will open a new academy. Even with all the variations that public schools have seen in recent years, this one should be unusual. "It will be a unique program," promises John Adsit, director of alternative schools for the district. "We're inventing it. We don't know of anything quite like it."

The curriculum will fall under the "gifted and talented" heading. But in this case, the label has nothing to do with traditional book smarts. "If you look at the phrase 'gifted and talented,' 'talent' refers to psychomotor talent," Adsit explains. "These are people who have psychomotor talent to the point where they need a demanding program for that. In the past, these students have had very few options in public schools."

The neglected psychomotor aptitude? A child's ability to play soccer. At the new Jeffco academy, students will concentrate on traditional classroom subjects -- reading, writing and math -- from only about 10 a.m. until 2 or 2:30 p.m.; the rest of the time they'll devote to becoming better soccer players. In short, Adsit notes, "They will essentially be going to a soccer school."

Although the school -- based loosely on European models of athletic academies -- is considered public, it will, in effect, be a private/public partnership. Jeffco, the state's largest school district, will supply the academics for the young jocks. The soccer portion of the curriculum will be handled by the Colorado Rush soccer club, a private organization based in the southwest suburbs of Denver. The club's coaches will be responsible for everything from evaluating the children's soccer talent (and thus, controlling admissions to the school) to teaching the game and running practices. "All that will be up to them," Adsit says. "We won't get into any of that."

If any club is qualified to assess and nurture young soccer talent, it is the Rush. Barely five years old, the Rush is the most successful youth soccer club in Colorado, and it has already gained a reputation as one of the premier soccer clubs in the country. Its teams have won dozens of state championships and an unprecedented eleven national titles. With programs available for kids as young as four, it boasts 5,500 youth members and an annual budget that's nearing $2 million.

The Rush is becoming a force off the soccer field, too. In addition to a novel partnership with Jeffco schools, the club has ventured into politics. This past spring, the Rush sent a letter to its vast membership, urging members to vote for a particular Foothills Parks and Recreation District candidate. (He lost.)

The club also has something in common with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan: All three are sponsored by Nike. The Rush was one of the first youth soccer clubs in the country to earn the apparel giant's attention and support. This past February, Nike even dispatched a representative to work in Denver full-time. His sole mission: to make sure the Rush is taken care of.

"Nike always wants to be partnered with the best," explains the rep, Rafael Ortega. "We don't have a lot of clubs, but we do have the right ones. With the Rush, we get to partner with a team that cleans up in the state championships. Then, for this team to go out and beat up on teams from Southern California, Texas and Florida -- it's incredible. Wherever you go in the country, people know who this club is. Even internationally, clubs are starting to recognize the Rush.

"When I look at the Colorado Rush," Ortega concludes, "they have a brand, and they have a product. To create the brand awareness that this club can produce nationally is incredible."

What's also incredible is the athletic and social movement that the Rush represents. A generation ago, a few thousand kids in the state kicked around in a small league. Today, some seventy-odd youth soccer clubs in Colorado boast a total of 75,000 members. Nate Shotts, director of coaching for the Colorado State Youth Soccer Association (CSYSA), says that number would be even higher if the construction of new soccer fields had kept pace with the explosion of interested kids. "Clubs now have to limit their enrollment because of the lack of fields," he says.

Most youngsters play what is known as recreational soccer, in low-pressure leagues where having fun and learning the game are emphasized. Yet the real growth in youth soccer is at the so-called "competitive" level, a more intense game in which teams travel to tournaments and play nearly year-round. As the game has increased in popularity, so has its competitiveness. Today, critics say, soccer clubs are like the loosed id of their old-fashioned, school-based counterparts.

Consider: Players are discouraged by transfer rules from moving between schools to play sports. Club soccer players, in contrast, switch clubs with a frequency and disloyalty usually reserved for major-league baseball free agents. And club recruiting of top youth players has reached a fever pitch. The jockeying for top players begins as soon as they can join competitive leagues, at age eleven.

Until very recently, the CSYSA tried to limit when and how young players could be contacted by coaches from outside clubs. "We had a recruiting policy," says Shotts. "But it never worked." By last fall, the practice of raiding top talent had become so ingrained that the CSYSA threw up its hands. Instead of trying to enforce what rules there were, the governing organization did the opposite: It eliminated any and all restrictions.

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