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.
"There's a bit of a recruiting war out there now," Shotts says. "And I'll tell you what's been lost is total ethics. It's gotten pretty bad."
He's not the only one who's noticed. Peter Horvath coaches the respected Columbine High School soccer team, and is past president of the Colorado High School Soccer Coaches Association. Last month, after two decades in the business, he was moved to submit a guest editorial to Soccer Journal, a magazine for youth coaches.
"Let's be honest," Horvath wrote. "The state of youth competitive soccer in a lot of cases throughout the U.S. is in bad shape and deteriorating daily. Coaches, parents and players alike have lost complete perspective on what the game is about and why they are playing."
"I am the ultimate 'soccer mom,'" says Susan Lochmiller, who lives in the southeast suburbs with her family. The term was originally used by demographers to describe stay-at-home mothers whose main job is to take care of their children's needs. But for real soccer moms, it's much more specific. It means living soccer, breathing soccer and, in particular, driving to soccer. "My poor littlest one spent all of his infancy in a car seat going back and forth to a soccer field," she says.
Lochmiller is nearing the end of her run as a champion soccer mom. And what a run it's been: "When we put our children into soccer," she says, "we never dreamed it would snowball into what it has turned into -- the time, the commitment, the money."
Start with the time: Lochmiller has put more than 60,000 miles on her car in less than three years, almost all of it driving her two older children -- Margaux, seventeen, and Chase, sixteen -- to and from soccer practices and tournaments. Teams practice at least three days a week; goalies practice an additional day. The weekends are reserved for tournaments. Most parents find that if they want to keep eating dinner as a family, it is either at 4 or 8 p.m.
And that schedule runs year-round. "It's twelve months a year now," admits Marc Francis, director of coaching for the 35-year-old Denver Soccer Club. High school athletes with any aspirations at all play for both their school teams -- girls in the spring, boys in the fall -- and for their clubs the rest of the time. Thanks to the opening of a half-dozen indoor facilities in the Denver area in recent years, most can play right through the winter months.
And summers, of course, are frantic with soccer. "If he wants to, a single kid can play on five teams a week," says Francis. "From Memorial Day through Labor Day, there is at least one tournament a weekend and usually more." He ticks off the list for Memorial Day alone: Albuquerque, Kansas City, Nebraska, San Diego, cities across Colorado...
Soccer not only eats up a lot of time, it cuts into a family's finances. Club fees vary, although $350 a year per child is about average. A uniform -- with bags and pads it's called a "kit" -- easily runs $100 per kid. And styles change every few years. "Rush is the most successful team in the country," says Nike's Ortega. "You don't want them in the same old jersey every year."
Travel is another huge expense. "This year our U-17 (under seventeen years old) team is going to the Houston Shootout," says Lochmiller. "Figure about $280 each for airfare, $70 a night for hotel and another $75 for food." There's also a $500 tournament entrance fee, which is divided among the team's players. And parents must pay their own way.
But there's the promise of a big payoff: The possibility of winning a university scholarship is one of the most powerful forces driving the competitive-soccer boom, particularly for girls. Title IX, the thirty-year-old federal law requiring colleges to devote equal resources to men's and women's athletics, has been a bonanza for female soccer players.
"I tell my girls that it's a real good time to be a girl," says Al Lisi, the Rush's college coordinator. Last year alone, 25 colleges started women's soccer programs. "Naturally, each has twelve scholarships available," he points out.
For most players, a college scholarship will never be more than a mirage. But like a mirage, it can appear startlingly close -- and cause reasonable people to act irrationally. "The unrealistic expectation is that everyone is going to place at a top Division I school," complains Horvath. "They lure everyone with that goal."
Not only that, he noted in his Soccer Journal essay, but no one's running the figures: "Do you ever stop to think whether these parents realize that if they saved or invested the money they spend jetting their sons and daughters around the country and world to all these tournaments in search of that elusive scholarship, they could probably just pay outright for their college educations?"
Margaux Lochmiller is the right age to try to attract the attention of college recruiters, and for this year's Houston Shootout, her mother has run off a hundred resumés at $2 each. "We're expecting 250 to 300 college coaches to be there," Lochmiller says. "If you're a good student -- but not a great student -- you might find you're able to get into a much better school than you would without soccer."
Houston is a relatively cheap trip. Margaux has been hopscotching across the country to soccer tournaments since her early teens. At the tender age of thirteen, she spent three weeks in Europe with her team. Multiply such annual expenses by two or three if there are other children (while Lochmiller plans Margaux's Houston trip, her sixteen-year-old son packs for a soccer tournament in Erie, Pennsylvania) and a family's annual soccer budget can easily run to five figures.
And that's not including various coaching fees. For Lochmiller, whose daughter plays on the well-regarded Colorado Storm club, those fees come to another $50 per month per child. Parents also cover the coach's trip expenses, dividing the costs of room, board and travel.
The arrival of a paid coaching staff has been one of the most critical developments in competitive youth soccer. "It changes the whole atmosphere in terms of winning and losing," says CSYSA's Shotts. A generation ago, most youth coaches were volunteers, usually dads who showed up after work to run the teams through their paces; twenty years ago, only one Colorado club had a paid coach -- the Northglenn Thunder. But when it won a national title under Mike Haas in the late '80s, other clubs took notice.
All of the top teams now have paid coaches. Good Class A coaches can earn up to $7,000 a season for each team they coach, Shotts says. A club's director of coaching earns even more; $80,000 a year is no longer considered an outrageous sum.
The good news is that the money has lured some excellent teaching talent to Colorado clubs: Many coaches have played top-level college and then professional soccer.
The not-so-good news is that money is now a major factor in youth soccer. Because parents pay the coach directly, there can be a built-in inequity between families with more money and those with less. A few years ago, Francis, then a Storm coach, was considering quitting his U-12 boys' team. The parents wanted him to stay and guide their eleven-year-olds for another year.
In what he now terms "a mistake," Francis says he halfheartedly offered to stay if the parents would pay him "an astronomical figure" -- $1,000 apiece, or $16,000 in all -- to run two practices a week plus Saturday games. Francis felt certain he would be rejected. Instead, the parents took less than a minute to agree to his terms, quintupling his salary for the year.
In 1989, a small but eager club named Club Columbine began looking for a fulltime director of coaching. It found Tim Schulz.
Schulz knew his soccer: He'd been drafted to play professionally when he was eighteen. Eventually, he played in three separate leagues, on six different clubs, including the now-defunct Denver Avalanche.
When a former teammate gave his name to Columbine's parent board, Schulz was dubious: a professional player coaching full-time for a youth club? That was considered slumming. "I went into the interview reluctantly," he recalls. "I had just finished playing, and I wasn't sure I was ready for this yet."
Still, Schulz remembers being impressed by Columbine's resolve. "They wanted to take this to another level," he says. "They didn't want to be a ma-and-pa operation anymore. They wanted a professional organization." He took the job for $18,000 a year.
Schulz struggled at first. He hadn't worked much with kids, and he had to learn how to adjust his lessons. "A lot of the stuff I taught was way over their heads," he recalls. But he was a diligent student, and his teams -- particularly his boys' teams, which at the time comprised about three-quarters of Columbine's 1,800-strong membership -- improved quickly. Five years after he took the job, Columbine won two state championships; it never looked back. "From that point, people got a taste of success," he says. "And success breeds success."
Meanwhile, a few miles to the north, another former professional player with ties to Denver had taken over a local club called the Lakewood Fury. Tom Stone had played for several seasons with the Colorado Foxes; while he was with that club, a Fury parent had arranged for him to coach at a boys' soccer camp. A few weeks later, the team won a state title. Impressed, the parent called back and asked if Stone was interested in taking over the club's coaching duties full-time.
Like Schulz, he met with almost immediate success. Unlike Schulz, he concentrated on the girls' side of the club. "We went from thirteen teams with one state championship to the number-one girls' program in the state," Stone recalls.
Given their clubs' proximity and strong drives to succeed, the two men began clashing almost immediately -- as much off the field as on. "There was a fair amount of animosity," Stone recalls. "It was a very intense rivalry," Schulz agrees. Each man raided the other's players and coaches with regularity, promising that he had the better program.
The idea of working together had never occurred to either of them, Stone and Schulz say, until a serendipitous plane ride. Stone was returning from Olympic Development Program training, and Schulz was coming back to Denver after a tournament. Although their stories differ -- Schulz says he knew Stone was aboard and asked to talk to him; Stone says the two were randomly assigned seats next to each other -- the men ended up talking.
"It was awkward at first," Schulz recalls. "But the possibilities of saying, 'Instead of six to eight State Cup championships, we could have fourteen or more' -- that was incredible."
"We just felt like Tim and I together, with our staffs, could put a bigger stamp, a bigger influence on more players," Stone adds. "The idea was of a high-level club that treated not only its top-level, but also third-, fourth- and fifth-level teams with professional training. And we would go after the championships with the same intensity."
Stone and Schulz merged their teams into the Colorado Rush in May 1997.
It wasn't a perfect marriage. "Tom and Tim didn't like each other," recalls Phil DeDyker, a one-time Rush president who says he was "brought in early to act as Tim and Tom's dad -- the two were at each other a lot." Part of the conflict was caused by their different backgrounds and philosophies. Schulz had never gone to college and saw himself developing all levels of young soccer players, DeDyker says, while Stone had graduated from Duke, and liked working with elite players.
But both Stone and Schulz agreed that to be successful, they needed to grow. Soon after the merger, the new club went looking for money. Schulz put out a bid, and Nike won the competition. Although rumors of the shoe company's million-dollar level of support have swirled among the Rush's competitors for years, Schulz contends that while Nike did donate cash, it has supported the Rush with mostly equipment discounts and product.
Still, there was no doubt where the Rush was coming from. The club's teams wore a brand-new color of blue being promoted by Nike. It named its top teams "Nike" and "Swoosh" and required all players to wear the company's gear. (Today, the Rush is also sponsored by Shout, the detergent manufacturer, and Gatorade.)
The former pros brought an unheard-of intensity to the youth club game. "When we said three practices a week, we meant it," Stone says. "It didn't mean one practice, then show up when you felt like it." The attitude paid quick dividends: In 1998, the Rush won its first two national titles.
The club began distinguishing itself in other ways, too. The year it was founded, thirteen Rush girls went to college on soccer scholarships. "That was a turning point for us," Stone says. "Suddenly, top players from other parts of the state were wanting to get into this, too."
The subsequent influx of star players from other clubs added to the Rush's reputation. "When I started coaching," says Horvath, "you didn't have these conglomerates. Kids played for their community clubs -- Club Columbine or Lakewood. Now it's all built on winning at all costs. They're trying to win the national championship at all costs, no matter who they step on or put down."
The Colorado State Youth Soccer Association boys' championships -- commonly known as the Colorado State Cup finals - are held on a gloriously sunny weekend in early May, on a complex of brand-new soccer fields southeast of Denver. The matches are the culmination of a month-long tournament pitting the best club teams in the state against each other.
Although the tournament is open to clubs from all over Colorado, soccer, like many youth sports in the state, is dominated by the metro area, and most of the competing teams are from Denver suburbs. In nearly every country in the world, "football" is played in the streets and the ghettos. But soccer in this country -- in Colorado, for sure -- is a sport of the middle and upper classes. The state's top clubs -- the Rush, from southwest Denver; Real, from Douglas County; and Storm, from the Cherry Creek area -- are all based in pockets of wealth.
Teams hope that the tournament will mark the beginning of a long summer. Winners of the Colorado State Cup matches go on to play in regional tournaments that are held in various Western states. The winners then advance to the national tournament.
For many clubs, making the state finals has been the goal they've been aiming toward since the beginning of the year. For the Rush, however, the State Cup is merely the start. "These days, if we have anything below eight teams in the finals, it is probably not considered very productive," says Schulz, the team's president.
The Rush's record speaks for itself. Over the past several years, its teams have won more than three dozen state titles (in 2000, its boys' teams won seven of eight possible championships). Twelve of the teams have played for national titles. "Five, ten years ago Colorado had a reputation as a kind of soccer backwater," says Francis. "That's not true anymore, and a lot of that is attributable to Tim Schulz."
In addition to merely winning championships, the Rush has changed the way youth soccer is regarded in the state. With its highly visible success stories, the club has raised parents' and kids' expectations of how the game is played, taught, even perceived.
"We probably have the best youth coaching staff in the country," says Trevor Holbrook, a former professional player who moved to Colorado three years ago just for the opportunity to work with the Rush. He sees himself as fortunate to have landed a job coaching the club's elite thirteen-year-old girls' team: "It was an incredible opportunity for me to get involved with a club like this."
"The Rush is, in many ways, more known outside of Colorado than inside," says Erik Bushéy, who last year left a college coaching job to come to the club. "Before I got here, I'd tell people, 'I'm going to one of the best clubs in the country! Guess where I'm going.' And they'd usually get it."
Professional-level coaching is just the beginning, though. Jen Dougherty, who's sitting next to a cooler of sports drinks at the State Cup finals, is the Rush's full-time athletic trainer. She travels with the club's teams to a half-dozen major tournaments -- "They set me up in a hotel room, and I turn it into a mini-hospital" -- and also attends most practices. "And during the six weeks of the State Cup," she says, "I have no time off at all."
In addition to his coaching duties, Al Lisi works many hours each week as the club's college adviser. (His son, Mark, played for the Rush; now he plays for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.) The Rush also employs the services of a sports psychologist.
"It's amazing, all the support this club gives its players," marvels Dougherty. "The players are treated like little pros."
Dave Schaffer, director of coaching for the Fort Collins Arsenal, agrees -- although he's not so certain that the innovations the Rush has introduced to youth soccer are necessarily a good thing. "Rush has definitely raised the bar for the clubs," he says. "On the downside, I think they've almost turned into a professional youth organization."
But the Rush as it exists today is almost precisely what Schulz and Stone had in mind a half-dozen years ago when they decided to form a youth soccer juggernaut. "They had a common goal: to become the premier club in the country," recalls Schaffer.
"Rush has been very focused on their mission," Francis adds, diplomatically. "They're going to offer programs to the top 2 percent of the kids in the state. It's extremely demanding, financially, academically and physically. And if you don't make it, they will off-load you so quickly your feet won't touch the ground."
The Rush can select from literally thousands of kids for its best teams. But the club also has plenty of players drawn to it from outside its geographical boundaries south and west of Denver, and it has earned a rap as a ruthless predator.
"It's a myth that we have a big recruiting machine," Stone responds. "I can't remember the last parent we recruited." But, he adds, "we have had tons of people call us."
"If the best players want to come here, we want them," says Rush coach Andrew Kimmer. "We've gotten to the point where players from all over now want to come play for us."
That's a distinction that cuts to the heart of competitive soccer today. With very few exceptions, Colorado soccer coaches insist they do not recruit from outside their neighborhoods. But in equal numbers, they also agree that, technically, they do not have to. The primary recruiting that takes place is through kids who pester their friends and former teammates to join them on their new teams, and through parents who see an opportunity to enhance their children's chances at success. "Parents talk to other parents," says DeDyker. "If you're looking at who the greatest recruiters are out there, they're the parents."
The result, however, is the same. The Rush -- whether with parents, coaches or other players acting as agents -- has actively acquired the best players it can find, regardless of geography. "Let's say Rush comes to our game and they beat us," says Shami Behbehani, a longtime club coach, most recently with Storm. "You can't imagine what goes on in the parking lot," he adds, describing a flurry of networking and card swapping.
The Rush's extraordinary success has set off a de facto arms race, an off-field competition to gain the best players no matter what. "Recruiting is a very big thing these days," admits Behbehani. "Storm's board never came to me and said, 'Beat Rush.' But I hear about state championships."
Adds Kelvin Norman, director of coaching for the Aurora Soccer Club, "Part of the job description out there for coaches now is better recruiting."
Like most wars, the battle for better players is all-consuming. Whereas recruiting once was limited to the high-profile older teams -- U-17, U-18 and U-19 -- it's expanded downward. The recruiting war now extends to young children who, were it not for their soccer prowess, would still be turning flips on the monkey bars. "It's out of control," says Horvath. "It's cutthroat; it's ruthless. It's amazing what goes on."
"Two years ago I went to watch our U-10 team play," recalls Behbehani. "There was a club coach at our field, watching our kids. After the game he was giving his card out to our kids, listing his tryouts. For nine-year-olds!"
"What happens," says the mother of one highly regarded ten-year-old girl, "is after we play a game against a team, a coach calls up and says, 'We'd like to have her guest play with us at our next tournament.' Then he'll add, 'Please don't forget that our tryouts are on such-and-such a date.' Or a parent [from another team] will ask, 'Why don't you come over here? You're always welcome here.' It's nothing aggressive, but it just makes it very easy. You know that you have an option to go to another club."
Schulz is unapologetic. "Identifying players at a younger and younger age is imperative," he says. "Getting a player between eight and twelve years old, and recognizing athletic ability and then developing him, is imperative -- as opposed to a fifteen-year-old, who already has old habits to break."
"If you're going to have elite players," adds Stone, "you need to start at U-11. And if you're going to have U-11s, you may as well start at U-9 or U-10."
While it crowns winners, ruthless competition also yields losers. When one child is found to be better than another, he is moved up -- and the child he replaces moves down to a less-prestigious team. "There's a cost involved," says Francis. "Rush goes after the best players. They have no loyalty to the locals. That's not what they're about. I've seen them bring players into their top teams and discard them within three months. But that's their standard, and they don't make any apologies for it."
The fact that elite players are welcome anywhere has affected the behavior of the premier kids in turn. They feel free to shop their services to the club offering the best, the most, the highest. Today, coaches say, it's not unusual for kids to play for several clubs before they reach middle school. "There is no loyalty, no base," complains Behbehani.
"There's plenty of kids out there with a collection of uniforms in their closets," adds Francis. "I've got a ten-year-old in his first year of competitive soccer who is currently on his third club."
"I just think it was the best fit, personally, for me," says Ben Ryan, a fifteen-year-old player who a year ago left his Colorado Springs team to make the hour-plus commute to the Rush's practices and matches. "I liked the coach." His old team "was disappointed," he adds. "But there were no hard feelings." And the Rush is now on the other end of the equation: This summer, Ryan will leave the club behind for Germany, where he will play soccer with a professional team while attending school.
The defection of a single player is hardly noteworthy anymore. Entire teams leave one club to join another. When Kelvin Norman recently departed Storm for the Aurora Soccer Club, a U-13 boys' team followed.
And even that is no longer big news. Two years ago, a whole new club was formed through a mass defection of players. It was an irony lost on no one that the teams striking out on their own came from the Rush.
In June 2000, the club had just come off its most successful State Cup ever. Fourteen Rush teams were crowned state champs -- leaving only four titles for Colorado's other clubs to split. Two months later, Stone himself was hired away to coach the Womens' United Soccer Association professional team in Atlanta.
The co-founder's departure further widened a fissure that had been growing within the Rush between Stone's and Schulz's factions, says DeDyker. After Stone left, the faction dedicated to developing elite girls' teams "realized that there was no future for us there."
So in the middle of last year, five of the Rush's elite girls' teams bolted, en masse, to form their own club, the Colorado Girls Soccer Academy. DeDyker and two of his sons are coaches. "We are only after the elite players," he explains. "They can't play other sports. If you're not an athlete, gifted with speed and quickness and ability, you're not going to make it."
Although it suffered initially from the defection, the Rush lost no time in rebounding from the loss. In today's Colorado State Cup finals, the Rush has five teams entered -- as usual, more than any other club. One by one, the games are played. One by one, the Rush ticks off its wins. Not all of the games are blowouts. But by the end of the day, the club has swept the field: Five Rush teams entered, five Rush teams victorious.
Next up: the regionals in Utah, and then the nationals in Maryland in July.
Twice a year, Parade magazine perpetrates a myth: In the spring, the Sunday newspaper supplement names the country's best girl soccer players; in the fall, it identifies the Parade All-America high school boys' soccer team. Usually, the teenagers are identified by their high schools.
Yet for the most part, high school soccer has become irrelevant. These days, the best soccer -- by far -- is being played at private soccer clubs.
Last fall, the boys' state high school soccer championship was won by Smoky Hill High School, from the Cherry Creek School District. One of the team's stars was senior Mike Moghaddam.
Moghaddam, also an All-State selection, happens to play for the Rush's top U-18 boys' team. Even though Smoky Hill technically falls outside the Rush's geographical boundaries, he's one of five players from the school playing on the Rush team. "Is this team better than Smoky Hill?" he asks, laughing. "Oh, yeah."
A game between the two? "It wouldn't even be close," he says.
"I'd put the Rush U-18 boys' team up against any high school in the state and spot the high school team three goals," says Francis.
Randy Freeman, Smoky Hill's coach, agrees. The best teams at big clubs are essentially all-star teams, he explains, packed with talent from many different places. "With high school, you're only representing a school," he says. "You get your pick of players from ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades."
Not so with clubs, the best of which draw kids from more than a single school, or district, or neighborhood, or even state. "By the time you're seventeen or eighteen," Freeman says, "there's only one good team left after all the tryouts and weeding." The eleven high school girls recently named to the Rocky Mountain News's All-Colorado team represent nine schools. But four are current or past Rush players.
On the Rush's State Cup-winning U-18 boys' team, alongside the Five Smoky Hill players are two from Fort Collins. "The tournaments are more prestigious, and you get better looks from the coaches," says Zack Summer who, along with Colin Clark, makes the one-hour-plus drive from Fort Collins to Littleton at least three times a week, and frequently more often, during tournament prep periods.
Marcus Ryan, another U-18 starter, was looking at an even longer commute: He lived in Hawaii. "When Marcus was fifteen -- the point where young people really get dedicated -- he decided he really wanted to take soccer seriously," says his mother, Pam. "He had a few choices, but he was really, really impressed with the Rush." After playing with the club as a guest at a Christmas tournament, Marcus returned to Hawaii with a vision. In February 2000, he and his mother packed their bags and moved to Colorado.
"The Rush offers so much," Marcus says. "They create an environment where you can compete with the best in the country. I don't think that anyone disputes that the Rush has the best coaching staff in the country."
"He's never regretted for one minute of one day his decision to come here," says Pam, a freelance social worker. "And I love it here."
Horvath is torn when he hears of such loyalty. As the soccer coach at Columbine High School, he is grateful to -- and even dependent on -- the Rush teams. The club's vast developmental programs prepare kids in Horvath's geographical district to play for his school. "My bread is buttered by Rush," he acknowledges.
But he recognizes that he plays a supporting role at best. More and more, he finds himself trying to convince boys and girls why they should bother with the high school game; he has encountered plenty of club coaches who explicitly tell their best players that, at the level the game is played in high school, it's a waste of their time. Other club coaches let the kids play -- but then subvert that permission by demanding that they practice with the clubs on Sundays, a high school player's day off, or even attend tournaments during the high school season.
"The club coaches continually interfere with high school," agrees Smoky Hill's Freeman. Several coaches have counseled his players to avoid the high school team because an injury could ruin their real season with the clubs, he adds. Freeman typically loses several players each year because the ODP -- Olympic Development Program, which club coaches push for their best players -- "runs tournaments out of state the first week of the girls' season."
Horvath says he understands why kids lean toward the clubs: They're where the action is -- not only on the field, but off it. Once a vital conduit between college coaches offering scholarships and top teenage players, the high school soccer coach now finds himself completely out of the loop. "We don't get calls from college coaches anymore," Horvath says. "Nothing."
In contrast, says Mike Moghaddam, "When the Rush goes to tournaments, a lot of college coaches come just to watch our team."
Al Lisi's the guy they call when they've singled out a Rush prospect. The Rush's college adviser is deluged with inquiries from college coaches, and he advises youngsters to play up the club connection:
"I tell our kids, 'When you write a letter [to colleges] you start it: 'I play for the Colorado Rush...' We've established a reputation -- eleven national champs. That draws attention. The name recognition rings out. When college coaches go to a national tournament and see five Rush teams playing for titles, that stands out."
Two years ago, Lisi made the connection more explicit. At Clemson University's athletic department on an unpaid internship, he noticed all of the envelopes that piled up on the soccer coach's desk. Now he has his players stuff their letters inside envelopes bearing the Rush's distinctive blue logo. "This shows up on a coach's desk, they'll pay attention," he says.
And they do. Lisi estimates that 90 percent of the high school seniors who play on the Rush's top-level soccer teams receive some sort of athletic scholarship. On the boys' U-18 club, every single player has been offered a full-ride scholarship to college -- at least. A couple of the boys are contemplating whether to accept offers to play on professional teams.
For little girls -- and, more important, for their parents -- the long, gut-wrenching trip to a university free ride starts today. At least the dream does.
On a cloudy afternoon in late May, tryouts for the Rush's competitive teams get under way at another new soccer field complex, southwest of Denver. Minivans and SUVs pull into a dusty lot still under construction; long-range plans are to add a few more fields, including a stadium field for big matches.
Siblings burst out of the cars and scatter. Young girls as small as sticks, their lower legs swollen by shin guards, tap soccer balls in front of them. Experienced parents dally behind, toting folding chairs, umbrellas and coolers: A big part of youth soccer, they have figured out, is learning how to kill time comfortably.
Kids under the age of ten are not permitted to play competitive soccer, so this tryout marks a turning point. "I call it graduation," says Chris Kirtley, the Rush coach orchestrating the mob scene. About 130 girls have shown up for the chance to strut their stuff in front of the Rush coaches. Most have already been playing in the club's recreational leagues, but about twenty have not. These outsiders are easily identified: They're the girls who aren't wearing the Nike insignia.
The term "graduation" is not a token word. Although far more kids play recreational soccer than competitive soccer at the Rush, the club's corporate structure is designed to support its competitive teams, which are much more expensive. Many clubs keep their recreational and competitive finances separate; the Rush mingles the funds, using its recreational players to support its competitive side.
"We don't feel it's fair for six-year-olds to subsidize a competitive club," says Francis. "It comes down to: What do you want your club to be about? But to their credit, the Rush doesn't make any bones about it. Therefore, they have a stronger program than any other program."
Before the tryouts, the first thing Rush coach Andrew Kummer does is try to separate the girls from their parents. He knows from experience that the latter are wound far tighter than their charges. Parents are told that each child who tries out will play on a competitive team, but the coaches just aren't sure which one. They're also told that this is all about fun.
This is meant to calm anxious parents. What Kummer doesn't tell them is that the three-day tryout for the ten-year-olds is largely a formality that's done for show. "It's basically 100 to 250 wasted man-hours," gripes Dave Dengerink, the club's director of coaching.
That's because the Rush, like most serious youth soccer clubs, has a farm system that would make a major-league baseball club jealous. The Rush coaches begin scoping out tiny players both inside and outside the club when they're as young as four years old. And while every coach knows to keep his eyes peeled for tiny talent, the Rush also employs two "youth coordinators" whose primary job is to scout talented eight- and nine-year-old players.
One of the coordinators, Aaryn Hoxhaa, grew up playing soccer on the streets of Albania. Now he spends his summer weekends watching youth soccer tournaments -- scouring the fields for promising young athletes who may, with the right mixture of coaching and nurturing, grow into championship teenagers for the Rush.
"I'm looking at their coordination -- how they run, how they comport themselves physically," Hoxhaa explains. "Are they agile? Are they fast? What is their eye-foot coordination? Are they comfortable with the ball? Do they like the ball? What ways are their knees going? Are they running on their heel, or their toes? I also look at the parents, the heritage. How big are they? Where are they from? What athletics did they do? I know it sounds silly, but it can be in the DNA. So, if they came from a foreign country, I want to know: Were they involved in soccer?"
With up-and-comers already inside the Rush, Hoxhaa will continue to keep an eye on them. Children he spots on other clubs are invited to a Rush tryout, or to attend the club's School of Excellence. An eight-week summer or fall program during which kids train under the Rush's best coaches, the school also serves another purpose: "Really, what it is is a chance for us to identify the top players," explains Kummer.
Even though kids technically can't begin playing competitive soccer until they're ten, most clubs offer a middle road between recreational play and full-blown competitive leagues: Option One. "It's for the better players" says Dengerink. "Or, I shouldn't say 'better players' -- it's for kids who are interested in more soccer." Option One players, who are usually eight or nine years old, travel around the area to matches and practice more frequently than their recreational counterparts.
Nurturing a promising young player can be a tricky balancing act -- not because the child is difficult to work with, but because of the reaction parents can have when they hear that their son or daughter has some talent. "I have to try to keep it to myself if I see, say, a great eight-year-old," Hoxhaa explains. "Parents can go too far sometimes. They get so caught up in this that they do crazy things -- push their kids to the point where, by the time they're eleven or twelve, a kid doesn't want to touch a ball anymore.
"So," he concludes, "I would want to wait until the child is thirteen or fourteen to tell a parent, 'You got a real good chance.'"
The upshot of all this -- the rec leagues, the School of Excellence, the constant scouting -- is that by the time a kid arrives at the Rush tryouts, the club's coaching staff is already familiar with the player. "We know exactly what we're looking for," Hoxhaa says.
"Basically, we use our tryouts to look at kids outside the club that we might have missed, and that could put us over the top," Dengerink adds.
Still, Hoxhaa and his colleagues proceed with tact and caution. They know they're competing against other teams, which employ their own youth scouts. Many ten-year-olds attending these Rush tryouts are also auditioning with other clubs.
"We've already got our top U-11 team picked out in our minds," Kummer acknowledges. "But we've got to be careful to pay attention to them, or they'll go to CGSA" -- the Colorado Girls' Soccer Academy.
The little girls are divided into three groups. Although no one says so explicitly, it becomes apparent that the girls on the easternmost field are the best; those in the middle are not quite as good but have some skills; the kids to the west are the least skilled. Each group splits into teams and begins to play under the watchful eye of the Rush coaches, who take careful notes on clipboards.
The parents assemble along the sidelines closest to where their children are playing. A few shout instructions. "Get down on the ball," screams one red-faced man. "Oh, come on," another mutters under his breath. "Pay attention." A third tells his daughter, "Pull up your sock -- look like a player."
Snippets of conversations hint at suspected intrigue and terrible injustice. Influence peddling and politicking are assumed. "Well, she was going along just fine, and then she started playing in these 3 v. 3 tournaments and her skills just started dropping," one woman growls into a cell phone. "Her playing time started falling off..."
Coaches are a constant topic of conversation: their skills, their incompetence, their abysmal judgment, their dictatorial behavior, their relative positioning in the organization, their general worth as human beings.
Privately, the coaches gripe, too. They say they can explain how it's better for a child to be on a team with players at her own level than on the best team until they lose their breath -- but some mothers and fathers cannot see beyond the glory and promise that Rush's top teams, Nike and Swoosh, represent.
"It was a tough experience when the coach called and said, 'We're moving down another kid and we can only keep one goalie -- so you have to move down,'" says one father, explaining why he and his twelve-year-old son had to leave the Rush. "We approached a number of other clubs. We ended up going to Littleton. They took him sight unseen."
The more-serious parents are easy to identify: They say "we" and "our" when they begin to talk about their child's soccer career. "This is our third club," starts one man. "We started out at the Rush, then went to Storm, then to the Colorado Girls' Soccer Academy, and now we're back at the Rush again." Incompetent coaching and inadequate playing time, it seems, are the major reasons for a ten-year-old being so well-traveled. But soon she'll get a break: "We usually take about three weeks off from soccer every July," her father says.
On the third day of tryouts, the demarcations between beginning players, decent players and future stars is clearer. So, too, are the distinctions between parents. By now, most mothers and fathers along the westernmost field have accepted that their girls are not going to be stars this year.
Parents along the eastern fields are satisfied, pleased, terribly vindicated: This is where their girl belongs. "At the top level, they get more attention from the best coaches," explains one father who has driven from Aurora. "So you want that. Besides, this will teach her to be competitive, and that's what she needs in the world and the marketplace."
These parents all make an effort to tell each other that they are merely along for the ride: "It's whatever makes her happy," they'll say. "It doesn't matter to me."
But it obviously matters to the parents watching the middle field. "Damn!" exhales one beefy man watching his daughter. "You gotta move." He sighs, then says, "She'll never make it."
"It looks to me like they've already weeded them out," huffs another middle-field woman.
"I'm befuddled, frankly," adds another. "It's clear what they're doing, but my daughter was there yesterday" -- she nods toward the top field-- "and now she's here. I don't get it. I mean, if you look at some of these girls, they're not as good as she is."
As the three-day U-11 tryout marathon winds down, Kirtley has mixed emotions. On the one hand, he's elated: Nodding toward the field where the Rush's newest elite Nike and Swoosh teams are running back and forth, he proclaims the audition a huge success. Once again, the club has managed to nab not just the top talent in the Rush's geographical boundaries, but also in the region.
"We got the top three players from Storm, the top player from Real and the top player from Littleton," he says, smiling. "That is going to be one kick-ass team."
On the other hand, the end of tryouts is always a touchy time. It is when unhappy parents let their feelings be known to the coaches responsible for the dishonor that has been done to their daughters. "If it weren't for the parents, this would be the best job in the world," Kirtley says. Out of hard experience, he keeps his phone number unlisted.
(Nobody yells at him the night after the tryouts, but the following day he receives a "screaming parent" phone call. "The daughter was on the third team and mom thought she should be on the Nike team," he says. "I told her that her daughter should actually be on the fourth team. You get thin-skinned after getting yelled at so much.")
"Some parents just don't know how to handle it," Kirtley explains. "I coach the U-11 Nike team, and I have one boy whose father trains him every day, two hours a day. And that's in addition to the three team practices we have, and the weekend games. Now he's developing heel problems. I warned the father, 'He's gonna burn out by the time he's fourteen.' But, of course, he won't listen."
Throughout the week, the Rush has been holding tryouts for other girls' teams. Unlike the U-11 tryouts, the auditions for the older girls last only two hours per age group. They are almost exclusively for out-of-club girls; by now, the Rush coaches have watched their own players so closely that no tryout is necessary for them. Instead, the club asks a dozen or so mid-level girls already on the club to come to the field to play with the new girls -- a sort of mid-line against which the new talent will be judged.
Just north and east of the U-11 tryouts, eleven-year-old girls attempt to make the Rush's best U-12 club teams. A youth coach for the tiny Englewood Soccer Association has brought four of his girls to the bigger club's tryouts; with any luck, one or more will grab the attention of a Rush coach.
"It's time for them to move on," he explains graciously. "We don't have anything more for them, and they might just be able to make it here. The Rush has a real good club." He pauses. "All those titles.
"Plus all those college scholarships."
At age eleven?
"It's never too early," he says, staring stonily out toward the field.
Even though youth soccer is now a business, the customers are always right -- and the parents are the customers. Says Tom Stone, "If the customers aren't happy, they'll go."
The competitiveness of baby-boomer parents -- combined with their intense involvement in their children's lives -- can make for some unpleasant outings. But it also fuels the Rush's own aspirations.
"Winning is part of our culture," Dengerink says. "Who finished second in the Super Bowl this year? There's a great push on elitism in general. Nowadays the push toward the competitive side of soccer at a younger age doesn't stem from the kids, but from the parents on the sidelines who can't sit back and enjoy watching kids running and jumping and kicking a ball. Most don't have experience of their own, but they're hyper-competitive, and they live through their children."
It speaks volumes about the changing face of the game that families competing hardest for college soccer scholarships often are the ones that need financial help the least. At times, coaches observe, it seems to be more a question of status than actual economics.
"I used to think that college scholarships were the big carrot," says Francis. "But I think you've got upper-middle-class people whose kids are focused on this, and that's what's really driving them.
"Every time I think I've found the most possessed soccer parent in Colorado, I wait six months and I've found another," he adds. "It's completely parent-driven."
"Parents play a role, big-time," agrees Behbehani. "But that's the way the lifestyle is here. With the Broncos, you go to the stadium; you scream and stand behind the fence. Here, they pay their dues and are part of the club, so there are no fences. Put it this way: In youth soccer, you can get to Mike Shanahan."
Kirtley recently sent a letter to his coaches to thank them for volunteering but also to make note of a growing concern. "Whether it is coaches yelling, parents yelling, our young referees do not want to ref games anymore," he wrote, asking coaches to "keep your cool and keep your parents under control."
The refs are hardly alone. Every youth soccer coach has a story about being berated by a parent. In some cases, it's gone much further. A couple of years ago, when Kelvin Norman was still with Storm, he remembers watching a game so hotly contested that three players and a parent were told to leave the field for poor behavior. After the game, as Norman was walking onto the field, the parent jumped on him from behind and began attacking him. Norman, who grew up on the streets of Liverpool, handled himself adequately: "He beat the shit out of him," one coach recalled.
Just two weeks ago, two parents of kids on the Denver Soccer Club got into a scuffle, Francis says. One parent had complained about a referee's call; after the second told him to be quiet, the first attacked. The aggressor knows just how competitive soccer can get: When he's not tussling with other parents, he's the coach of George Washington High School's soccer team.
Last year, Francis's club finally fielded a top U-13 boys team. "Several of these kids have been called directly by Rush parents already," he sighs. "And we lost basically another whole team to the Rush this year [last year's U-16, this year's U-17], twelve of sixteen players. They came to me and said, 'This is an important year. What do you have at Denver? The Rush has this...'"
Now that the CSYSA has abandoned all pretense of recruiting oversight, there's even been talk of paying kids to play youth soccer -- if not a salary, then at least expenses. Some claim that point has already been reached. Dave Schaffer, the Fort Collins coach, says he knows of at least one player who's paid gas money to drive to a Denver-area team's practices. "There are certain players in the state who have never paid a thing to play soccer," adds Francis. Both coaches decline to name names.
For the moment, Rush coaches say they're content to push the boundaries of competitive soccer through their new "gifted and talented" school. The school, which is now scouting for locations, should give the club an edge not just with additional training hours, but also through passive recruiting, Kummer says. "We're certainly not going to train kids from other clubs for free," he points out. The solution: Out-of-club players seeking admission to the school will have to join the Rush.
When the concept of a public soccer school was first floated, the Rush officials hoped to attract eight players. So far, about forty have shown serious interest in the Jeffco program. And that's just the beginning.
"Someday," Kummer says, "we're hoping to start our own private school."
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