When Eddie Lewis played soccer at UCLA in the early 1990s, he noticed that the basketball team there practiced three-point shots using a smaller-than-regulation hoop to improve players' accuracy. He wondered if the same concept might work for soccer.
Lewis started practicing with a tennis ball, throwing it at the wall and receiving it with his feet. When he noticed improvements in his ball-handling skills, he bought an old portable tennis ball machine to get in more repetitions. “This was always sort of my secret weapon. I really didn't want to share with anybody,” he recalls. According to Lewis, practicing with the smaller ball helped transform him from an unknown youth prospect to a soccer player with an illustrious career that included time in Europe — most notably for Leeds United in England — and fourteen years on the United States Men’s National Team, before he finished out with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy.
Once he retired from professional play, Lewis decided it was time to let others in on his secret. He founded TOCA Football
, a soccer-focused technology company, in 2016, and worked to refine the training method by creating a soccer ball small enough to function like a tennis ball but still have the feel of a soccer ball; he also came up with a machine that could be programmed to spit the balls out in different directions and at varying speeds for more advanced training.
The final product includes goals that light up, indicating the intended target of each ball that’s deployed, placed in four corners of a rectangular space. The result is a training method that helps develop technical skills but also 360-degree awareness and decision-making, two skills that Lewis says are among the most important in soccer and the most difficult to practice.
“You can't use the one thing that's natural, which is your hands,” Lewis explains. “Everything is learned, and that's fine, but that means we got to practice it a lot. So my theory was, well, let's just find a way to get more touches.”
The company has been expanding rapidly. Heading into December, it had sixteen facilities, with plans to open four more by the end of the year and double that number next year.
On December 1, TOCA Football opened its first Denver facility in Bladium Sports and Fitness Club, which occupies a former Stapleton Airport hangar in Central Park. Denver had been on TOCA’s radar of places to expand because of the area's strong youth soccer market, which includes the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club
that serves 10,000 children annually and the Skyline Soccer Association
that serves 4,000.
When the Bladium space became available, Lewis was thrilled. “In most cases. there can be quite a bit of work to do within the facility, whether it's renovations or integrating existing staff or whatever else,” he says . “We've been very fortunate with Bladium because, number one, it was already a very well-run facility but it also came with an incredible staff and culture that was built in.”
The staff at TOCA Denver, formerly Bladium Sports and Fitness Club.
Lewis rebranded the facility as TOCA Denver
, keeping the existing Bladium programming and staff while adding TOCA resources — hiring trainers and building studios with the four goals, ball machines and screens that track the progress of training sessions. Eventually the facility will host twelve studios; currently there are just six temporary spots, since TOCA didn’t want to interrupt Bladium’s current indoor soccer-league season with construction.
TOCA Denver is already working with the Colorado Rapids and the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club. As part of its children’s programming, the facility will offer the TOCA Strikers program for children eighteen months to seven years old. Lewis says the program focuses on fine motor skills as well as socialization: Kids get to play with other kids, and parents can meet parents with kids the same age as theirs. The social element pours over into actual pours: TOCA Denver has beers, cider and seltzer on tap, along with some food offerings.
TOCA training costs $90 per session for non-members and $65 for members (a membership runs $40 a month); sign up for a free kickoff session
using the code "Denver."
“We continue to kind of game-ify these experiences more and more,” Lewis concludes. “Everybody loves to play and compete at some level, right? Even if it's as basic as, ‘Let's see if we could score more goals on the next exercise than we did on the last.’”