It had the makings of a Cinderella story. Only six minutes into the game, team captain Luke Vercollone sent an impossibly angled shot into the left side of the net for a goal. If they could hold the lead, the first player ever signed to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks Football Club would send the team in its first year of existence to the 2015 championship game of the United Soccer League (USL).
But the Oklahoma City Energy FC had other plans. After trading goals in overtime for a 2-2 score, the teams lined up for penalty kicks. Then OKC goalkeeper, Evan Newton, brought an abrupt end to the Switchbacks’ Cinderella story by saving two PKs.
Heartbreaking? Absolutely. Professional athletes play to win—period. The loss stung, but the players, coaches and front office staff also closed out the season with a strong sense of pride in what they had accomplished so quickly.
“We put Switchbacks on the map as a top tier team,” said goalkeeper Davala Gorrick following the playoff loss.
They certainly exceeded early expectations for the team. “The expectation was to be competitive, to put a good product on the field, not to finish Top 3 in the conference,” says Nick Ragain, president of the club.
Ragain and head coach Steve Trittschuh are happy with those results, don’t get them wrong, but they see them as only the beginning of success on and off the pitch. Talk to both of them, and you’ll hear the tones common to startup business leaders, just coming from slightly different angles.
Trittschuh is the soccer mind who handles all on-field decisions. His impressive pedigree includes starting for the U.S. National Team in the 1990 World Cup and serving as an assistant coach for the Colorado Rapids. Ragain oversees the day-to-day business, though he is quick to credit Ed Ragain, his father and team owner, for his vision and role in starting the club.
“It will always be a growing process,” Nick says. “We are putting more emphasis on engaging the community this year. We’re trying to build for the long-term.” That includes achieving healthy ticket sales from a large fan base, strong business and community partnerships and broadcast rights, which the league drives.
“Selling that stadium out every game,” Trittschuh says when asked what success looks like for the club. “And our ambition this year is to win the championship.”
He knows the two go hand in hand.
In the Trailheads Supporters Group, the Switchbacks have a small army of rabid support. The diehards are easy to spot in the northeast corner of Switchbacks Stadium, aka Basecamp, thanks to their colorful face-paint and regalia and to their drums and chants.
But Ragain hopes to see some of their enthusiasm spread to the general public—face-paint not required. Many people, he says, have a misconception that the USL is semiprofessional. “A lot of people don’t know USL,” he says. “But we are professional.”
Beyond the fact that MLS is clearly the top level of American professional soccer, the scene can be a bit confusing. For a quick explanation, the USL is generally considered the third tier of American pro soccer, behind the North American Soccer League (NASL). But with strong partnership to MLS, the USL has quickly grown into the largest pro soccer league in North America by number of teams: 29. Some argue it is surpassing NASL.
Many USL clubs are developmental teams for MLS, for example the L.A. Galaxy II. Such affiliation can bring international recognition and resources, but Ragain says it can also mean a lot of roster turnover as players are called up or down through the larger club.
“On paper those rosters may be ‘better,’ but we’ve found a competitive advantage in not having that open door rotation,” Ragain says. “Steve gets quality guys to buy in, play hard and build trust.”
The result on the field is a fast-paced style of play that Trittschuh says uses the high elevation to their advantage. “We attack fast, defend as team, whether on the counter attack or through possession,” Trittschuh says. “We mix everything in. Other coaches say we’re hard to figure out.”
Trittschuh was able to keep the core of last year’s team together while also drawing nationally and internationally to strengthen the squad with key signings, such as defender Josh Suggs, midfielder Rony Argueta, midfielder Taewoo Kim and defender Christian Ibeagha. With the moves, Switchbacks FC has remained near the top of the league, holding first place at press time. And Trittschuh says the team has maintained a strong sense of camaraderie.
“The guys do a lot off the field together,” Trittschuh says. “You don’t see that often.”
Ragain says a group of them regularly fly-fish together on their weekly day off. That’s purely for fun, but players also regularly make community appearances together too, visiting schools and community centers and leading skills clinics for kids. That kind of engagement has been a club-wide priority this year.
“This is a soccer town,” Ragain says, citing the existence of a full range of levels and teams, from pro and amateur to multiple NCAA Division 1 programs, high school teams that regularly contend for state championships, and widespread youth participation.
“We see ourselves as ambassadors for Colorado Springs,” Ragain says. “Really developing pride in what it means to not only be a supporter of the Switchbacks, but to be a supporter of Colorado Springs.”
Check Out a Switchbacks Game
The action is close. The play is quality. The atmosphere is family-friendly. And the Trailheads are hard-core fans.