REPORT (September 28, 2018) – The Colorado Rapids of MLS and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC of the USL are in talks to be affiliated in 2019, per sources familiar with both clubs. The Switchbacks are currently not affiliated with any MLS team but have regularly received loaned players from the Rapids, including Niki Johnson, Kip Colvey, and Sam Hamilton. The Rapids are currently affiliated with the Charlotte Independence.
SOURCES: Colorado Rapids and Switchbacks in advanced MLS-USL affiliation talks
Editorial note: To prevent confusion, “Colorado” will be used to refer to the Colorado Rapids in this article unless specified otherwise. “Colorado Springs” will refer to Colorado Springs Switchbacks unless specified otherwise.
The Rapids and Switchbacks are the only professional soccer teams in the Centennial State. MLS-USL affiliations date back to 2014, with the Rapids first becoming affiliated with the Charlotte Independence in 2015 and have maintained that relationship through this season.
Colorado Springs began play in the USL the same year as Charlotte (2015). Supporters of both Colorado clubs have speculated about a relationship between the two in the past.
The rumor up until last year was that the two sides could not come to terms on loaned players getting regular minutes a la the MLS II teams getting instructions from the mother club on which loaned players to start after finding out which players were available late in the week for weekend matches.
It was speculated that then Rapids manager Pablo Mastroeni and Switchbacks manager Steve Trittschuh could not see eye to eye on this and other matters.
Last Word on Soccer has confirmed with sources close to both clubs that the two are in discussions, including upper-management level personnel in the Springs. Both sides appear to see a mutually beneficial relationship based on their respective situations. An agreement for the 2019 season could be reached in the very near future.
The Switchbacks need help keeping pace:
With the rebrand announced earlier this week, the USL is clearly pushing the envelope to be a quality second division.
The Switchbacks and Colorado Springs are a bit behind what the USL aspires to be. The stadium situation isn’t great, but there is hope. They’re a small budget team in a very competitive conference and will miss out on the playoffs for the second year in a row.
They’re in need of an injection of talent and depth options at a reasonable price. Where other independent USL teams have found and benefited from affiliates or least piecemeal loan options, Trittschuh has maintained a small internal squad. Throughout this season, Trittschuh has taken just 16 players for several road trips. The cupboard is bare.
The Rapids have an improving academy system and several players that have established themselves in the USL with Charlotte. The Switchbacks could easily get 3-4 players regularly from the MLS club at a reduced cost. There’s a possibility the Rapids could cover the player salaries entirely with the USL club just needing to provide stipends and cover travel-related expenses, sweetening the deal.
This move would give the Switchbacks quality options in 2019 that could go a long way to making the playoffs. The front offices and coaching staffs could communicate back and forth to share information, bringing some fresh ideas to a team where a blue-collar work ethic reigns supreme. It’s been suggested perhaps even at the expense of individual creativity on occasion.
On the youth front, this could be a chance for Pride Youth Soccer/Switchbacks PDL to form a collaboration with the Rapids Academy. Bringing together more players at all levels would foster competition for the better and could lay a path to first division soccer for youth players coming out of the Springs.
Sources have stated that for now, this deal would not be contingent on changes within the club leadership. The Switchbacks front office and coaching staff will remain intact, allowing for continuity through this transition.
All of this could help stabilize the Switchbacks as a legitimate second division club.
Cons for Colorado Springs:
This move wouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows. There has been speculation that the MLS team have most of the power in these relationships. Some reports have even suggested that MLS loanees to USL clubs are contractually bound to start if available for selection.
This affiliation could limit squad selection and hurt on-field results if the Switchbacks are forced to start a raw Rapids bench player over a USL veteran.
Reading between the lines, this could also signal a philosophical change for Colorado Springs. They could be persuaded (or forced) to adopt Rapids manager Anthony Hudson’s formation and tactical system to provide continuity for players moving back and forth between the two clubs. Similar relationships haven’t always helped the USL team win consistently or quickly.
On a sentimental note, the Switchbacks have worked very hard since their founding to be ingrained in the Colorado Springs community. It has the feel of a neighborhood club and that could be sacrificed if they’re perceived to be the minor league affiliate of the big city club. A potential rebrand to a Rapids II (or similar) in the years to come could irreparably damage the Colorado Springs clubs’ communal ties.
How this benefits the Rapids:
Charlotte has been a good partner in the last several years, but there are obvious logistical issues with this affiliation. Most of the city is well under 1,000 feet elevation, meaning loaned players are not conditioned to altitude. The Rapids overhauled the sports science department during the off-season and are prioritizing this area. It’s hard to take advantage of this with a USL affiliate close to sea level.
Conversely, Colorado Springs is at a higher elevation (~6,000 feet) than Denver and Weidner Field is the only professional soccer venue in the continental U.S. at a higher elevation than Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. If anything, loaned players will be in better physical condition while on loan.
Charlotte is also two time zones and a 3.5 hour flight away (nonstop). That’s not conducive to shuffling players back and forth periodically. A call-up really only makes sense if the Rapids are playing a road game on the east coast. As with their one-off loans with the Springs this year, players are able to train down south without a full relocation and can even split time between the two clubs during the week.
This will make players available to both clubs as needed and will allow for more flexibility for all involved.
Come next season, the Rapids will have several players in need of regular minutes. Caleb Calvert and Sam Vines have gotten regular minutes in Charlotte this year with several other players getting time as well. It’s unlikely that all of them will have a regular role with the MLS team in 2019.
All the Charlotte-loaned players could be back in the USL again. Hudson has also made projects of Deklan Wynne, Kipp Colvey, and Niki Jackson. All could require minutes at a lower level at times. There’s also 17-year-old homegrown Cole Bassett, who was signed this summer. The Rapids could easily keep 3-4 players loaned down south at all times without signing any new homegrowns.
There don’t appear to be any obvious cons to the Rapids making this switch, outside of players potentially getting burned out from driving I-25 for three hours a day going to training, assuming they would train in Colorado Springs rather than Commerce City.
What this would mean for Charlotte:
Immediately, Charlotte would lose access to a discounted talent pool to fill out their roster with. They’ve been a mid-table club since joining the second division and their standing could be hurt by the Rapids dumping them.
As of this year, Minnesota United FC and New England Revolution are without affiliates and there’s no word on what FC Cincinnati will do when they join MLS next year. All three will have options closer to home in both the USL Championship and League One, leaving Charlotte without an available affiliate.
The Independence could be facing being an independent club needing to negotiate on a player-by-player basis for each loan deal.
For the Rapids and Switchbacks, this seems like a win-win for both parties. The Rapids need minutes close to home and at altitude for their squad players. The Switchbacks need reasonably priced talent to keep up in the second division. If the Switchbacks are willing to bend the knee to an extent, this could be a symbiotic relationship.
This article was co-written by Mark Turner and Matt Pollard. Mark is a contributor and the Switchbacks beat writer at Last Word on Soccer. Matt is a managing editor and Rapids beat writer for the site. Last Word on Soccer has approached all three clubs for comment on the content of this article. As of the time of publishing, no comments have been received.