Editorial (June 4, 2019) – The Colorado Rapids affiliation with USL side Colorado Springs Switchbacks is in its first year. The two sides are still figuring out a mutually beneficial relationship as the respective first teams are trying to find their form. From the Switchback perspective, the partnership has yet to mature.
Colorado Rapids Affiliation With Switchbacks Still Work-In-Progress for Both Clubs
Both sides got off to a poor start in 2019. The Rapids nearly set a new MLS record for most games to start a season without a win. After winning two games in March, the Switchbacks have just one win in league play. Both sides find themselves outside the playoffs in their respective Western Conference, though the Rapids are climbing. The Boys in Black meanwhile are second to last in the USL Western Conference.
Instability at the MLS level affects treatment of the USL affiliate:
Just like minor league baseball teams or AHL affiliates in hockey, so much of what happens for a non-major sports team on the technical side is dependent on the needs of the big club. The Rapids squad wasn’t fully healthy to start the season, which required squad players present in Commerce City and ready if needed for games. Combined with a poor start the season (which led to Anthony Hudson being sacked), and any favors to the USL affiliate to the south had to be put on hold.
Colorado have a few Homegrown and bench players in the Springs long term. Sam Raben and Matt Hundley have spent most of their time this season with the USL side but have yet to see significant playing time. Andre Rawls has done an admirable job in goal and Abdul Rwatubyaye has filled in at the center back.
When this Colorado Rapids affiliation started, there was an impression that several players from the Rapids were going to be on season-long loans to the Switchbacks, but it took till mid-May for that to happen. It also took the Rapids acquiring the fourth player (Rwatubyaye) at the transfer deadline. The loaned players have been putting some miles on their cars as well, with Raben and Rawls both getting a game in the 18 for the Rapids this season.
“The guys that are here is what we have to deal with. Right now we have no depth,” Trittschuh told Last Word on Soccer. “I had one attacking sub on the bench tonight and he’s a 19-year-old kid.”
Things are settling down for the MLS team, but a head coaching hire still needs to be made. All this has made the reinforcements (in certainty and stability) a work-in-progress.
Switchbacks competing in an ever-changing USL:
Colorado Springs haven’t made the USL playoffs since 2016. Like many aspects of American Soccer, the USL has evolved in real-time. As the Rapids have learned the hard way, one must adapt or die. USL teams are building club owned and operated stadiums, building out their infrastructure, and putting more money into the squad.
The Swichbacks do have a new soccer-specific stadium on the way, but club finances continue to be limited. One could argue Colorado Springs partnered with the Rapids to their USL Championship status while other clubs self-relegated to League One or ceased operation for a year to reorganize.
A source close to the club informed Last Word on Soccer that the Switchbacks are below the average player salary for the league. Per the team website, the club has just 14 players on the roster not counting loaned Rapids players. That’s not even a full team sheet for a match.
Most other independent USL teams have a full squad with some reserve players, not counting loaned players from MLS teams. Several Switchbacks players have left the club over the years for salary increased the Springs weren’t able to match.
Colorado Springs have a minimalist roster with a minimalist budget. After the four loaned players mentioned above, all other support they’ve gotten from the north have been Rapids Development Academy Players. That’s nice for the teenagers to experience playing against grown men. It’s not conducive to Trittschuh getting results.
Supporters from both sides waiting for impact:
The New York Red Bulls path from the academy, to RBNY II, to the first team wasn’t built in a day. Neither will a path for Switchbacks players to MLS via the Rapids or Rapids reserve players to MLS starters via playing in USL. That said, it’s understandable for fans of both clubs to want more out of this relationship.
Raben not playing much is a bad omen for his MLS potential, especially given Colorado’s issues at center back. Hundley’s still young and Rwatubyaye just got settled, so the jury’s out on them. Rawls is a functional USL keeper, but Clint Irwin is expected to start next year with Tim Howard retiring.
The players Colorado has loaned to Colorado Springs aren’t good enough to contribute in MLS right now. Two of them can barely get on the field for a poor USL side. The other two aren’t at positions of urgent need.
“Defensively, it’s not something we need right now. We need guys up top. The guys we have on the field right how are at 100% capacity. We really can’t ask anymore of them,” said Trittschuh.
When I attending the May 18 match against New Mexico United, Switchbacks fans universally told me they’re waiting for players who can make a significant impact. When injury or squad rotation requires other players, the Switchbacks have been sent Rapids DA players. The main benefit to this is the kids get a good learning experience, but this is a long play for the Rapids who might not sign these players for years.
It’s understandable that the Rapids front office wants reserve players to get competitive minutes. Some Switchbacks supporters felt the club is being treated as a minor league affiliate focused on development at the expense of competition. There’s an LA Galaxy II or Toronto FC II joke in here somewhere. Rapids fans meanwhile see that the players getting time won’t be contributing to the first team this season.
Where to go from here:
Both sides have work to do to improve themselves and make this affiliation more symbiotic. The Rapids obviously need to hire a new head coach. That coach then needs to develop/coordinate with Brian Crookham and the front office about a strategy for youth development and where their USL affiliate fits in.
The Switchbacks probably need to add more players to the roster and increase the average player salary. They’d do well to fill out their roster and work with the Rapids to match positions of weakness with players the Rapids are looking to loan out. They could also do their due diligence in looking to other MLS teams for players. There have to be a few MLS homegrowns riding the bench that could help them.
The Colorado Rapids affiliation with the Switchbacks is a two way street. And the street is clearly still under construction on both sides.