On Location: Colorado, Hotbed for Youth National Team Prospects, Sees Players Reach WNT, MNT Heights

Real Colorado Alumni Making Their Marks on WNT, MNT Programs

The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858 saw thousands migrate to the Front Range in search of riches. These days, it’s the Men’s and Women’s National Teams that are finding jewels on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Three Colorado players – two from U.S. Soccer Development Academy club, Real Colorado; and one from Colorado Rush – are on the rosters of the MNT and WNT that are set to play matches on June 8: Ethan Horvath, Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan. They are part of a young generation of players from The Centennial State who have caught the eyes of National Team coaches and hold promise of long-term success. 

In particular, it’s the women’s program that has benefited from the pipeline of talent in the thin mountain air. More on that in a minute. 

As the MNT prepares to host Trinidad and Tobago in a 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier in nearby Commerce City on Thursday (5:50 p.m. MT; FS1, UniMas), the youngest of the four goalkeepers in camp is the 21-year-old Horvath. With three World Cup veteran goalkeepers on the roster, the Highlands Ranch-native is not expected to play a role this week. Still, when asked about having Horvath in camp, MNT head coach Bruce Arena said he’s “one of our young, promising goalkeepers that we need to see.”

Standing 6-3, Horvath recently completed his first season with Belgium’s Club Brugge after playing the previous four with Molde FK in Norway’s top flight. A member of the 2016 Copa America team, he earned his first cap last October against Cuba.

And while his national team future appears bright, he’s poised to share the spotlight locally with a number of other area standouts.

Horvath in U.S. Soccer Development Academy competition with Real Colorado in 2010.

Hours before the men take the field, the Women’s National Team play a friendly in Scandinavia against Sweden (1:30 p.m. ET; ESPN2, UDN). Pugh and Horan are a part of that roster. The WNT will also play Norway on June 11 in Sandefjord (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

“We’re not a professional club, but we treat the players and our coaching staffs as professionals, and try to get the best out of them,” said Lorne Donaldson, who as Real Colorado’s President & Executive Director coached Pugh, who in the last year and half has made the jump from youth club and National Team player, to Olympian to professional in the NWSL. “We have an environment with coaches who enjoy the game, who are dedicated and who do a lot of teaching. A lot of times it’s hard love for the players, but we make sure that when we walk out of here, there’s a smile on our face – players and coaches.”

In May, the 19-year-old Pugh added another milestone to her young career when she made her professional debut with the Washington Spirit. Also from Highlands Ranch, Pugh has been part of the WNT program since she was 12 years old. Last year alone, she scored her first goal in her U.S. debut on January 23, 2016 against the Republic of Ireland, represented the USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics and played in her second FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup.

But Pugh is not the first – nor will she be the last – Real Colorado alumni to don the National Team colors.  

In 2008, the USA won the first-ever FIFA Under-20 World Cup with a 2-1 victory against Korea DPR. And while that team featured current WNT household names like Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Meghan Klingenberg, one of the tri-captains was former Real Colorado midfielder Keelin Winters. In a professional career that also saw her play in Germany and Australia, Winters retired in October after four season as captain of the Seattle Reign, which she led to the NWSL Shields in 2014 and 2015.

And the Real pipeline remains full. In April, 16-year-old forward Sophia Smith and 17-year-old midfielder Jaelin Howell were called in by WNT head coach Jill Ellis for a pair of friendlies against Russia.

That’s just one Colorado club.

In recent years, at least six Colorado clubs have sent players to various Women’s Youth National Teams, according to April Kater, a U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Development Coach and the head coach of the U.S. Under-14 Girls’ National Team.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to people in Colorado that this is happening,” said Kater, who oversees the girls National Training Centers. “For one, it’s a complement to the commitment that these clubs make to the girls game. Two, it’s a compliment to the coaches who are investing in the girl’s game. And three, it’s a little bit of luck that Jill (Ellis) entrusted us to build up these Training Centers.”

The Girls’ National Training Centers began seven years ago in four markets - Northern California, Georgia, Colorado and Texas – with the goal of connecting with players and clubs at the grassroots level, identifying players for youth national teams, and inspiring players to continue to develop after having caught the eye of youth national team scouts.

“We have so many great coaches here and that creates the great players that we have on different clubs in Colorado,” Howell told ussoccer.com last week after a training session with her Real Colorado U-18 team. “And there are definitely rivalries between clubs, which really ups everyone’s game and makes us really want to work hard. It helps our teammates and all the clubs get better, and gives Colorado a good reputation for creating great players.”

While Howell and Smith were inspired through their participation at a National Training Center a few years ago, they followed in the footsteps of another local star. Among the players that shined in the first National Training Center in Colorado in 2009 was Horan, a former Colorado Rush forward.

Jaelin Howell (left) and Sophia Smith (right) have made waves in 2017 with the U.S. Youth Women's National Teams.

In 2013, at just 19-years-old and after making her WNT debut in March against China PR, Horan became the first American female to forego college soccer and sign a professional contact when she joined Paris Saint-Germain in the French Feminine Division 1. She went on to be named U.S. Soccer’s 2013 Young Female Athlete of the Year, 12 years after another Colorado Rush player - Aleisha Cramer Rose – took the honors. Horan returned State-side in 2016 and helped the Portland Thorns claim the NWSL Shield.

Like Real, Rush is an elite club that invests heavily in the girl’s game.

Last year’s U-17 WNT World Cup team featured Colorado Rush forward Civanna Kuhlmann, Howell and Smith. And, Rush alum Jordan DiBiasi will team up with Smith and Howell on the U-23 WNT that will participate in the 2017 Women’s U-23 Open Nordic Tournament in early June, where they will face Norway, England and Sweden.

“It has a major trickle down affect in terms of excitement,” Kater said of young player following the paths laid out by others from the area. “It makes it a reality and is inspiring. It’s great for them to have good, strong female role models that are living the dream, and showing them on a weekly basis – whether they see them on TV or just know they’re with a Women’s National Team – that ‘if she can do, I can do it.’”

For the past five years, U.S. Soccer has hosted 27 Girls National Training Centers every month across the country. And the opportunities to identify more players will increase this coming fall with the launch of the Girls’ Development Academy. Both Real Colorado and Colorado Rush are charter members of the upcoming Girls’ DA program which will include U-14/15, U-16/17 and U-18/19 teams. 

“There are a lot of good clubs in Colorado,’ said Kater. “We feel we have the two clubs that have a proven pathway in the DA already, and have a proven pathway in player development.”