Feature — Russell Finch has been around the Colorado Rush Soccer Club for a long time. A coach and a mentor for many young athletes, Finch has been able to help athletes reach their goals and follow their dreams. The latest installment of that included a trip to Europe at the end of last year.
The Colorado Rush has a successful youth women’s program. Lindsey Horan, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns FC and the U.S. women’s national team, helped put the club on the map. Another current NWSL player, Washington Spirit midfielder Jordan DiBiasi, also called the Rush home.
Danica Evans, who used to feature in the NWSL but now competes in Spain, was part of the Rush’s program, too.
However, out of the notable alumni, Horan was the first to go straight to Europe out of high school. She was sought out by colleges, but elected to join Paris Saint-Germain, staying with the club from 2012-16. Now, current youth players in the Colorado Rush could find themselves with the same opportunity.
Last fall, five girls from the Rush Academy boarded a flight for France and trained at Olympique Lyonnais with academy players. Three of the players were on Finch’s U-16 team at the Rush. “Of course, Lyon has an incredible reputation,” Finch said, in an interview with Last Word on Soccer. “They have a great reputation with women’s soccer and their academy.”
After some training in Dijon, France, the team made their way to Lyon. Finch said that, while the Rush were at Lyon, there was also a Norwegian group training. There were enough players to split into groups and face off with Lyon Academy players.
An soccer trip for the ages
The journey was a work trip for five young women. However, two of the five have now elected to play collegiately, choosing schools like Montana and Colorado State University. The other three players — Heather Gilchrist, Sydney Cheesman and Peyton Nourse — are still considering options abroad.
In Lyon, there was a system. Players went through IDPs before leaving, which are individual development plans. The club worked with Sonia Bonpastor of Lyon, who helped in the receiving of feedback from Lyon coaches.
“There was constant feedback every day,” Finch says. “We were given feedback on the players based on how they were dealing with the environment, what they needed to improve on and the evaluation based on their age. They trained with the U-19 academy team. One of our players was only 14.”
Finch said that some of the U-19 players from Lyon were training with the senior team, which help his Rush players on a competitive note. “It was a good barometer compared to those players now and in the academy,” he says. “They trained 2-3 years up.”
The trip was also a scouting event, of sorts. Finch noted that Lyon had a long-term mindset, when interviewing and evaluating the players. The feedback coming from Lyon, Finches notes, was extremely valuable to the players, but also him and fellow coaches, too.
“They would say how good they were and the chances of them being a professional player in Lyon’s academy or wherever they decided to go. It was that feedback that showed where they were at and to help them on the next day they would come to training,” Finch said of the trip, which happened over Thanksgiving.
A journey cancelled due to COVID-19
France wasn’t the only destination on the map for the Colorado Rush. Instead, there was also an option and opportunity to go England and train with Manchester City. There is a connection to the club through Colorado native Janine Beckie.
“I asked if she could get me in contact with the academy director and we wanted to set up the next step to get the girls in a European academy,” Finch says. “We wanted to go to England because of the language barrier.”
Finch says that when asking the players for feedback from the Lyon trip, a common response was the language barrier. However, Finch says that if the players want to attend an academy like Lyon, they’ll have to learn to deal with the language barrier and, well, learn a new language.
“They found it hard to communicate with the coaches and other players, since there wasn’t much English,” he says. However, the trip was forced to cancel due to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping the world.
The Influence of Lindsey Horan
Despite the cancellation of the trip, many of the girls at the Colorado Rush are in high spirits. One of the benefits of being part of the club is having a relationship with Horan. It isn’t just a mentorship program, Finch explains.
“She’s fantastic. Her humility is one of the coolest things. She genuinely wants the game to grow and continue moving forward, especially at the youth level,” Finch says. “She’s done it all… and has been a really good resource with the players. It might be hard for people to see it, but the girls are like little sisters to Lindsey. That just helps with the interaction and the players being comfortable.”
Horan isn’t just a mentor, but she’s an example. As mentioned, Horan went straight from high school to the professional level, joining PSG. Then, she returned to the United States in 2016, and has featured for the Thorns ever since.
“Having Lindsey come from the club, there is something tangible for these players to know it can be done,” Finch says. “They can train, play on the Colorado Rush team and go to Europe, build relationships and be exposed. It could become a real possibility because it’s been done… Lindsey trains with the team during the offseason and she’s on the field when they’re training. She tells them the struggles and what to prepare for in Europe.”
Horan also serves as a guide to parents of the club players, easing any fears and anxieties about sending their children to Europe.
“It’s hard for a parent to say, ‘Take my kid to France for 14 days.’ Lindsey gets on the phone with parents to let them know that Europe is a safe place,” Finch explains. “There’s a lot of interaction with Lindsey and the parents and player, to help ease nerves or excite them.”
Building blocks for the future Professionals
Whether training through the Elite Player Program (EPP) or featuring in regular club matches, Finch says that the Colorado Rush provides a serious training environment. There are even conversations with parents about moving students to homeschooling, to fit in extra training sessions.
He wants there to be a future for players in the United States. While the NWSL is growing, Finch says the league is severely lacking in regard to academies.
“I would love the NWSL to really have a pathway through the academy system,” Finch says. “The MLS academies, there’s a direct pathway, like the Homegrown Player policy. Unfortunately, with the NWSL, a club might be an affiliate with another club, and the directors might not know each other. Thee might be zero connection.”
“I don’t see the NWSL model being what the MLS model is. I think the European model is a lot easier.”
Finch says that, in Europe, there are more resources and financial backing from the clubs and federation. “If we can have that and the league can grow and be supported financially, and be supported by the federation, then we would push that system to the girls [of the Colorado Rush].”
Right now, Finch is helping his players prepare for their future, whether it’s on the field or off it, too. Skype sessions are common at the Colorado Rush, along with implementations of extra training. There is a lot of sacrifice for young players, but it’s the players who decide if that want that extra push or not. The reward is tangible, and players like Horan and DiBiasi are examples of that.
As for Europe, Finch is supportive of his players that want to travel abroad.
“The European model is what we’re focused on right now.”