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It’s August 28th, a Saturday night in Colorado Springs.
Weidner Field is raucous after a 4-1 win for the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Blue flares dissolve into the night sky as flags wave and drums beat. Chants of ”Switch-backs” “Switch-backs” boom around the stands. More than 8,000 people are there, taking in the Switchbacks’ ninth win of the season.
To truly understand the magnitude of this night is to understand a small soccer miracle.
Because less than a decade ago, Colorado Springs had absolutely no soccer culture. Now, thanks to the rise of the Switchbacks, and its supporters group, Trailheads SG, Colorado Springs is quietly becoming one of the bright spots of second division soccer in the United States.
Of the cities that are celebrated for their vibrant supporter culture, Colorado Springs does not jump to the top of the list.
In fact, of the cities that are celebrated within Colorado, Colorado Springs does not jump to the top of the list.
This is said with all the love and fondness of someone who spent a very formative year there, who knows that although it doesn’t offer the big city flash of Denver, the luxury of Vail and Breckenridge, or the college town cool of Boulder and Fort Collins, the Springs’ rough edges hide a beauty and charm.
It’s a city in love with the mountains that rise above it, a city proud of the excellence that defines its workforce, including the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee headquarters and training center, and several military bases. It’s a city bursting with pioneer history, Old West legend, and natural beauty.
But for all the things the Springs has, it never had soccer.
“The basis was here, but there was nothing here to capture that growing up,” said Dominik Jacobsen, who grew up in Colorado Springs during the ‘90s and ‘00s.
“There were no soccer clubs, there was no pride. There was nothing, except for community center or school level teams. Outside of that there was nothing.”
But that changed with the birth of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Led by local engineer Ed Ragain, the club joined the USL and played its first season in 2015.
In the year leading up to the club’s debut season, a handful of interested supporters, led by Kevin Yi and Chris Earley, began putting in the legwork to form a supporters group, securing the necessary permissions while also drumming up interest among the community. As the club’s debut match drew closer, they had nearly everything ready. But they still needed a name.
A trailhead is a starting point. The place on a mountain where a path, or trail starts. It’s an origin. For Switchbacks supporters just beginning their journey, the name fit perfectly. They would be the starting point for fans, the foundation for the team. It would all start with them.
Keeping with the mountain theme, they dubbed their section of the stadium Base Camp, the central command station for any successful climbing expedition.
The group grew as most new supporters groups do, slowly and steadily. New members joined, new wrinkles were added to the gameday experience, new identities and bonds were formed.
Jacobsen, who was living in Pennsylvania for much of the Trailheads early history, followed the growth mostly from afar. In 2017, when a serious car accident almost killed him, the Trailheads were there.
“This was before I was even a season ticket holder,” he said. “I had only met the group once. But they set up a GoFundMe and sent me a care package to replace my jerseys.”
Jacobsen, who now lives in North Dakota, is back to following the team remotely, but keeping in touch with members of Trailheads has helped close the distance.
“It’s been amazing because I’ve never had that experience through any other group,” he said. “I don’t consider them friends, I consider them family.”
Over 6 seasons, the Switchbacks, and in turn, Trailheads SG, moved along at a nice clip, struggling on the field at times, but growing in attendance every season (with the exception of 2020.)
But 2021 has been a revelation. Through a combination of strong on-field results, a natural desire to be more social after a year inside, and a pristine new stadium, interest has flourished.
“We are just exploding as a supporters group and as a fan base in Colorado Springs,” said Jonathan Swonger, a Trailheads member and a self-dubbed Kilted Hooligan.
This season, attendance has never dipped under 4,700, usually hovering closer to 6,000, and twice eclipsing 8,000. The Switchbacks currently sit in the top five for attendance in the USL Championship. The Trailheads Facebook group has swelled to more than 600 members, with more than 150 members regularly showing up to matches.
“I kind of feel like we’ve dragged the city kicking and screaming to the place where they want to join in and engage,” said Swonger jokingly. “I guess screaming wouldn’t be the right word for it. They just seemed to resist at first. They just didn’t understand that when you go to a soccer game, you’re going to make some noise, you’re going to have some fun, and you’re going to see stuff you don’t expect.”
Swonger, along with his brother and daughter are some of the most recognizable supporters at matches, donning kilts, painting their faces and dubbing themselves the Kilted Hooligans.
“We wanted to bring something special, so we created a dynamic around our fandom and set ourselves apart,” he said.
Swonger and his brother also created The Riot, a bar-crawl style march to the match where they stop at a few select restaurants and bars, down a few drinks and make a bit of noise before taking off to their next location, finally ending up at the stadium, riled up and ready to make noise all match.
“At first, people thought it was insane, and they tried to ignore us,” Swonger said. “Now people honk and wave.”
The Riot has not only raised energy levels, it’s helped spread the word to folks around town still in the dark about the Switchbacks.
“We still run into people who are like, ‘Oh, where are you going?’ I have to explain to them that there's a brand new multi-million dollar stadium, five blocks from where they're standing,” he said. “It blows my mind every time I have to do that. But it also informs me that this is important that we're out here.”
The stadium itself may have been the biggest boost in interest this season.
Weidner Stadium, which opened earlier this year, has all of the newest bells and whistles, including broadcast capabilities, state of the art lighting, green engineering, and a prime location, just a few blocks south of downtown.
According to Ben Currie, right around kickoff, as the sun starts setting, blanketing the stadium in evening light as the mountains rise up behind it, there is no better place in town to be.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Currie, who joined Trailheads this year after moving into the area. “It’s a gorgeous stadium in a great location. It’s the heart of downtown, there’s a whole street of bars one road over. I think that’s big because it feels more organic, it doesn't feel like a touristy spot.”
Once inside, Trailheads members still have their work cut out for them to bring the rest of the crowd up to their energy level.
“I know a few people on the other side [of the stadium] that make a lot of noise, and they’re trying to get it going,” Currie said. “I’ve noticed as these games have gone on, we’re starting to get people in the middle areas more involved, which is really cool. It’s definitely becoming more of a stadium atmosphere rather than just one end.”
“Now we have people who will leave their seats and come over to Base Camp and check out what’s going on and stay there,” said Swonger. “We have face paint and we’ll get them to paint their faces, grab a stick and start beating on the bleachers and chanting with us.”
In another step towards SG maturity, Trailheads founders Chris Earley and Annie Coffman are taking a step back from their leadership positions, and Swonger was recently elected as Trailheads president.
A key priority for him is nailing down a Trailheads identity, and building an even stronger bridge with the community.
“The Trailhead identity is a bit ambiguous at this point,” Swonger said. I would really love to focus that so that everyone can understand who we are. I feel like we need a vision and a mission statement because right now we have such a diverse group and it is a big group. Because it is such a large group, we have the potential to create some waves. I mean, we can make a serious difference in our community. This group’s sole purpose should be to support the team, and connect it to the community. The team itself can’t really connect itself to the community aside from when they show up for a game. So it’s our job to get people to a game, our job to present the team to the community.”
It’s worked for at least one fan.
“I’d been trying to get into the USL for a couple years,” Currie said. “I didn’t really know how to when I was on the East Coast. But with this, it’s all right here. It’s 10 minutes away from my apartment. It feels like it’s yours. Especially coming out of COVID, finding the Trailheads and the team, it’s been huge for me. Because in the year that I’ve been out here, this is the first thing that genuinely feels like it’s mine.”
There’s no summit in sight, and Jacobsen knows Trailheads still have a long journey ahead, but he also knows how far the city, the club, and its supporters have come.
“American supporter culture is still in its infancy. It’s there, it’s growing but it’s still in its infancy. It needs time to mature and grow. But, especially in Colorado Springs, it's nothing like it was 20 years ago. It's nothing like it was even 10 years ago. It's been nice to see that change. It's been nice to be involved in that change.”