"The rest is history."
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Good morning and welcome again to AP! Apologies for the compressed release schedule this week. The poll only ran for one day, and no Power Rankings came out due to the holiday and me spending some much needed time with my wife. But that doesn't mean you don't get an interview to read!
Don Harmon spent some time answering my questions about the state of soccer in Colorado, the growth of the UPSL, and his vision for the Colorado Conference and FC Boulder moving forward. Check it out.
Let's start off simple. Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with FC Boulder.
I'm a Boulder, Colorado native who grew up playing soccer since the age of 4. I was a multi-sport athlete but soccer always remained my passion. I played the majority of my youth club soccer for Broomfield Blast Soccer Club in Eastern Boulder County and my High School soccer at Monarch High in Louisville, Colorado, where my senior year team was eliminated in its first ever state tournament by a talented young player named Roger Espinoza and Denver South HS in 2003. I went on to pursue my finance degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver. There I met assistant head coach Mark Cromie, who convinced me to try out for the Roadrunners program as a walk on. In the months leading up to the tryout I suffered a torn left ACL in training, ending my career ambitions as a player. I went on to graduate with my degree in 2010 before returning to Monarch HS to coach the JV soccer program. I am currently the FC Boulder Adult Teams Director. I serve as the General Manager for the UPSL and WUPSL programs. I also am the head coach for the FC Boulder UPSL reserves and city league teams. I joined the UPSL in 2016 as the Colorado Conference Manager and in 2017 as the WUPSL National Director.
I founded Harmon Sports Group in 2015. I saw a void in the paths soccer players are embarking on, particularly in Colorado. This led me to the player consultation soccer market, where under my direction my network finds players opportunities through connecting with clubs throughout the world. I have nearly a decade of experience in the insurance industry, joining ABA Insurance of Boulder, Colorado as a partner in 2015 before acquiring the company in 2017. ABA Insurance was established in 1956 and works primarily with property, casualty, and health products. ABA Insurance is a proud community partner of FC Boulder UPSL.
How do you come to be a fan of soccer?
When I was really young my dad kicked the ball with me in the backyard. My mom signed me up and I played as a youngster in the Louisville Parks and Rec league. I found myself to be competitive and fast and soon I tried out as a backup goalkeeper and right midfielder for the Louisville travel team. I won my first tournament, the Pepsi Cup with that team. I scored in the semifinal forcing OT and was put in goal for OT and the PKs. I saved 3 PKs and from that day on I was hooked. We joined the Boulder junior soccer league as a more competitive option than Louisville. It was at that time that the Louisville Lobos youth soccer club was formed. Our team joined intact, years later they joined Boulder Nova and I moved to Broomfield Blast. I was obsessed with soccer. I would write about it in my assignments at school and watched my first world cup Italia '90. By 1994 I wanted to be Roberto Baggio! Growing up with American sports I always felt advantaged over the other athletes because my footwork and speed from my soccer background, regardless I always considered myself a soccer player it was my identity and the other sports were just a challenge to see where I'd stack up.
What's the 'origin story' behind FC Boulder?
Early in the soccer history of Boulder County, two primary clubs emerged in the area. The names and leadership of the clubs have changed over time, but the two entities remained essentially the same for many years. Individuals who grew up playing soccer in our community over the past 20+ years can likely recall the blue and red Boulder Junior Soccer jerseys … the yellow NOVA tops … the original red and white FC Boulder kits … and more recently, the blue, white, and black of Boulder Athletic, and with the red, white, and black of Boulder County Force. It is from these roots that the merger of 2012 ushered in an exciting new day in Boulder — the unification of teams, coaches, and parents in the formation of FC Boulder. In the four years following the formation of FC Boulder, the Club has experienced a vibrant period of change, growth, and development as we have endeavored to assemble a fantastic staff, great programming options, and a set of enduring values to guide the culture and the future path of the Club. Part of FC Boulder is their strong mission and values and a massive part of that in recent years is Soccer For Life represented by the adult soccer programs the club offers.
How did the opportunity to join the UPSL come about for FC Boulder?
A group of Colorado men's team soccer managers from the local city league began discussing ideas as we all craved larger competitions and were curious about national leagues. As we began inquiring with the national leagues to see what it would take to bring one to Colorado it became clearer for some of us as to which leagues had sustainable business models that would fit within Colorado's soccer landscape. It was at that time that some teams backed away from the idea of joining and others stepped forward. As teams stepped away it left a void for someone to step forward and lead the 4 committed teams. Indios Denver FC, Colorado Springs FC, and CO Rush all voted and supported the decision to put me in charge of our conference. It was at that time that we acknowledged the failures of the national league teams before us and committed ourselves to each other as equals, treating each other the same as business partners. We were quickly approached by Club El Azul, Fort Collins United, Logrones SC, and FC Greeley who heard about what we were doing and it quickly became clear that we weren't the only ones with the same visions for the sport in this state. We soon wrote a conference operating agreement that abides by our leagues rules and regulations complying with and surpassing some of our leagues minimum standards, committed to the first season and the rest is history.
What does your role as the Colorado Conference Manager for UPSL entail, exactly?
I work between the teams maintaining our league rules and standards. I set the league schedules and assist teams with scheduling and approving their friendlies within our sanctioning guidelines. Dave Simmons and I coordinate with the UPSL national league approved referee assigners. In an attempt to assist the Colorado teams I reached out to the cities, school districts, parks and recreation departments and helped our teams find their home facilities. I coordinate with the league sponsors to facilitate the correspondence between the teams to make sure our teams have equal opportunities. I also represent the conference on any issues or concerns that may arise and bring those to discussion with the league. The role is very involved and it can be fun to see the results of our hard work our conference puts into this league.
In my conversations with some other UPSL Colorado teams, it appears you have received a ton of interest. One guy actually mentioned there was enough interest that Colorado almost launched with two divisions using promotion and relegation. What is it about the Colorado soccer scene that has created an environment with that much interest, and why is the UPSL being received so positively?
Colorado is full of talents and we as a state have been exporting professional development players for years. Through Harmon Sports Group I personally have sent 11 players in the past 3 years to teams out of state and out of country to find them better opportunities to play and build their resumes in professional development settings. What I learned from sending players away to pursue a future with soccer is that these players go through intense sacrifice and hardship. The players were forced into scenarios where they were separated from their support systems and jobs and they are often expected to live off of their personal savings. Therefore it became very clear that bringing a professional development league to Colorado with a national competition was what this state was missing. Part of the UPSL's sustainable business model that was so appealing was the idea of localized travel and a promotion relegation system all within a national league. The Colorado conference is limited with it's seasons and we really like the ability to play teams twice a season in a home and away format.
Given those factors we have decided that 8 teams in our Pro Premier division would be sufficient and would keep the competition at a level high and unsaturated. We have added 4 teams to our Championship division for the fall 2017 season. We have a target for 6-8 total teams in our Championship division for this year and I believe we will get there. The Promotion and Relegation process will become effective at the end of the fall 2017 season going into spring of 2018 season. The Colorado soccer players finally have the opportunity to develop fully supported at home in Colorado and be represented in a national league competition that's resume worthy. I wouldn't be surprised if we have 100 teams or more by 2018. These higher standards, prospects, and ambitions are in my opinion just some of the reasons why the UPSL has been well received and has made the Colorado soccer community excited!
I discussed this a little with Joe Webb at Colorado Rush during his interview. Do you think there is the potential to add teams from places like Cheyenne, Wyoming, Western Nebraska and Western Kansas to the Championship Division to help expand the UPSL's reach and create more opportunity in more places?
As a group UPSL remains pretty open minded to growing markets and if the situation presents itself while maintaining league standards and the local travel then yes it could be attempted. We want growth but we also want maintain a high quality product and that is whats so beautiful and natural about the Promotion Relegation system. Perhaps those geographical locations and markets could demand some restructuring of our conference as well to allow room for more teams to join and keep travel down while allowing the opportunity to participate to spread into smaller markets. The hardest part is finding the right type of ownership group and management who is hungry for higher standards of competition. Many groups get caught up in winning the local city league and never see a bigger picture for their players.
There seem to be some issues in Colorado now that the UPSL has to come to town. Without going into a ton of detail, is this really just growing pains of a blossoming soccer scene, or people being unsure of something new?
My overall perspective about soccer growth has been that growing and joining national league is progress. FC Boulder joined not one but two adult national leagues this year in addition to adding the US Developmental Academy teams and the soccer community should embrace us and be excited they are represented in these competitions. As far as the UPSL goes, I get the impression that the state has embraced the league, referees have told me they are excited to do our games for example, but there are some who may not possess the bigger vision that soccer and knowledge that has been rapidly growing nation wide and it was only a matter of time until national leagues migrated here and our market progressed and evolved. Colorado has front row seats and is witnessing history with UPSL. Colorado soccer, as a state, was in my opinion falling behind without these competitions existing here.
You are also involved in the WUPSL, a women's league running alongside the UPSL. How did that league come about, and what will it look like in Colorado once it kicks off?
The infrastructure was there, it was a simple and easy decision to partner the leagues and support each other. Similar to how some smaller colleges team up their programs for travel and to keep costs low UPSL and WUPSL function with those principles in place. We are excited to give the exceptionally talented players a place to play outside of a coed league. Women soccer players have experienced similar if not worse paths in pursuing or extending their playing careers past college in this country and all over the world. From my experience I have witnessed players fall victim of the societal pressures and are left choosing to abandon their support systems and potential careers to try to make a professional development roster on the other side of the country and sometime the world. Now our talented women have a place to continue to play and develop with the support of home. Besides my wife loves playing at a high level and supporting her and supporting soccer is a win win for me!
What does the WUPSL currently look like in terms of size, or is that something still being worked out by the league and interested teams?
WUPSL has the incentive discount built into the league and team fees to benefit all clubs associated with the UPSL. In my experience as a team manager I find there aren’t as many women players looking for this type of soccer commitment so the market will take shape accordingly. The league will adjust to the growth. We are hopeful WUPSL teams will join in the same markets as the UPSL and possibly some new markets. Colorado and California will be the first two states represented in the WUPSL and I expect the other states to follow.
This is something I'm curious to know about. As soccer and the UPSL grow in Colorado, there are unique challenges when it comes to adding teams in particular parts of the state, like Durango and the Four Corners area, for example, since they are pretty isolated from everyone else in the state. How are you planning on addressing those kind of situations, should they arrive?
Up to this point I have seen a very practical and accommodating stance taken by UPSL. In theory as conferences grow we have to adjust the conferences geographical locations to accommodate the isolated markets. Growth is something every league and their members have had to work out and attempt to overcome. We have to remember to find the balance that can incorporate isolated markets while maintaining the larger markets. The existing members concerns will be heard but they will also need to adjust expectations at times to make that work. If two neighboring conferences representing one large market are large enough they can potentially both be represented in Nationals. If the neighboring conferences are smaller in size and less competitive than they would have a Regional playoff prior to a National bid. The adjustments would have to maintain the same national professional development standards and integrity of the league.
Would Colorado be open to having a larger second division to allow more teams a chance to compete at a higher level within the state?
If the members of the Colorado conference agree that they no longer want a home and away structure and we have enough quality teams in the lower division to accommodate a different structure then yes that could definitely be possible. Otherwise adding a third division may maintain the higher level of competition as well as the standards. I could see it going either way but I would prefer to avoid the lopsided results and keep the competition standards high. That’s the beauty of Pro Rel, prevent the 8-0 games as those are the situations that we as a conference enjoy the least and erode at our competitive standards.
Where do you hope to see FC Boulder in the next 5 years?
I’d expect FC Boulder to be thriving in all their competitions. I think the club will continue to be organized and renowned nationally for having competitive and respected programs, 2 year olds all the way through Professional Development teams, our motto is soccer for life. I am hopeful that the USSF evolves their systems and structure sooner rather than later. In recent years we’ve witnessed FC Boulder adjust to USSF changes and find their way to continue to support the growth of the game. I believe that support will continue from the board all the way down to the staff.
What do you feel the organization needs to accomplish in order to consider year one in the UPSL a success?
As a team in our first UPSL season we know we must make the regional playoffs and compete. Anything less than a top 3 finish in the conference would be underachieving our goals. We feel that we have the group that can contend for the Colorado conference’s position at nationals within our first year. I would like to see us make a couple runs at nationals with this group. They are young and experienced and that is the balance that could produce the results. The rest is up to the players to identify, perform, and seize their opportunities the club and league has provided them.
What is your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
English Premier League, Liverpool FC.
My wife and I plan to take our delayed ‘honeymoon’ next year and attend a champions league game at Anfield! Our first dance at our wedding was to, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” We watch or record every Liverpool game and it would be a dream come true to see them raise the league title.
Favorite player, one past, one present.
Steven Gerrard past and Jordan Henderson / Emre Can present. When I watch games I find myself fixated on the play of the athletically gifted or physically and technically dominant central midfielders and I'm loyal.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to the people reading this?
There's a couple books that every soccer enthusiast should read, The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, Long Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer by Beau Dure, and recently My Story: Steven Gerrard by Stevie G. Check out reads in Soccernation Goalnation, blogs such as AP, Non League, Pro Real for USA, Podcasts: Simon Allen Podcast, Non League Colorado, El Templo Futbolero, The Men In Blazers, The Magic Sponge with Jimmy Bullard.
You get to meet one person from soccer history. Who do you meet and why?
Bob Paisley, he was the original understudy turned prodigy. He won it all and made the most history for the club I enjoy. The year he retired, Liverpool won a treble under his assistant Joe Fagan, that tells you how strong his influence was. Paisley is a legend and learned under Shankly so he probably would have the most stories to tell. 21 trophies, 3 Euro Cup, 1 UEFA Cup, 6 League titles, 3 League Cups plenty to talk about in there.
Where can people find out more about FC Boulder?
Online following us on Twitter @fcboulder or @fcboulder_upsl, Facebook @fcboulder or @fcboulderupsl, and on our website www.fcboulder.com/upsl.
What would you say to someone asking you why they should spend their money and time supporting their local non-league team like FC Boulder?
If you're the type of person who is supporting local communities and soccer is your sport of choice we want you at our games. Right now FC Boulder has free admission to home games, so get a scarf and get involved with the organization. We have plenty of room for passionate people looking to connect and contribute. You’ll see the future of the sport every week. Our country's pursuit of a World Cup starts from the ground up. I believe we won't get there without a strong and vibrant 4th tier at the base of our soccer pyramid. UPSL’s league and model is in line with that goal. Come support FC Boulder and get out and support UPSL and WUPSL you won't be disappointed!
Thank you again for your time Don, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can Follow AP on Twitter, or Like AP on Facebook. And if you want make sure you never miss an interview, and want to read articles before everyone else, click here and sign up for the Newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road.
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