ELEVATED COMPETITION AT LOWER ELEVATION: COLORADO TEAMS TAKE WEST REGIONAL SHOWCASE

For most of the 48 clubs represented at the West Regional Showcase, it's a one-way trip down the West Coast. NorCal squads can take Highway 1 all the way from the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest teams in Seattle and Portland fly South along the Pacific. But for the Showcase's fifth division, it's not just a trip down the coast, but a trip down in elevation. For the first time, Colorado's seven clubs are attending the West Regional Showcase, providing the opportunity to face new high-level competition at sea level.

"It's really valuable, they get to see the wide range of team levels," Arron Lujan said, Technical Advisor for the Frontier Region. "They're able to gauge their own levels and where they stand, see how they've improved over the last season… There's new opponents, new competition."

As the first event for players in the Academy pathway, U-13 and U-14 showcase events provide younger players their first taste of competition outside their division. The Colorado teams' trip westward allows them the opportunity to take on teams from both ends of the Golden State as well as the Northwest. They're clubs that you don't see every day in the Rocky Mountains.

"We need competition like this week in and week out in order for these kids to keep getting better and developing as players," said Marcelo Balboa, Colorado Rapids U-14 head coach. "For us to be able to come here and play three California teams is great for us because we don't get that kind of competition in Colorado."

The first thing Real Colorado U-13 head coach Sean Comegys notices about playing teams from different areas of the country is the different styles they bring to the field. This weekend, the U-13s face clubs from NorCal, SoCal and the Pac-NW, each presenting their own style and tactical test. The constant challenge is what makes the Showcase so valuable for Comegys' young players.

"That's what the whole thing is about, constantly putting them under different stresses and pressures," Comegys said. "They have to find different ways of solving what we're looking to do. Whether it's how we're going to preventgiving up chances or where those chances are going to come from."

In the team's first match-up against De Anza Force, Real Colorado saw a side willing to be patient, playing back to the goalkeeper and building out of the back . The challenge for Comegys' players was to respond, and figure out how to break it down and transition to attacking.

A second mini-game against Crossfire Premier provided a physical test as a tough squad from Washington played gritty and tackled hard. With two mini-games in one day, Real was exposed to two vastly different challenges over the course of a few hours. All Showcase match-ups are hand-picked by Academy staff to ensure the most competitive games possible. For all of the teams at the Showcase, mini-games provide a variety of competition and necessitate adaption to each game and opponent.

"It brings up their soccer IQ," Balboa said. "For us to come here and see different styles of soccer and what people are doing- what the Galaxy's doing, what San Jose's doing. It gives these boys a different look. I think that's important, to see how players move… They get to see a lot of different things they don't see in Colorado."

A raised soccer IQ readies players to take another step in their development pathways with a call-up to the Youth National Teams. As a technical advisor, Lujan supports Academy clubs in the Frontier region and manages the area's talent identification network. The Showcase is his first opportunity to see how his region's best stack up with some of the country's other top players. Every game at Academy Showcase events is scouted, and Youth National Team coaches are on-site to evaluate the player pool for their teams' upcoming roster selections.

"Scouts give us an idea of who we should be focusing on, but for us to see them in person, it's even more valuable," Lujan said. "For many of the players, it's the first time they've seen a YNT coach at one of their games… For the 2004's here, the first camp is in January. This is highly valuable for that process."

It's players' first major exposure to the U.S. Soccer Talent Identification network, and the competition in the West is an important barometer for Centennial State players as they strive to make an impression on scouts.

"This is an opportunity to see 14-year-olds already and start looking in that group," Balboa said. "It's good to get these kids exposure in front of the U-14 Boys' National Team head coaches… The important thing is that different scouts are watching today… We've had different representatives from U.S. Soccer looking at our guys."

The exposure isn't just limited to the event. Several games at each Showcase are streamed live on ussoccerda.com, providing players another opportunity to perform and manage. After travelling around the Denver area for the first two-and-a-half months of the season, the Showcase is the players' first major trip of the year, and the growth opportunities it provides are endless.

"It's how the boys handle the pressure," Balboa said. "The more and more they get used to being in front of an audience, to play in a professional environment, to be seen on TV, it's all the things that have to go through their head when they start moving up the ladder."

There's one more day of action in Oceanside, as the U-14 squads will take the field for two 50-minute mini-games against a variety of competition. For the Colorado squads, it's back to the divisional schedule next weekend, but the lessons learned on the West Coast will continue to build the region's level.

"Everybody knows how important it is," Lujan said. "At the Showcase, you get to measure yourself against the best in the region. It takes a lot of time and effort from clubs and staff, takes a lot of patience to do this (build up the region). It takes a lot of good people coming together to be inclusive and collaborative in the process."