REAL COLORADO'S HOWELL AND SMITH TO TAKE ON THEIR ACADEMY COACH AT CONCACAF WOMEN'S U-20 CHAMPIONSHIP

The opening match of Jaelin Howell and Sophia Smith's first major international competition carried an air of familiarity. Their youth club coach at Real Colorado, Lorne Donaldson, stood on the sideline in Grenada during the USA's first game of the 2016 CONCACAF Women's U-17 Championship. But he wasn't in front of their bench. Instead, he stood on the other side of the midfield stripe, draped in black, green and gold as the head coach for Jamaica.

"It's like coaching against your children," said Donaldson, a native Jamaican who has coached at numerous levels in the USA since the mid-1980s, and is now head coach for Jamaica's U-20 Women's National Team. "It's very, very strange. It's very, very difficult at times. They are like my kids, they have been with me for a number of years."

At Real Colorado, Donaldson has built a program that serves as a standard-bearer in the inaugural season of the Girls' Development Academy. The club is a proven producer of talent and two of its latest stars, Howell and Smith, serve as key contributors for the U.S. U-20 Women's National Team. On Sunday, Jan. 21 in both teams' second Group B match, Howell and Smith will once again face Donaldson's Jamaica squad with a World Cup berth on the line, this time at the U-20 level.

"It's kind of weird seeing him in a different uniform, cheering for a different team," Smith said. "He's almost like a parent, watching over you all the time and helping you get better. It's an awesome relationship to have with your coach. To play against him is a fun opportunity, it's interesting and unique."

As their coach over the last three years, Donaldson has facilitated Howell and Smith's development into two of the country's top youth players. The duo - who hail from the same hometown, went to school together for many years and moved up through the Youth National Team program together -- logged more minutes for the U-20s than anyone else in 2017. They even spent some time training with the senior Women's National Team together last year.

Through all these experiences, both credit their impact on the international stage to the positive and challenging club environment at Real Colorado. They have received call after call to National Team camps in numerous age groups over the past few years.

"There's amazing coaches and amazing players that push each other every day to be better," Smith said. "You have the opportunity to play with all different levels. If you feel you need to go train with the boys a couple of days a week just to work on speed of play, physicality, you have that opportunity. It's never just a mess-around practice. We're always there to get better."

Real Colorado has also helped developed National Team players like Mallory Pugh and Ethan Horvath. U.S. Soccer selected the Centennial, Colo.-based club as one of 69 to compete in the inaugural season of the Girls' Development Academy, the nation's highest level of women's youth soccer. The league strives to provide world-class everyday club environments that facilitate the development of world-class players.

"All the players' competitiveness in practice and all the coaching is great," Howell said. "Lorne is a great mentor, he's the perfect balance between being hard on me and bringing my confidence up."

Even with a litany of talented alumni, Smith and Howell stand out in Donaldson's eyes. Smith recently earned 2017 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year honors after an impressive campaign that saw her score for three different National Teams (U-18, U-20 and U-23).

"She's ruthless. She strikes the ball with more velocity than I've ever seen a girl hit it," Donaldson said. "She loves to score goals, she has a mindset that she wants to score and she's going to score."

Howell logged the second-most minutes at the U-20 level last year. A sentinel that anchors the U-20s' midfield, she continues to impress Donaldson with her cool head and fearless nature on-field.

"Her vision and her composure on the ball stand out," Donaldson said. "She sees the game and she's not afraid to put the ball down in play. She's also very good in the air."

At Donaldson's first meeting against his pupils, the USA emerged victorious, 8-1 over the Reggae Girlz in Grenada. The win sparked the red, white and blue to the CONCACAF title. Donaldson's Real Colorado players, and the rest of the U.S. squad, present a clear challenge for his Jamaican side, but this time, the USA is expecting a much more difficult game

"You can slow them down, but It's very difficult to stop good players," Donaldson said. "Especially when you have so many different weapons. Those are not the only two players, they have 20 strong players. It doesn't matter who's on the field for the U.S., they're very, very strong."

Real Colorado's dynamic U-20 duo will be aiming for another victory that will bring them one step closer to qualification for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. Though there's a familiar face turned temporary foe on the other side, the players' objective is still clear.

"You always want to perform well," Smith said. "You represent the USA, but you're also representing your club and representing him at the same time, even though we're playing for different teams, so it's a bit of a strange feeling."

"We both know that we're going to bring our best," Howell said. "Not many girls are able to have this experience and not a lot of coaches can say that they coached against another National Team with girls from their club. It's a great opportunity for both of us. We're more excited to embrace it than anything else."