That one was for the snow days. When a teenage Ethan Horvath would slip on those giant goalkeeper gloves, the ones that doubled as mittens, and squint through the flakes.
“I grew up in New Hampshire. Our snow works a little different. It would go sideways (in Colorado) with the wind,” laughed Eric Vaughter, one of the youth goalkeeper coaches who tutored Horvath, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s newest rock star, back when Horvath was a precocious kid from Highlands Ranch
“But It didn’t bother him. He’s like, ‘Doesn’t matter, we’ve got to get through this.’”
Troupers are troupers for life. Who gets freaked by an angry crowd throwing bottles at you from the stands at Empower Field when you grew up stopping shots in a blizzard?
“It reminds me of being a pilot,” said Vaughter, who taught Horvath, the hero of the USMNT’s bonkers 3-2 win over Mexico on Sunday in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final, for a year at the Real Colorado club in Littleton.
“You train and train, year after year, for 30 seconds of crisis. And hopefully you handle the crisis well, and everybody’s happy at the end of it. Obviously, that’s what happened (Sunday).”
That one was for the youth coaches, the ones who grind up and down the Front Range, every day. The long hours. The classes. The certifications. The tournaments. The miles.
The slog makes it all worth it when one of your kids steps on the world’s biggest stage, and that stage happens to be in that kid’s hometown, coming in cold off the bench to lock down the biggest U.S. win over Mexico in eight years.
“Sometimes, words just can’t describe it,” offered Lorne Donaldson, the president and executive director at Real Colorado.
Donaldson sat with son Julian at Mile High on Sunday, directly behind the goal where Horvath, one of his former star pupils, dove right to slap away a penalty kick by El Tri’s Andre Guardado in the 124th minute.
“It was one of those special moments in life and it was one of those special moments in (soccer),” the elder Donaldson continued. “For a guy like me, to see a guy like Ethan, who’d been with Real Colorado since he was 5 years old, to see him do that in front of his parents and family and friends, and to come into a very unique situation and have the composure to come through … that was special.”
That was fairy-tale stuff. The best kind of hokey.
What started as a fluke — No. 1 U.S. keeper Zack Steffen leaving the game in the 68th minute because of a freak injury — turned into a script straight out of Hollywood. The minute Horvath entered a 1-1 contest, there was magic in the air and stardust on the pitch.
“First of all, it’s kind of surreal to be back home in Denver,” said Horvath, the former Arapahoe High standout, who managed to secure 21 tickets to the Nations League final for pals and loved ones. “When I found out the games were going to be here, I was very happy, because it’s been like three or four years since I’ve been home.”
That one was for Joe Shaw, the longtime Real staffer who took a young Horvath under his wing. For Brian Haynes, another mentor. For father Peter and mother Deana, who moved with him to Norway at the age of 16 after he’d signed his first pro contract and took jobs picking up trash and cleaning buildings overseas while young Ethan trained.
That one was for Vaughter, now based in Nashville. The old coach was driving west along I-70 late Sunday evening, trying to find the U.S.-Mexico match on the radio, when the text messages started pinging and popping on his cellphone as he sped through the darkened prairie.
He knew something had happened. Something wild. But Vaughter couldn’t fully grasp the madness until he’d pulled over and opened up his laptop.
There he was. Ethan. The kid in the snow, totally chill.
“It’s like the perfect sports movie story, isn’t it?” Vaughter chuckled. “It’s just classic. Couldn’t happen to a better kid.
“The most fun of it was seeing the clip of him after the game going up to his mom and dad. That was very cool. Very cool. Really, that’s what you coach for. Not to sound like Ted Lasso, but that’s what you coach for.”
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