COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — For his high school graduation present last month, 18-year-old Boulder, Colorado-native Shane O’Neill received his first professional contract with the Colorado Rapids.
Little did the lanky teenager know that a month later he’d be playing against an English Premier League team in his professional debut. In the 57th minute of the Rapids’ 2-1 win over EPL side Swansea City Tuesday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, O’Neill and fellow Homegrown player Davy Armstrong (making his home debut) were fittingly introduced at the same time.
HIGHLIGHTS: Colorado vs. Swansea (YouTube)
O’Neill, in particular, flashed some of the ability that has seen the midfielder shoot up Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja’s depth chart in recent weeks.
“I like the personality that he has,” Pareja said of O’Neill. "He likes the ball and we are trying to teach him that the game requires some certain discipline. You have to be solid in that [holding midfield] position. You have to assume this is my responsibility first, then I am going with my possibilities. But he is eager to do it.”
O’Neill came in at Jeff Larentowicz’s holding midfield spot while Armstrong replaced Hunter Freeman at right back. Both players, especially O’Neill, showed a willingness to get forward, highlighted by a mazy 72nd-minute run that saw the Irish-born youngster weave around several defenders into the penalty box and nearly score.
"I just wanted to play like I play in a normal game, like I play in the academy," O'Neill said afterwards. "For me, going forward feels natural so I just wanted to keep it simple and play my game. I wasn’t going to change it up just because of the stage or because it was my debut....I felt like I created a couple of things."
Armstrong, signed in 2010 from the Academy program, made his pro debut in last year's CONCACAF Champions League win over Isidro Metapan in El Salvador, but this was his first time playing with the first team in front of his family and friends.
""I was just trying to be as calm as I could be. I remember how I was back in Metapán, I was freaking out," the 20-year-old said after the match. "I feel like I matured more as a player, I was able to keep calm, keep cool. I couldn’t ask for two better games to play in. It was a great experience."
All-in-all, the debuts left Pareja with a positive impression of his two youngsters.
“We believe in them,” Pareja said of his Homegrown players perfomance on Tuesday. “That’s why we signed Shane [O’Neill], and Davy [Armstrong] is progressing a lot this year. For me, it’s great and healthy to see the young guys come and step up today in the field. Tonight I go home thinking, ‘You know what, we have a lot of good things, and the team has good players.’”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.