* Brian Jennings has covered the Colorado Rapids for Soccer365.com since 2002. In 2013 Brian has also written for ColoradoRapids.com, including "Know Your Rapids" features on Clint Irwin, Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown, Chris Klute and Nathan Sturgis. Brian can be found on twitter @MLSfrom5280.
MLS seasons begin with training in late January and can run into December if things go well, or so the Rapids hope.
In 2013 key injuries from the start required rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown, and 'not technically rookies' Shane O’Neill, Clint Irwin, and Chris Klute to become integral parts of the Rapids formations. For those players, the first challenge was to win a spot. The next challenge was to sustain their positions throughout a much longer season than any of them have played in the past.
Golden Boot Winner
“Coming in you hear it from all of the older guys that it’s a long season,” says Powers, a recent graduate of Notre Dame. “It’s a different animal because in college you play maybe two or three times a week but for only three months versus nine months once a week (in MLS).”
So with the Rapids getting set to continue their season into the playoffs after missing out in 2012, how has it been relying on a youth movement as the months grind away and the mind and body both start to wear down?
“It’s fun but it’s tiring at the same time,” says 23 year-old Klute after logging 31 MLS matches in his first full season. “It mentally drains you towards the end. You want to stay pumped up every game, but it’s been a long season.”
Injuries, such as Powers’ recent concussion after his 30th match, start to creep in both physically and mentally as the body becomes worn and recovery becomes much more important to prevent missing training time.
“When you get an injury you’ve got to really take care of it," admitted O’Neill, who began the season at just 19 years of age. "I found out with my hip flexor - it bothered me for a long time and I’m just getting it back to where it’s 100% again."
O’Neill has also tacked on U.S. U-20 National Team duty to his workload this past year, in addition to his 26 MLS matches.
“If you have a niggling thing you’ve got to take care of it right away. So I’m learning the hard way," said the homegrown player. "A lot of it is a mental thing. You want to have a long career so you kind of worry about it. It’s tough to balance being careful and being too worrisome, (and) mentally beating yourself up.”
Brown recently saw his first National Team action in World Cup Qualifiers with Jamaica. After 30 games with the Rapids he is feeling good on his return, but he notes that it isn’t always easy on a day-in-day-out basis.
Young Player of the Year
“At the end of the day you gotta push through because it’s your job," said the Rookie of the Year candidate. "That’s what I choose to do - play professional soccer. So I put myself through every day even when I feel down. The moment I go on the field I just stay focused and train. After I train I can go home and relax.”
Speaking of relaxing and recovery, all the players will tell you that they didn’t always have the best habits when it came to taking care of their bodies before the practices and matches built up. Powers, an admitted fan of golf, noted his schedule has definitely changed as the season has gone on.
“Earlier in the season I was a little more active - getting out and doing things. Lately I’ve been more of a homebody," said the team's MVP. "I grab a nap almost every day and don’t go crazy. That’s just something I’ve had to do - just my body telling me.”
His roommate Brown has a similar schedule from the way it sounds.
“I go to bed early - most nights I feel really tired," said Brown. "I've paced myself to get nine hours of sleep since I started playing professionally. I just try to balance everything and try not drop off in shape. I sometimes stretch at home, but I also get home from training I’m so tired I just lay down and sleep.”
Another key component for new professionals is feeding the body correctly and not continuing bad habits picked up through college, summers, or just during down time with friends. Klute will be the first to tell you with a smile that he fit into that description when he first arrived in Colorado at the tail end of 2012.
Defensive Player of the Year
“The eating habits have been the big thing for me," said the left back. "I used to eat terrible - bad habits. But through the season I’ve been playing more. At first I wasn’t really playing as much so I didn’t think too much about it. Then I started feeling it after a while - the food I was taking in.”
“I started changing it at midseason and that’s what I’ve been focusing on - just sleep and eating. Fast food - I had Domino’s all the time, Buffalo Wild Wings - it was terrible. Now if I go out I’ll get fish or grilled chicken, but I don’t get the fried food.”
O’Neill had to quickly realize he wasn’t a typical teenager anymore, even when around his friends from nearby Boulder. But he, too, has taken to his new lifestyle and knows what must be done to prolong his career.
“It’s completely different because a lot of my friends go to CU (Univ. of Colorado) so it’s a different lifestyle. But I’m happy about it,” says the young center back. “I went from eating what I want to really focusing on it. My friends and family will tell you I’ve kind of gone to being a little niggler about it. You just can’t eat what you want anymore, you can’t be out all night, you’ve got to get your rest, and you’ve got to eat properly. It’s all key to training at 100 percent.”
Powers credits Rapids Assistant and Fitness coach Paul Caffrey on educating the players and creating programs that have allowed the youngsters to take care of themselves as professionals.
Most Valuable Player
“He’s a stickler - always hawking over your shoulder. It sounds bad but it’s good for us,” Powers admits with a sheepish grin. “Whether it’s diet or doing too many repetitions that I want to do after practice, he’s making sure I’m smart about that. He’s definitely helped in going the distance this season. He’s the voice I hear in my head but I don’t listen so he’s the one who enforces it so it’s good.”
Klute agreed that Caffrey’s “voice of reason” has been a welcome tool for him as well during his first full MLS season.
“Foam rolling - we have to do that before practice, Klute said. "We have to get the body flushed out before we start running. He normally tells us what days we should ice bath; contrast hot-cold, he normally tells us right after practice. He knows the recovery better than us.”
Many of the players, regardless of experience, will tell you that playing soccer for a living can be a mental and physical grind that fans don’t always get to see. But they love it and adapt their lifestyle around their career as most other careers.
“There’s a general wear-and-tear and soreness but I think a lot of it is mental, just getting going out on the field," says Powers. "Once you’re out in practice you don’t really think about it too much."
“It’s what we get paid for," added Klute. "Mentally, strength-wise, I mean you just have to push it. When the Playoffs come I’m sure everything is going to be juiced up again because you know it’s win or go home.”