Cole Bassett and Sam Vines, the Colorado Rapids’ homegrown players, departed for Europe five months apart, landing in the Netherlands and Belgium respectively, at Feyenoord and Royal Antwerp.
Both players had expressed a keen desire to test their talent in a European league, and the Rapids - having handed both their professional start in the sport - helped pave the way for them to take the next step on their journey.
Regulars for the Rapids and in and around the national scene with the USA, the move to Europe has come at the perfect time. With the likes of Zack Steffen at Manchester City, Sergino Dest at Barcelona, Weston McKennie at Juventus, Yunus Musah at Valencia, Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, Tim Weah at Lille, Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund, and countless others across leading leagues, the reputation of U.S. players is as high as it’s ever been.
It was not that long ago that the U.S. had a reputation for producing good goalkeepers, and good athletes. Rightly or wrongly, as a nation, they were not known for producing technically gifted players - until now.
And so, it was against this backdrop of the soccer stock rising that may have encouraged Feyenoord and Antwerp to take Bassett and Vines, and why the pathway to Europe is now littered with young Americans.
Unfortunately, both players have swiftly realized that there is an adjustment period, and that the greatest challenge they face is the mental rather than the physical. Both are away from home in a foreign land. Neither speak the local language, though English is widely understood.
They are needing to learn patience, also. Vines played one league game for Antwerp at the end of August, plus a couple of Europa League contests, before sustaining a double fracture of his collarbone in training. He missed the next six games, returning for the 1-1 home draw with Club Brugge toward the end of October.
That return for Vines triggered a run of eight starts in a row through mid-December, during which Antwerp went 5-2-1. Since then, the 22-year-old from Colorado Springs has started just four of nine. Antwerp has enjoyed a 5-2-2 record during that stretch, though one of the draws - and a game Vines started - was against lowly Sint-Truidense at home, a result which caused the club owner to have his say in the locker room postgame.
And then there are the challenges away from the field, such as finding an apartment, opening a bank account, getting a car, figuring out local shops. Vines has a dog, also, which remained in the USA for six weeks until his paperwork was cleared, and he could then be reunited.
But as an experience, it has been one Vines has fully embraced, as he immerses himself in the lifestyle and culture of the country and the region. Already, he has enjoyed day trips to Brussels and Brugge, as well as a trip across the border to Dusseldorf in Germany.
Vines has not started any of the two most recent games but came off the bench for the last five minutes of Sunday’s 2-1 home defeat by Mechelen. That result, plus a win for defending champions Club Brugge, dropped Antwerp to third in the standings. With six games remaining, they sit 10 points behind leaders Union Saint-Gilloise, but just one adrift of Brugge. They visit Brugge on Sunday.
Similar to MLS, there is a 34-game regular season, at the end of which the top four teams enter a championship playoff in May where they face each other home and away. The top team at the end of that is crowned champion of Belgium.
For Bassett, who has already visited Vines in Antwerp (it is just 32 minutes on the fast train from Rotterdam), his Feyenoord debut came on Sunday. The 20-year-old from Littleton had previously sat on the bench as an unused substitute for the 4-0 win over city rivals Sparta Rotterdam - for whom Younes Namli now plays - and the 2-0 win at RKC Waalwijk, having joined on loan on January 20.
That win at Waalwijk came a day after Bassett had played the first half and scored for Feyenoord U21s in a 2-1 win over their counterparts from NAC Breda.
Eight days on from that appearance Bassett - who had initially suggested he may have to wait until next season to step on the field - replaced attacking midfielder Guus Til for the final two minutes of a 3-1 victory over SC Cambuur. Bassett wears number 19 in the colors of Feyenoord. The man he replaced for his Feyenoord debut sports number 26, which was of course Bassett’s number while in burgundy.
Bassett said after his Eredivisie debut: “I’ve been wanting to get minutes for a while. I’ve been here a month now, so it’s all been about working hard in training and ultimately earn my spot in the team and I’m happy that I was able to get my first minutes today.
“Now I want to build toward longer minutes. I wasn’t in there for too long so now hopefully I can continue to build for more minutes, try to play well in training and to get some more minutes.”
The attendance at Feyenoord’s stadium, nicknamed De Kuip (The Tub), was almost 45,000. The Rotterdam-based club currently lies third in the Netherlands’ top division after collecting 51 points in 23 games. They sit one point behind PSV Eindhoven, and six behind Ajax - between them, the ‘big three’ of Dutch football. Ajax boasts an impressive plus 65 goal difference, scoring 70 and conceding just five!
Feyenoord heads to Amsterdam to tackle Ajax on March 20. They host PSV on May 8. Their last game is home to FC Twente on May 15.
A year ago, Bassett and Vines were preparing for the 2021 MLS season with the Colorado Rapids. Two homegrown players and proud Coloradans given great grounding inside the walls of DICK’S Sporting Goods Park are now embracing new opportunities with new teammates in new surroundings.
Amongst the whirlwind which has been the last 12 months they are also discovering that though the game’s the same, there is also much that is different.
Like proud parents packing their children off to college, we watch and wonder what’s next for this talented pair. Yes, there will be frustrations, and yes, they will perhaps be required to bide their time and compete like never before for a starting spot.
Bassett’s parents are due to visit him in April while Vines has had visitors already. They are occasionally given a reminder of home, but they have flown the nest. They are young men, seasoned professionals, and where they have yearned to be. Neither will forget where they’ve come from. The burning question though is, how far can they go?