More than many people his age, 22-year-old Homegrown defender Kortne Fordseems to feel comfortable when the stakes are highest. No moment too big, no spotlight too bright.
In 2018, entering his second season with the Rapids, there were plenty of eyes watching to see if Ford could somehow manage to top his 2017 breakout rookie campaign when he featured in 1,727 minutes of action and earned a spot in the MLS Homegrown Game.
In February of 2018, things looked as if they were off to a promising start. Ford turned in two rock-solid performances against Toronto FC in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. But as the defender set his sights to the MLS season things came crashing down. During a preseason scrimmage on March 3, exactly one week before the start of the MLS season opener, he crumbled onto the pitch holding his left leg and knew immediately that something was wrong.
“I was shielding a ball out of bounds and the opponent was trying to make a great play by saving the ball," Ford said. "He was trying to get around me when I hyperextended my knee and twisted the knee at the same time. Initially, it was the most pain I had ever experienced and I thought I tore my ACL.”
As he limped off of the field he knew, whatever the diagnosis, that his second season would turn into a grind. Months of training and rehab would be required. Doubts surely crept in from every angle. It was just the beginning of his long road to recovery.
“Mentally it was tough,” Ford said. “I spent a lot of days in the offseason working on my fitness and came into preseason feeling really prepared. The injury was devastating after putting in all of that work.”
An MRI in the days following the injury revealed the he'd suffered a sprain of his left medial collateral ligament (MCL). It would eventually keep him sidelined for the first 15 games of the 2018 MLS season.
“Once I accepted the injury, my focus was just on rehabbing properly and getting back. The recovery took a bit longer than I would have hoped throughout the season, but I was so glad once I had it taken care of.”
Ford doubled down and committed to returning stronger than before the injury. He found himself back in the lineup for his first MLS minutes of the season on July 1 in 1-0 win on the road against Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
“It was awesome stepping on the pitch for the first time since my injury. The beginning of the year was a bit difficult, but I think it has prepared me for down the road. Unfortunately, injuries are inevitable in our profession and I think that through all of this, mentally I’ve grown a lot.”
Just 14 days after his return, Ford was named Man of the Match for his performance in a shutout against the Houston Dynamo. The recognition didn’t stop there. He went on to feature in 15 of the final 19 MLS games, including 1,141 minutes eventually earning the Young Player of the Year award for the second consecutive season.
The award was a tribute to the hard work Ford put into his rehab and his dedication to finishing the second half of the season strong. But as 2018 came to a close on a positive note, he was quick to admit that he expects more out of himself and his teammates come 2019.
“As a team, I think we’re going to be a lot further along next year. We’re in the process of solidifying the foundation that we’ve built this year despite that we’ve dropped a few results. With that being said, our goal for next year is definitely to clinch a playoff spot. For me personally, my goals are to earn the starting center back spot next year and to come in super fit, so I can play in every game of the season.”
It's well documented via Ford’s personal Instagram that he does not take those words lightly. He's been training hard during the offseason with the Rapids Head of Sports Science Chad Kolarcik so he can hit the ground running in preseason.
During those sessions with Kolarcik, the defender has focused on building his strength, speed, and power. But his biggest personal goal for 2019 isn’t related to fitness. Ford is after something else; a leadership role.
“My goal for next year is to grow vocally in the locker room so I can develop into that leadership role. One of my biggest aspirations is to be the captain of our club.”
He credits the current leadership of Tim Howard and other veterans for inspiring him to perform to his peak abilities and hopes to one day do the same for others.
“We have great leaders in the locker room that have given us a good foundation to let young players in the locker room express themselves vocally. I’ve always seen myself as a leader since college."
Ford is not the only one who sees him as a leader. His resilience in the face of adversity over the past season impressed his manager, Anthony Hudson.
"Its a real privilege to work Kortne," said Hudson. "I have a lot of respect for him and a huge amount of belief in him. I’m looking forward to Kortne taking an even bigger leadership role in this team. He’s not a young player anymore. He loves this club, he’s knows more than anyone what this club means to the fans and he’s in a position to really set that standard on a daily basis, for everyone that walks in the door, along with the other leaders in the team."
As the 2019 season quickly approaches and with expectations set sky-high, Ford is ready to take the next step individually in his career. He won't come out and say it but we're free to speculate what that could include. On the list: An MLS All-Star selection, MLS Defender of the Year nomination, MLS Best XI selection, and a a first call in to USMNT camp seem like logical choices in the progression of Ford's career.
"He’s seen enough and done enough in 2018 to give him an eye on what he can, and needs to be in 2019 and beyond," Hudson said. "I expect him to keep developing and growing and as he does, he’s going to be one of the best center backs in the league. I have no doubt."