The last week has been an exciting one for the Colorado Rapids.
On Monday, the team headed to Tucson, Arizona to begin preseason, fresh off the heels of the four Homegrown signings in the days prior.
These signings are more proof that the youth movement is alive and well within the club. The four players join one of the youngest rosters in MLS – last year, the Rapids fielded the second-youngest starting XI in the league in their final regular season match.
“We’re very much committed to a youth movement, very much committed to identifying and recruiting the best young talent both domestically here within our home market, within the rest of the United States and then abroad as well,” said Pádraig Smith, Rapids Executive VP & GM. “But it’s the real character of the players that we’re looking for. We’ll only bring in players that fit with our mold, fit with what we’re trying to do. I think, when you’ve got a clear plan, when you’ve got a way of doing things, then it’s much easier for everyone to identify the right pieces that fit into that.”
The last few years have provided clear evidence that the plan is going, well, according to plan. The club has signed 12 total Homegrowns since 2017 and those players are making their mark. Last year was a breakout year for Homegrowns Cole Bassett and Sam Vines, who were both named to MLS 22 Under 22 for a second consecutive year. Bassett led the team in total goals and assists, and Vines was the only player on the club to play every minute of the regular season.
While the signing of these young talents is an important step in their journey, the work is far from over.
“Our desire is to have a real structure that enables us to not only identify and recruit the best young talent across the country, but then to develop that talent within our club,” Smith said. “Then have success on the field with that talent and then ultimately provide a platform where they can go on and go all the way to playing at the very highest levels of the game, both on the club side and for their national teams.”
Bassett and Vines are proving to be good examples of this coming to fruition as well. In February 2020, Vines became the first Rapids Homegrown to ever start for the USMNT. He has since earned two more starts and added his first assist. Bassett also earned his first senior team call up for the U.S. in December. Both players are currently with the U-23s in Guadalajara, Mexico, looking to earn a spot on the final Olympic qualification roster.
“Anytime you have success stories it obviously helps to galvanize everything and show everybody that this can work,” Smith said.
The evident impact of these players makes the Rapids all the more attractive for young, elite players in and outside of the U.S.
“This is an open competition. If somebody comes in and owns it and earns the spot, they’ll be given it. You’re familiar with the old Matt Busby quote, ‘If they’re good enough, they’re old enough,’” Smith said. “And that’s certainly something we express here at the Rapids.”
But immediate time with the first team is not the barometer for success.
“What we’ve really created now is an environment in which they can be challenged, pushed and developed without necessarily having to perform in the first team immediately. I think that’s a wonderful environment for their continued development and growth,” Smith explained “Each players development pathway is slightly different, and it’s important that we tailor them to the unique situation each player finds himself in.”
Smith didn’t shy away from saying that for some players, the next step won’t be with the Rapids. The possibility of European sales is something the club is transparent about. The Rapids’ primary focus is on developing these athletes into the best players they can be.
“That’s what it is about,” Smith said. “Identifying what each specific player needs at a specific point in time and having the right relationships and structure to be able to put them in the position to continue to grow.”
Of the signings last week, the first was Darren Yapi, a Rapids Academy product, who, at 16 years and 104 days old, marked the youngest signing in club history.
“Even though he’s so young, we felt like we needed to sign him now, so that we could really incorporate him full-time into our professional environment to ensure that we’re steering his development in the right way,” Smith said. “We feel like he has all the attributes to go to the very top of the game, represent his country and go and play at the highest levels in Europe, so we’re incredibly excited about him.”
Next was Oliver Larraz, who has been with the club since he was nine years old, beginning with the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club.
“The year he had last year, training with the First Team, was at really a very, very high standard, and he earned this,” Smith said. “He earned this opportunity and put himself in a position where we couldn’t overlook the work he’d put in. I’m very excited about his potential.”
Michael Edwards is not your traditional Homegrown signing. The 20-year-old center back is a product of the D.C. United youth system and comes to Colorado from Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg.
“We feel he has all the attributes that you want to see in a modern-day center-back,” Smith explained. “He’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s good in possession, reads the game well, he’s always on the front foot, looking to jump lanes and get things started.”
Yaya Toure, similar to Edwards, is a product of the New York Red Bulls Academy system. He played for New York Red Bulls II in 2020, scoring three goals and adding three assists in 13 appearances.
“When you playing games at the USL level at 16 and scoring goals and contributing assists, it’s something that is really quite special,” Smith said.
All four new signings are now fighting for their spot with the squad down at preseason. And, while each player would obviously love to earn his debut this season, it’s clear that the club is looking beyond the first year as a measure for success of these players.