For several years now, the Colorado Rapids have been steadily building their core group of players.
After a 2019 that saw the team finish as the third-highest goal scorers in MLS and then qualifying for a playoff spot in 2020, it comes as little surprise that Executive VP & General Manager Pádraig Smith and his staff decided to bring back the core group of players that have led the club’s continued growth over the last few seasons.
In fact, the Rapids are returning over 96 percent of their minutes earned from 2020, the most in the league.
“It’s huge,” Rapids captain Jack Price said during preseason. “I like the fact that the boys that did well for us last season are here again, the core group.”
The Rapids return all but one goal-scorer from last season, which saw Colorado finish sixth in MLS with 1.78 goals per game. With almost everyone coming back and a few key additions up front, Colorado’s attack looks primed to stay among the best in MLS.
“We’ve added some real quality. Michael Barrios is going to be a huge threat for us going forward, and the young boys, the Homegrowns, they look good. They’ve settled in well,” Price said. “It’s good competition for us older boys. We’re getting older, so it’s nice to have that competition with the young players, the cheekiness they have. They bring that bit of fight.”
Among those younger players are long-time Rapids Academy star Oliver Larraz, who signed Homegrown Player contract in March, and a pair of 16-year-old wingers from the U.S. U-17 MNT, Darren Yapi and Yaya Toure, raw talents that will gain valuable professional experience with the First Team and look to be the latest set of teenagers to take the pitch in Burgundy.
“I think that’s something that Pádraig has done a really good job of over the last two years,” Rapids head coach Robin Fraser said Wednesday during a media availability. “Bringing in young talent, bringing in veteran MLS players who’ve had success and have championships and players who’ve come from oversees who’ve had different experiences. The ability to bring all these together, couple them with good young players, has really helped form a team that functions as a team.
“We are still a work in progress as a team. Each role carries its own responsibilities and we’re looking for the players to come in, to understand and embrace what they’re responsibilities are and really give us a lift through what their special abilities are. It’s just a matter of getting integrated into the system, getting familiar with the players, understanding the tendencies of the players and then allowing their own special qualities to come out. So far it’s been good.”
The addition of Barrios, though, is particularly inspiring. During preseason in Arizona, the Colombian showed all the skills that made him one of MLS’ most feared wingers since entering the league in 2015. He also showed he was settling in nicely, scoring a goal and assist in his first 45 unofficial minutes with the squad.
“He’s been great. Everything we had heard about him has turned out to be exactly that and even more so. He is a wonderful guy, quiet, respectful, and works really hard,” Fraser said of Barrios. “The pace is what everyone else sees, but when you have him day in, day out you see how intelligent he is and how good his decisions are. We couldn’t be more excited about having him.”
Then there are Cole Bassett and Sam Vines, another Homegrown duo from the Rapids Academy. The two were integral to Colorado’s success in 2020―Bassett was Colorado’s joint leading scorer with five goals and five assists, while Vines played every regular-season minute and added a goal and three assists. Each performed well on USMNT duty during the offseason and are looking to take the next step in their careers.
“I just want to see continued growth and improvement. They’ve both come a long way in the last year or so, but they’ve also both just scratched the surface of where they can be," Fraser said. "It’s the willingness to work day-to-day to improve, which is a constant with those two in particular. Their work ethic is incredible and their ability to learn and to adapt is improving.
“This is a young hungry group. They’re always excited to play, they’ve really come back with a great attitude based on how we finished last year and they’ve really put in a lot of work in the preseason. It’s a group that I appreciate greatly because they do everything that you ask them to do and try to do it to the best of their ability. They’ve put in a good six weeks at this point and they’re excited to get going.”