Last week, Colorado Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja witnessed how three of his players performed out of position, or possibly in their new positions.
Brian Mullan, Shane O'Neill, and Dillon Serna are attack-oriented players who shifted to the back line to cover for injuries and satisfy their coach. A veteran of 308 MLS games, Mullan played all 90 minutes in the season opener at FC Dallas Stadium. Meanwhile, Serna joined O'Neill in the U.S. U-20 National Team defense for the semifinal and final of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Mexico.
For Mullan, almost a decade has passed since his first professional game as a defender with his club team.
"The first time was when I was playing for San Jose in 2003 or 2004 for a game or two," Mullan recalled. "Everybody was hurt, so they needed someone to play there.”
Mullan draws on his experience to improve at the position.
“I try to attack so I don’t have to defend as much," Mullan said. "The hardest part for me is being patient.”
The only other experience Mullan had in the back line - other than short stints last season - was when he played right back with the U.S. National Team. While he didn't stay in that position when he returned his club teams, it's possible that the experience O'Neill gained with the National Team could see him shift there permanently.
“I never actually played defender until my senior year in high school during the All-American game,” O’Neill (right) explained. “When I got called in to the U-20s [October 2012], that’s where coach put me, primarily at center back. Ever since then, I’ve been playing center back."
O'Neill started all five games in Mexico to anchor the U-20 defense on their way to qualifying for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup. But when he signed with the Rapids last fall, and when he made his MLS debut, it was as a midfielder.
"Now here, they’re kind of converting me," O'Neill said after Thursday's practice. "I like the position, and I’m learning every day. You need to have your head on a swivel and be aware of everything around you.”
Serna has had experience at both left back and higher up the field with both the Rapids and in his one year at the University of Akron. So when received advanced notice from head coach Tab Ramos, he was open-minded and ready for the change.
“He [Ramos] told me during the Canada game that if our right back got hurt, then I’d be playing right back," Serna said. "I played left back with the team in Ireland during the Milk Cup [July 2012]."
Serna entered the Canada game at left wing with less than 10 minutes to play. He tried to curl a pass down the wing, but the ball hit a Canadian defender from close range and knocked him out. Minutes later, Serna received the ball on the left side of the penalty box, cut back to his right, and fired a shot off the crossbar.
"Then our starting right back got hurt," Serna explained. "(Coach Ramos) gave me a chance in the semifinal. He said I did well, so I started in the final.”
O'Neill and Serna are fellow homegrown Rapids Academy products who hope for a camp call-up before the U-20 World Cup in Turkey this summer. After being noticed at a tournament in Dallas, Serna spent a year with Colorado assistant coach Wilmer Cabrera and the U-17s in Bradenton, Florida.
Although O'Neill and Serna are unlikely to get on the field for the home opener against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, Mullan is currently slated to anchor the left back position.
Shea tried out for the Colorado Rapids in 1995 and, after failing to make a team, wrote a 1,000-word description of his unsuccessful tryout. He then proceeded to cover the Rapids for 15 years for various websites and local media outlets, up to and including the club's MLS championship in 2010. In between, he dared to try out again in 2002 and 2006. Send comments and feedback to Shea at firstname.lastname@example.org.