Play. Your. Kids. It’s become somewhat of rallying cry for those that follow Major League Soccer. The idea is that for the league, the US national team, and the sport to grow, young talent needs to be given a chance. A chance to develop. A chance to grow. A chance to play.
There are numerous financial and organizational reasons for fostering more talent at a younger age and each MLS club subscribes to the #PlayYourKids philosophy somewhere along a spectrum that includes factors of significant financial investment, scouting, coaching and access to talent. This isn’t an article about those things, but a reminder that in an ideal scenario development academies provide a strong foundation and a tangible pipeline to the first team. This should then help to improve the product on the field.
As fans of MLS and world soccer saw in 2018, aging European megastars can still provide moments of brilliance and plenty of likes on social media but more often than not the foundations of the best teams in the world are built on strong development academies.
The Rapids outlook is no different.
Enter 17-year-old Cole Bassett
who followed in the footsteps of Davy Armstrong, Shane O'Neill, Dillon Serna, Kortne Ford, Ricardo Perez and Sam Vines when he signed a Homegrown contract in August. Bassett became the fourth Rapids Development Academy product to sign a first team contract over a 20-month span between January 2017 and August 2018. He made history as the youngest signing in club history and went on to become the youngest player to make his MLS debut (9/8), start an MLS game (10/13) and score a goal for the club (10/28). Bassett is the clearest signal yet that the Rapids are playing their kids.
“We've worked to integrate our academy into the DNA of the club since it came to life in 2007,” Rapids Senior Director of Soccer Development & USL General Manager Brian Crookham
said in a recent interview. “The commitment by ownership to creating a clear pathway and professional environment allows these talented players to work to their potential each day. We are now seeing more consistent production from that investment and some truly exciting young players graduating from our academy and playing meaningful minutes for the first team.”
Since 2007, the Rapids have invested in the DA and are now seeing that pipeline fill with immense talent including 19-year-old Sam Vines
, who signed a first team contract with the Rapids on February 23.
"This year we signed Cole (Bassett) and Sam (Vines) from our developmental academy because we saw in them the qualities and technical skills we are looking for in a player. Late this season you saw that we had four Homegrowns in an MLS game for the first time in club history. I can’t highlight enough the importance of our player development pipeline and the talent that is harvested in Colorado. Players like Sam Raben, Matt Hundley, Oliver Larraz, and Sebastian Anderson who will continue to develop and grow as players with the help of our coaches and staff," said Executive Vice President and General Manager, Pádraig Smith said. "MLS as a whole is evolving rapidly and the youth movement in the US is a key part of the growth that will continue to improve the game and the league."
Both Vines and Bassett made a commitment to the DA (Vines in 2013 and Bassett in 2017) and improved incrementally each season. They eventually earned minutes with the PDL (Professional Development League) team and received call-ups to train with the first team where they saw up close what was required to succeed at the pro level.
“The intensity and the focus for every part of practice with the first team really helped me learn the work ethic and attention to detail that the pros have. This made me focus on all the little details that helped my game. Now that I’m part of the team, I’ve just tried to grow and be a sponge and learn from everybody,” Bassett said. “These guys have a ton of experience, so I just try to pick off of all of them, so I can better execute in the game.”
Two other Homegrown signings - Kortne Ford
(22) and Dillon Serna
(24) - are also key contributors to the current, and future, success of the Rapids. Serna, who joined the first team from the DA in 2013, is impressed with how well the DA is preparing players for the MLS level.
“As a club we're clearly doing something right having these kids be that prepared at 17-years-old," said Serna. "These kids have a bright future and I look forward to seeing more Homegrowns come through the system.”
That leads us two Homegrown players who recently made international headlines - Alphonso Davies
(Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and Tyler Adams
(New York Red Bulls). Both products of MLS academies and the American soccer system that signed with big, ambitious German clubs for record transfer fees. The impact of these deals resonated throughout MLS front offices and highlighted that the best way to uncover the next superstar might just be to develop them and then provide them with a platform to shine.
While development academies are the most obvious way to develop a young core of players for the first team, it’s not the only way to get the job done. In addition to adding Bassett and Vines in 2018, the Rapids brought in Kellyn Acosta
(23-years-old and a Homegrown from the FC Dallas Development Academy), Niki Jackson
(23-years-old and a player who spent time in Real Salt Lake’s DA), Sam Nicholson
(23) and Deklan Wynne
(23) through various drafts and trades.
In total, the average age of the Rapids’ current roster sits at 25.91. As fans turn their eyes to the 2019 season, and with 12 players on the roster currently 25 years or younger, what can they expect from the young core?
- When healthy during his first two seasons, Ford appears to be a franchise cornerstone in central defense and should continue his development toward becoming an All-Star caliber player next season. The next step in his evolution is the mastery of positional awareness and comfort with the ball at his feet.
- Serna enters his seventh season at age 24 and will continue to provide a spark with his positional flexibility and work-rate. He impressed enough to earn 10 consecutive starts late in 2018 and he's likely to provide the coaching staff with a strong option at multiple positions in 2019.
- Fans may want to anoint Bassett as the next superstar, but as he gains experience at the pro level it’s important to remember that there will be speed bumps. He’s a few years away from nearing his full potential, but his talent - and more importantly his drive to succeed - are clearly evident. He’ll continue to adapt to the pace of play and learn how he can impact the game in different ways. Plus, having Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price as mentors every day in training doesn't hurt.
- Vines plies his trade on the left wing, in defense or midfield, and has the pace and technical skill of a player much more seasoned. He’ll have a chance to win the left back spot in preseason and with Vines’ skillset it’s hard to imagine him not making an impact with the first team sooner rather than later.
"We expect our young players to continue to grow and develop in 2019," said Smith. "Some will be entering what will be their first full season in MLS, while others come into their second or third year in the league. I think we will see our young players begin to take bigger roles in the team. We are absolutely keen to continue adding and developing young talent, but we are also focused on fielding players that fit into our playing style first and foremost," said Smith. "We want our young players to continue to thrive and eventually take leadership roles within the squad."