Even without a crystal ball, May brought Rapids fans a glimpse into the future.
Riddled with injuries and a demanding schedule, Colorado’s lineup was a bit thin at times and in need of some backup. Coaches didn’t have to look far to find it, just to field 24 at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park where Rapids 2 train daily. This was made possible by the development of MLS NEXT Pro. Beginning in 2022, MLS NEXT Pro is a development league in which each team is affiliated with an MLS squad and plays a full season against other NEXT Pro teams while allowing a pathway for players to get on MLS rosters.
What does this pathway look like? Let’s get technical for a second:
A MLS club may sign a player, age 25 or younger during the league season, from its affiliate team to a maximum of four Short-Term Agreements, which are four-day contracts, each season. A player can be included on four MLS league-season match rosters, however, that player can only earn playing time in two MLS league-season matches. A player may appear in any number of non-league games during the terms of his four Short-Term Agreements.
In its inaugural season, Rapids 2 did not earn any call ups; however, that’s changed with a more experienced roster and incredible talent this year—as is evidenced by the team’s undefeated record so far this season. Up to this point, four players—Daouda Amadou, Rémi Cabral, Yosuke Hanya and Marlon Vargas—have been called up and combined for nine appearances. Of those, midfielders Hanya and Vargas both have multiple call ups and notched their MLS debuts, thanks to the new system.
Hanya, a native of Tokyo, Japan, has earned all four of his allotted call ups and played a total of 47 minutes. His MLS debut came on May 17 when he subbed on in the 88th minute at Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Putting aside the result, a 4-0 loss, Hanya realized a dream, something he hoped to reach since coming to the U.S. for college soccer at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It was a dream come true,” Hanya said. “It's been my goal since I first came to the United States in the summer of 2018 to become a professional soccer player at the MLS level. It’s an amazing thing.”
Ten days later, he was brought on at the start of the second half in a home match against FC Cincinnati for a full 45 minutes, where he helped produce some creative opportunities for the team. The cherry on top was getting to play against FC Cincy striker Yuya Kubo, who represented the Japanese national team.
“He's a kind of legendary player back in Japan,” Hanya said. “I was really happy to get to play against him in MLS. After the game, we exchanged uniforms, so it was a really great moment for me.”
That same game, Vargas got his second call up of the season but his MLS debut would have to wait. While his first-team introduction came in early May, it was in U.S. Open Cup action against USL side Northern Colorado Hailstorm.
Little by little, Vargas made the most of his first-team and Rapids 2 opportunities and stayed true to his style of play. Last Wednesday, he finally made his MLS debut, subbing on in the 79th minute against Columbus Crew. It was a moment well earned, and one he had been chasing after for years.
“I was very excited,” he said. “I got a little nervous when they said I was going in, but I think I’ve earned the opportunity in terms of the previous games and my performances from last year to even this year. The moment when I went in was just surreal. I was like, ‘Wow, like I'm playing in a MLS game.’ I was just excited and happy that I got to make my debut.”
To make the moment even more special, Vargas got to share his MLS debut with his Rapids 2 teammate Rémi Cabral, whose twin brother, Kevin, is a regular starter for the first team. Despite playing alongside a new squad, the pair still had a great chemistry in their minutes against the Crew.
“Rémi and I both have a good understanding of each other, and he makes runs that are easy for me to play the ball into. It was a huge confidence booster. I got to make my debut and play next to my Rapids 2 teammate. It was good to have him on the field with me,” Vargas said.
In addition to helping athletes reach their goals, MLS NEXT Pro is developing better players off the field. For Vargas, who calls himself quiet, he’s beginning to find his voice and develop into a better leader.
“I’m looking up to players from the first team who are captains or leaders in the locker room and voices on the team. I'm learning from them and trying to bring that into the Rapids 2 team,” he said.
With every call-up, it’s not only a dream come true but also an opportunity for crucial experience. As Rapids 2 continues its dominance this season, the players are quickly reaping the benefits and learning that the path to the next level is well within their reach.