Interview with Brian Crookham, Rapids Youth Academy Director of Operations (Part 1)

TORONTO ON - NOVEMBER 21: Davy Armstrong #28 the first Rapids Academy product. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Recently I got a chance to talk to Brian Crookham. Rapids fans will more commonly know him as a guy who sometimes does color commentary when Marcello Balboa is unavailable for altitude. But a few of us know what his big job is: he has been Director of Operations for the Youth Academy since it was founded in 2007.

Now that we're starting to see the fruits of that labor in players like Davy Armstrong and Boulder's Shane O'Neill getting called up to first team duty, and Aurora's Dilon Serna getting called up to the U20 team (at barely 18 years old) for the Milk Cup, and this new "partnership" with the Colorado Fusion (though it seems more like a merger from the description of the deal) I thought it would be good to take a look at what the details are of the Academy, and what we should look for as fans with regards to what comes out of the Academy.

As you can imagine, I had a lot of questions, and Brian Crookham was good enough to give some very good answers. I'll put in commentary where applicable, but for most of the interview I tried to let him talk without interruption. Thus, this is going to be broken up into a few parts. Stay tuned for the end where we get a good example of what exactly happens in the "Homegrown" process.

Thanks go out to Brian Crookham for his time, and for Rachel Sweeny for putting the interview together.

What's this new deal with Colorado Fusion? Is it a merger? Describe what that Partnership is.

What we’ve done is created a new non-profit scenario with the existing Fusion non-profit and the non-profit branch of our organization. It will remain as a non-profit and technically a separate entity from the Rapids organization itself (there’s a lot of reasons why we want to do that from a youth soccer governing body membership to all kinds of things there). What we’ve taken is the existing teams that play in Colorado Youth Soccer (and players playing in Colorado Youth Soccer, including recreational) and we put them all under one umbrella. It’s now the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club.

It’s a coming together of all the resources that have been put into both operations.

OK, so does that mean the Fusion is still operating independently?

The Fusion name will go away. This is one non-profit now. It’s one structure. All the players are playing under the name "Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club" Any player registered with Colorado Youth Soccer in their program now is a registered player under Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club. It’s all one big youth soccer club with close to 4,000 members.

This sounds to me like a merger. Colorado Fusion and Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer are one big group now, and are tied to the Academy. Do the Rapids have a similar plan for other Youth Clubs out there? The Fusion is a big one, but there are other Youth Clubs out there who are also pretty big in Colorado. Have you been in discussions to expand the program?

Not at this time. This partnership specifically made sense because of the geography the Fusion operates in. We’ve had some alliances with some of those clubs: the Storm, some of the other clubs around. This makes sense because A) We operate in the same geography anyway. We are, for lack of a better term, competing for the same players in the neighborhood based programs. And B) the leadership and the staff had the exact same vision for their players where it was very much focused on player development and not necessarily on trying to win as many trophies as you possibly can.

Interesting. Trophies not the focus of the youth level. So what is the purpose of these youth clubs and the Rapids Academy teams?

Our focus is giving whatever player registers in our club the ability to move up the path as far as they can hopefully only limited by their potential and desire. That means we have to create an environment where they can get better every day. That means our focus is on their experience, really, in the training aspect of it.

We’re building players, not building teams. For us to focus on that, what our coaches are evaluated on is: moving players through the system, giving them the ability to take on information they need to take on board to become a more skillful and more knowledgable soccer player so they can survive and get to the next level.

(I highlighted that because it's absolutely critical to understanding the mission of the Academy and what they do, and how to evaluate how successful they are.)

Best Example is: if I’ve got a Right Back and I have two options for a right back who is struggling I can tell him to kick it as far as he can so that we don’t give up a goal, and our team doesn’t suffer, or I can say "hey, play through again" and give him a chance to do it well. Sometimes you’ll concede a goal, sometimes you won’t win the trophy, because the focus is on that individual and making every individual better. We make sure that individuals don’t get skipped out of the process for the sake of winning.

Look, we want to compete, we want to win, there’s no doubt about that. But we won’t win at the cost of development.

Could you give an example of how the mentality of "team and trophies first" might impair player development?

If I’m the best U12 player in my age group, forever. Then I move to U13 the next year, and I’m the best at U13. And I move to U14 and I’m the best…you see where I’m going. All of a sudden I jump into college, and all of a sudden I might be the best freshman but I’m playing with seniors. I’ve never been exposed to those seniors before. There’s going to be a big point of acclimation. If you’re always the best player in your age group, then you never get stretched.

So what's the difference with a "player development" approach?

Now, if I’m the best U12 player and I’m not getting challenged there, it doesn’t matter to us that we might not with the State Cup. What matters to us is now we’re going to put that player on the U13 team and get a new level of challenge that will allow them to keep growing and keep moving. And when you start going older, now you’re talking about Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna. If they’re in traditional youth soccer clubs and they go to the oldest team, and they compete and they win, and they do well, there’s still a ceiling. At our club, when they start doing well, then they go on the field with Oscar’s group, and Wilmer’s group. And they play and train with the Reserves and the First Team. They play in professional games. And they get stretched that way.

So what’s happened over the past 5 years, what we’ve developed, is a ladder that you can continue to step up on. And every once in a while you’ve got to take a step back and catch your breath, but then take two steps forward. That’s what you see with a lot of these talented players now.

Boil it down, what's the benefit of having a thriving Academy based on this model?

We don’t have to trade for Brian Mullan anymore. We want Brian Mullan to come out of our system and win those 5 Championships with us.

So what should Rapids fans be excited about with the Academy? It's hard to read into the news and dissect what exactly what Academy success means. Should we be excited that the U-18's went to the finals? Should we be worried that they lost? If some U5 team does really well, should we be excited? What are we supposed to look for?

You should be more excited as a Rapids fans that Shane O’Neill is getting on an airplane tomorrow to go to Salt Lake because he’s been called into the first team, than that he’s not at the U18 Championship. You should be more excited Dillon Serna isn’t there because he’s now not only going up with the USMNT but he’s moved an age group up to play with the U-20’s.

It was heartbreaking that we gave up two late goals and lost, but in the end we’ve still got players that are thriving in this system.

News: Shane O'Neill, kid from Boulder, is traveling with the first team to the Rocky Mountain Cup. Kinda getting choked up a little writing that, actually!

If a U5 comes off the field smiling and wants to come back for Tuesday practice, and had a good experience, then we have the opportunity to someday be a great player or even a great fan. If he had a crummy experience, he might decide that baseball is a lot more fun and more engaging. Then we’ve not only lost a potential player, but a fan as well. We don’t look at U5’s as players in the pipeline, we look at them as a pool of people who we want to keep in the sport. You can’t turn a U5 a pro, but if they quit, they will never be a pro.

How young would you say your staff has been able to evaluate talent and say "we need to watch this kid"?

There are players in every age group where you say "Oh my gosh" I can’t wait to see him in 10 years. There’s some innate talent you can identify very quickly, and you think this kid is probably going to have a great shot. But if somebody screws that up, that kid will never become a pro.

You see potential in a lot of young players. But there's a reason we don’t call it "competitive" until 10,11, 12. Until you get to that point, you don’t really know. We don’t discard someone before they hit puberty. That can change everything. Our staff is told "we’re going to be patient with this kid, because he will grow." And that kid who is small but has great passing ability will get bigger, but that big guy who can muscle by people right now but can’t pass the ball will get caught up at some point. As we see them at around 13, 14 years old we start thinking "man, we need to have a program for that player to continue to move and move quickly."

So what's the influence the first team has on the way the Academy teaches soccer, or how the other teams teach soccer? Is it "whatever the first team is doing, that is what we are doing" or is there more freedom to develop?

With young players, it’s just about getting those building blocks in place. We’re very structured in our curriculum with our top teams. The elite team in that group, the Rapids Academy group, is going to get fed all the information they need to move on. They are going to be pushed and driven, and that’s what they want. We have one in service day per month where the coaches go through the curriculum for the next month. It’s extremely structured in terms of what needs to be put in place. The coaches are judged on their ability to prepare their players for the next stage. So hopefully those players are very competent on the ball. If we say, as a club, we want an attacking style of football, we are going to have to create players who can get on the ball, that can pass and receive, that can manipulate the ball to whatever the demand of their position is going to be as far as dribbling and shielding and getting out of pressure. So the right back doesn’t just have to hoof it down the field, the right back is part of our structure in how we play.

Our teams are expected to play in a possession oriented, attacking style of soccer. Will we tell them that they have to play a 4-3-3? In a younger age group, if it doesn’t fit, we might not force that in there. We try to evaluate how to bring those qualities out of the player based on what we have. In the older age groups, we mirror a bit more of what we want on the first team level. We are still finalizing getting the bodies in place for where we want to be even on a first team standpoint, so I think as long as we are creating players who are capable of playing in an attacking possession oriented style of play then we will give them a little more freedom on gameday to arrange players.

So it's more of a style thing than a formation thing?

Exactly.

What about concerns of shape? Rigidly keep to shape or allow for more fluid positioning?

We definitely want to teach them to keep shape because that helps us apply defensive principles, and things like that. It’s more principle oriented than it is starting position oriented. When the ball rolls from kickoff, it all changes.

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Stay tuned for part two tomorrow. More news about exciting prospects coming up from the Academy, and a good explanation of the Homegrown player process as a player goes through college. In other words, how do we make sure the Rapids get Dilon Serna and don't have to put him through the Draft.

Also, you'll hear exactly what Crookham has to say about Oscar Pareja.

Oh, and we talk about the end of pay-to-play and a Rapids Residency Program. I think you'll Rapids fans will be pretty heartened by Crookham's answers...

Oh yeah, and hot rumors. Very hot rumors.

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