It's long been a mantra of American sports that the way to win is to 'build through the draft'. Indeed, looking at teams like the NFL's Green Bay Packers and the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning and you'll see teams filled with talent that was picked up through the uniquely American draft systems that most sports around here use. Scouts are rarely used to find players already in the game as they tend to be used in football, but to determine potential of kids in colleges, bred to be put into the big leagues as rookies by selection in drafts.
In our sport, it tends to work a bit differently world-wide. Teams have academies that train their footballers up from very young ages to play for their teams or use as transfer bait to get money or other academy players. MLS isn't like most footballing leagues though, and it is actually quite possible to 'build from the draft' as it were in this league. Colorado is starting to now see some great success in that regard from their two-man 2010 draft class.The Rapids went into the 2010 draft with no first round pick, although having a pick outside of the top 5 is really a crapshoot in most cases; MLS drafts tend to have a group of a couple really good players that people assume will be the next stars of the league and then a ton of other players to be picked apart by teams below. The second round tends to be even more a crapshoot, and that's where the Rapids two picks were in 2010. After a series of trades they wound up with two picks in a row, the 22nd and 23rd picks.
These two picks were used to select Andre Akpan, a striker out of Harvard, and Ross LaBauex, a defensive midfielder out of recent NCAA champions Virginia. Neither player made much noise in the league last season, with LaBauex getting a couple of spot starts and appearances when one of the top two defensive midfielders - Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz - were out. In his few appearances he looked fairly lost and unimaginative with the ball, and was one of the reasons why the Rapids managed to fail at winning in Salt Lake last season in that 1-1 draw as he was inserted late. Andre only got a single appearance on the season last year, getting only 8 minutes on the pitch for the first team at the tail end of a game decided long before.
Needless to say, the 2010 draft class was looking like a usual draft class in MLS, which is to say nothing special. With no development league and the team having those two players in areas where depth and injury weren't problems appeared to stunt their growth as well.
Now, fast forward to 2011. After a cup championship and an offseason filled with Gary Smith being given more and more tools along with adding competition at the spots these two guys play - namely Joseph Nane and Caleb Folan - the two guys that were drafted by Colorado last season are starting to come into their own and make names for themselves in the highly injured Colorado team.
This season after the offseason of work, Ross has appeared in several games including a couple of starts where he has looked like a fantastic possession midfielder. He knows how to keep the ball on his foot, he is drawing a surprising number of fouls and he's even showing some offensive flair we're not used to from Pablo Mastroeni. Andre scored his first ever MLS goal this season against Chicago and has been quite frankly the most fearless striker on the squad next to Conor Casey at this point, not afraid to let loose a shot from outside the box. He has quickly moved up the depth chart to the point where even Folan might not be starting over him.
Are Ross and Andre two guys who I would want starting on my team every game? Not quite yet. There's still a bit to go for the young guys. However, the growth and potential that they have shown this year might mean that the Rapids really do have two hotly contested positions filled beautifully for the future, and in an always shifting league like MLS that can never be understated.