Here, as promised, is Part II of the long interview with Rapids Director of Operations for the Youth Academy, Brian Crookham. Again, some of you may know Brian for doing color commentary when Chello is unavailable. While that is all fine and good, it's arguably not his most important job.
This time around we talk Oscar Pareja and what exactly he's been doing with the youth system. We talk about Paul Bravo and what his role is with the Academy and get a few looks into what the FO and Technical Staff relationship is. We also get a look inside the thought process of the Technical Staff when it comes to signing a Homegrown player and finally get a good example of how the Homegrown Player rules (nebulous though they are) would work in the career of of a potential rising youth star like Dillon Serna. And finally, and possibly most revealing for the future, Brian and I talked about the possibility of ending the pay-to-play system in the United States. We also talked about a the potential for a Rapids Residency Program.
Meet us after the jump for the conclusion to our interview with Brian Crookham.
Oscar Pareja had a good record with the Dallas youth system, which is regarded as the best system in the United States from a player-development standpoint. How has he been doing with the Rapids Academy? What has that relationship been like?
Oscar has been tremendous. Obviously right now his first priority is to get the first team to where we want the first team to be. But we have conversations every day about players about what he needs to see in players and if they come in if they want to be successful in his group, and what demands we should have on them. Structurally and operationally, Oscar has his own things to deal with in the short term. But we have opportunities to pick his brain about what may have been done as he built other programs, but I think you’ll see that evolve a bit more as we go.
Oscar Pareja in conversation every day with the Academy? That's a big deal.
Paul Bravo is a big influence as to how we develop obviously from a philosophical standpoint, not only the first team but the Academy teams to play up through that structure. So Oscar has lent a lot of support; Oscar has lent a lot of access to players and staff. And from the opening exchanges of his tenure here that’s what it has been. He will continue to be a great resource to us as we go forward, and he’s a massive supporter, obviously.
Sum it up for me. What is the highest priority of the Colorado Rapids Soccer Academy?
The highest priority of the Colorado Rapids Soccer Academy is player development.
Along those lines, you've got a player in right now who Rapids fans have heard a lot about for a few years now: Dillon Serna. Now, we're all really excited to see him be successful, but lay it on us, what's the plan for him?
When you look at a player like Dilon, we look at a few different things A) What does our roster need right now and can we bring him into that? And B) Is he getting the diet of soccer he is going to need?
If he signs a contract now and doesn’t go to Akron, then how many games can we give him in those 3 months, where he would have been at Akron? Or is he going to get 20 games where he can be an expressive attacking player in a good environment at a school that tries to play a good schedule? Trying to balance those things out. If we could plug him into first team games every week, then that’s a no brainer. But then you start throwing in things like roster restrictions… which I can’t speak to. There’s a lot of factors that go into signing a player, especially a youth player. We have to figure out how to get him that right diet, and also if he's going to be available for us: the national team call ups, when is he going to be here when is he going to be gone? Those are all things we have to consider.
OK, but Dilon has agreed to go to Akron and play for Caleb Porter. While that's great and Porter is a great coach, how does that affect his Homegrown Player status? Could you explain how we keep Dilon as a Colorado Rapids player so that we don't end up losing him in the Draft?
In order to count as a Homegrown player, before he goes to college a player has to have something like 80 contacts a year with the club, a very low number. Our players on our U18’s have something like 200 contacts a year. Once they go to college, if they met that requirement, then they are still a Homegrown Player for us as long as we continue to have contacts with him throughout his college career—we’ve only got to get 21 contacts per year. The only limiting factor is new NCAA legislation: once a player enrolls in college, they can’t play with pros during their college career. So say any player goes to Akron, once he does that, he’s limited from coming back during a break and playing in a Reserve game or in a first team game. But we can still have him train and be a part of the system. We can sign him after any year in college as a Homegrown player as long as we meet those contact requirements. We don’t have to be impatient about the way we approach those players.
To be more clear: a "contact" could be anything from a full game to a training session with the club. As long as Serna comes back on breaks and has at least 21 training sessions with the Colorado Rapids every year, he will remain a Homegrown Player and he will not have to go through the Draft process. Moving on, though, are there any other exciting prospects coming up through the system that Rapids fans should be on the lookout for?
Players to look out for: U18 eligble players were born in 1993 and 1994. We brought in 2 1995’s both of which started both games in this competition—Ricardo Perez and Isaac Martinez--who have also seen time in Reserve games. They are eligible for U16 games, but they are competing and starting at the U18 level in the Academy finals. We also have brought a goalkeeper who has been on the fringes of the National Team who is a 1996 birth year. One of the youngest players in the U16 group is playing on the U18 group. Andrew Epstein is his name. Without going into names as we go younger, we’ve got several players in the younger age groups that we’re very excited about. Another thing to note: those young part of that U18 group has been here since we first started the Academy, all four years we have existed.
Let's keep talking about the future. Specifically, where the Academy goes from here. Both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake have started Residency Programs in their Academies and have enjoyed some success with them. What are your perceived benefits and challenges to starting a Residency Program for the Rapids and what would one of those look like?
The benefits of a Residency Program is the ability to control the environment. The bottom line is for these players is that the better the environment is--the more access they have to the highest environment they can be in--the better off they are going to be. So with a Residency programs you can work with school schedules to ensure that when we need a player in a first team training session, he is available at 10AM. That’s a challenge right now, for us. Players like Shane and Dilon had to go to their schools and go through a lengthy process to ensure that their schedules work to be in with the first team to train everyday. That’s not easy.
[A Residency] helps with nutrition. You’ve now got them full time to educate and be a part of it. Yes, we would like to explore options long term. The challenge is that you have to get it right. Because now you’re pulling players away from their families. So all the pieces socially, educationally we have to do right by the players. All that takes some money. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it well. It’s on our radar, but I wouldn’t say it’s imminent.
Finally, even more broadly. Jurgen Klinsmann famously quipped during an ESPN broadcast of the World Cup in 2010 about "Pay to Play" being a limiting factor in the development of top notch talent in the United States. What do you think about Pay to Play, is he right? Are the Rapids going to at some point get rid of Pay to Play in their own Academy?
He's absolutely right. And most of the MLS Clubs for the U16 and U18 Development Academy teams have eliminated Pay to Play. It’s a goal. The limitations that go along with someone paying money to be in there are different. More importantly there becomes restricted access, whether you say you got scholarships or whatever, there’s a restriction on access if people have to pay to get to the highest level. Right now, our players pay travel costs but don’t pay any other costs. I’m confident that down the road even that will be taken care of. Our challenge is: how do we not eliminate players before they even get to the Academy level and create free programming that is accessible to people at younger age groups. I don’t have the solution to that.
You think that's going to be solved once our Academy produces its first $3,000,000 signing?
Even if we had a $3,000,000 signing from our Academy, it still comes down to the league and how they allocate money based on their evaluation of our contribution with that player.
But look at Jozy Altidore, New York has done a good job and been at the front side of that. Signing an Academy player, selling the player, then having the resource come back from that player. You’ve got to invest that resource back into soccer operations, so it absolutely is a model. No one Europe really cares if you won a Development Academy Championship when they are looking to buy. They are looking at "can the kid play?" Our job is simply to create players who can play the game and aren’t limited in the way they approach it.