Burgundy Wave has chatted with Colorado Rapids Academy Director Brian Crookham before, but the monumental achievement of getting the academy fully funded warranted another chat with him. Thanks to the Rapids for setting up our talk with him, and to Brian for taking the time out of his (assuredly!) busy day.
Here's what Brian had to say:
I remember in our last interview we talked about eliminating Pay-to-Play, is this "Achievement Unlocked" for you guys or do you feel there still more work to be done?
I think it's removed a huge barrier for us, and the last time we talked, probably last summer, and this has been something we've been working on for a long time. The people that I've been working with have been working extremely hard and extremely effectively with the constraints they've had. When you look at the club you prioritize: what's our biggest need today. Always on that list has been getting [the Academy] to this point. I've got to give full credit to the guys at KSE, our front office staff, Tim [Hinchey, Rapids President] and Paul [Bravo, Rapids Technical Directior] who worked tirelessly to continue to prioritize this project as we got things done. For us to get here is a big step. It's been a long time coming. It's been in our wish list for a long time.
One of the catalysts for us was the MLS Homegrown Player program. Every year it's been stronger and stronger. And many teams have gotten here before us with the funding piece, but as MLS has tightened and redefined the standards. And it's not just with funding, it's with the quality of the program you put out on the field. They mandated, prior to US Soccer bringing in the U-14's, they mandated that we create that U-14 program. Some of the stuff we've had in the works for some time, so it's not just the finance piece, it's the technical elements, the standards of training: not counting games as training sessions dates, [for example]. So when you look at us being able to meet the demands of the MLS Homegrown Player program that where we were most efficient.
Say, with respect to budgeting, that there's a choice between getting a DP or investing more money in the Academy. What's the argument for investing in the Academy?
When you look at what the club has been trying to do over the past, say, 18 months, and build a very top-to-bottom congruent club that makes sense, and there's a player path from the very young ones all the way to the senior team then investing in the Academy piece.
If you read things about clubs who have done it really well for a lot of years, you're talking about a Barcelona who have created a club culture and it's very hard from players to come in from the outside, even! That's what we're trying to do from top to bottom, it not only creates players that meet the expectations of the club, it creates a roster for the first team that's full of players who local people have heard about for years now, and they want to come see them play. When you look at the vision that's gone into a lot of things that have gone on with Tim and Paul and how they've moved us forward. I think a strong Academy program is a very important piece of that.
I don't want to necessarily say either or on that [DP versus Academy situation] I can speak specifically to the Academy piece and building players who fit our style.
How does this recent investment in the Academy give the Rapids a competitive edge over other clubs and how does the Rapids program stack up to other programs you've seen throughout the country?
I think, because of the geography involved, honestly our competition is within ourselves. We have got to create the environment here that when we not only put players in the system but even going out and getting the raw materials to put into the system that we can control our own environment here. How we compete against DC United in a U-17 cup is fairly insignificant relative to the fact that we should be working very hard with very young players to make sure that A) the raw material has been put in the system is of quality and B) the way we form those raw materials into a functioning player who can best of their abilities throughout their time here. That's the more important piece. You have to measure what you're doing every day at home.
We were one of the last to actually fully fund our Academy. So we are in constant meetings with other clubs so we know where we are and we share best practices sometimes. But I also want to produce a better Homegrown Player than DC United does. It's not about grabbing a HGP from DC because that's not a reality. The reality is going to take the materials in my market and produce a HGP that now becomes a significant contributor to our first team.
The competition isn't ‘Can our U-17's beat DC United's U-17's' but ‘Can we grow better players than DC United'?
Absolutely. Those competetions are a measuring stick. So if I've got 11 players that are better than their 11 players and we're going to win the U-17 some GA Cup then great, but can those players that come out of that contribute? It takes one or two in that can contribute to our first team, and are we producing players that are equipped to get into our first team set up? Not, are we able to throw together a team that we can organize well enough to win a U-17 Cup.
We are Youth Development, we're not Youth Soccer. Are we progressing players to get on the path, not chasing trophies with teams.
How does this contribute making the USMNT pool more competitive?
Think about it this way: the players that are in our system are now an investment for our club. If you look at the old model, and even the model that exists in a lot of other "Academies" that play in the USsoccer development Academy league and I believe that some of that in that article was directed at the bigger broader spectrum of ‘ordained Academies' by US Soccer. The players that are in fully funded programs are 100% an investment on the club's part. If you look at a player that is paying $3,000-$4,000 or $7,000-$8,000 in some cases in some clubs around the country just for the opportunity to play, they get the opportunity to say "well, you know what? I'm paying $8,000 if I don't feel quite up to it today I guess it's probably my choice not to put it all in." When we're invested in a player, what it does is it takes that competition level to level 10. Because everybody wants to be invested in. And we can expect that out of them because it's our investment then. It helps us keep that bar raised so high for the players that are part of our program.
When you look at players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, guys who came up through the old system, they seem to be the exception and not the rule of American soccer players. Does this investment make it so that players like Donovan and Dempsey now become the rule rather than the exception?
When we look back at this when we look back at ten years, twenty years and we look at the way players that come out of these systems and the impact on our national team program, impact on how we're viewed internationally, I think we will see a difference in the depth of that quality. So yeah, I think there's probably... The old system was the old system, the cream was always going to rise to the top of that. And it's going to rise to the top of this as well. But what we're doing is creating deeper pools of more dedicated players.
You can't manufacture desperation. So when you're in a situation where you're paying in and it's your decision to be in or out well then there's not that much desperation. When you are granted the opportunity to be a part of something, there's a desperation to stay as a part of that. It's like an inner city kid who sees basketball as his only way out. That's the kind of environment we have to create and it doesn't have to be nasty silly stuff, but it's got to be real commitment to being better every single day.
Pablo [Mastroeni] has a great quote from when he re-signed with the club. He talks about getting his focus back to getting in the car, and as he drives to practice, he is thinking about how is he going to be the best player at practice every single day. We need that mentality out of all of our kids, every single night, and that's how we are going to create an environment that's pushing players that are not only confident to play on our first team but confident to play for our national team, confident to be sold and live on a world stage.
What would you say is more of an appropriate reward for a player who is doing well? Say you've got a U-14 player who is doing well, do you think it's important to get him onto a team where he can win a trophy or is it more important that he be brought up a level and get a chance to see where he stands at the U-15 or U-16 group?
It's not even a question. The reward is the opportunity to challenge yourself again at a new level, and once you've broken through a level then there's a time you need to get comfortable at a level and then when you're ready you are going to get pushed on. That's a really important part of the entire development philosophy: if you're the best U-12 player, and next year you're the best U-13 player, and then next the best U-14 player, then what have we done to push you through. We might have won some trophies for the rest of the kids there, but where have you gone as far as maximizing your potential?
From our standpoint, the question is 100%: you are rewarded with the opportunity to be a greater player at a different level.
Who should the Rapids fans look out for in the Academy right now?
Right now the two obvious kids that we've got in that have done well for themselves, as a matter of fact they are out competing with the first team right now, are: Richie Perez who as soon as he's done with the first team he's going to run in here for our signing ceremony and sign with Creighton. And Isaac Martinez. Those two have both, they've changed their high school schedules and they've been training with the first team throughout the year including last fall throughout their senior year. We've got guys that have been consistently pulled into the national team at different levels, who have done quite well. But right now those are the two that stand out.