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A conversation with Rapids Senior Director of Soccer Development Brian Crookham

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Every year we talk to Brian Crookham, and for good reasons. For one thing, Brian is a great interview. For another, he occupies a position that is as important as it is ignored. He's the guy in charge of the Rapids Development Academy. And now, with Colorado partnering with USL-Pro club Charlotte Independence, Brian's job has gained a totally new dimension.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We at Burgundy Wave have talked to Brian nearly every single year. To me, it's because he has an important job not only for the Rapids organization, but for Colorado soccer specifically and American soccer in general. Anyone who is involved with youth development not only enters to conversation about player development for the Colorado Rapids, but also the conversation about player development for the United States Men's National Team. The better the Academy, the more robust the development system, the better for Colorado kids playing soccer, the Rapids organization, and the player pool for the National Team, so the thinking goes.

The Rapids Academy under Crookham's tenure has produced three first team players for the Colorado Rapids: Davy Armstrong, Shane O'Neill, and Dillon Serna. Shane O'Neill recently made the MLS list for 24 Under 24. Whatever you might think about that list (some of us just think it's a marketing tool to hype teams and players MLS would really like you to be talking about), what's important is that O'Neill has contributed enough good meaningful minutes for the Club that it caught the notice of the MLS offices.

Brian Crookham has also done color commentary for the Rapids, and has always been a good sport when we've interviewed him.

Every time we talk to you, it seems like it's right after something major has happened for the club in terms of development. The first time, it was after the Rapids had merged with the Colorado Fusion to make Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer. The second time, it was after the Rapids announced that they were fully funding their Development Academy. And now you're in North Carolina, working with the new USL-Pro affiliate Charlotte Independence. (Crookham is now their Interim Technical Director) Why did the club make this move for a USL-Pro affiliate?

Since Paul has come in we’ve had a very consistent building around our philosophy. Creating a solid development or path. The addition of Charlotte Independence to our family means that the young profession is now going to have a place to really get his feet wet and it provides a lot more solid option for us to develop players and get the competition more than what we’ve had, quite frankly, with the Reserve League. It certainly served its purpose. We took the Reserve League quite seriously, unfortunately the volume of games and the philosophy of some other clubs and the seriousness they take the Reserve League didn’t quite match our ambitions there. And it’s been limited. So this really solves what has been a gap in our player development piece for those young professionals and Academy players (they’ll be eligible to play in these games as well).

Why in North Carolina and not somewhere closer?

We’re obviously invested in this market already. We have been partnered in the market for over 18 months. But we’ve looked to market here for over two years. By being on the ground here, we learned quite early in the process that there was opportunity to potentialy be part of something as the Charlotte Eagles transitioned out of USL Pro and a brand new investor came in. So it was a blank-slate opportunity for us. Part of the allure of it too is that we trusted the ownership group. Tim Hinchey has a long time relationship with the owner Jim Mcfillamy and so that started to come together. if we wanted to do it better than anybody from a partnership standpoint. We’re investing in that position. We are going to provide technical assistance to the whole club, so it becomes a situation that it because the ability on a blank slate to create the environment we feel is appropriate not only for our players in development but to capitalize on an environment here in Charlotte where they are lacking the top level of soccer that they honestly deserve. They are right in the middle of Wake Forest, Carolina, NC State, UNC Charlotte, this is a college soccer hotbed. So when you think about the implications from a scouting standpoint? It just makes a ton of sense all the way around. That’s why we are here.

The discussions here were very far advanced quite awhile ago, so that’s how we ended up here.

What about this club resonates with the Rapids that makes the partnership something you guys wanted to pursue?

There was no soccer plan for this franchise, it’s a totally blank slate. There are no players, there are no coaches. So for us to have the ability to come in and influence how that comes together so that we feel 100% comfortable with how our players are treated, the environment, training environment, competition environment, style of play all that stuff. We have the ability to fully influence that and that is really unique. There’s no inherited thinking in this club. To be honest with you, it’s a full extension of what we are doing. It’s a unique opportunity for us. That’s why we’re so excited.

OK, I ask you this every single year. But I keep doing it because it's important. With all this investment being put towards player development, what is the time-table on a Residency Program for young players?

A Residency is on the map for us, on the development map for where we need to be at some point. I would not say that we’ve had any advanced discussions on that, as far as the logistics of it because there are several ways it needs to come together. Some of that comes together by just investing in your own market and building the buildings and creating a schooling environment and doing it around the stadium. Some it comes from partnering with school districts partnering with other facilities for housing. That is the single biggest investment that we would end up making, likely. Because of not only the time and the finances that go into but the detail that has to go into it. You are taking a player out of a comfortable educational, family environment and if you’re going to do that you’d better do it right. We have a lot of things on our plate right now that we’ve got to continue to improve on and that project is going to have to wait as a project. I would not put a timeline on that project right now, but what I can tell you is it is something we look at as something we need to do in the future, but if we’re going to do it we need to make sure we do it properly.

For those fans who don't know, what are the benefits of a Residency? How are we compared to some of the rest of the league? Aren't we falling a bit behind here?

A Residency Program would certainly enhance our Development Academy, but it’s not just that players are staying overnight here. It’s the fact that they as an entire group can train at the same time as the first team. You have to have the education support staff, you have to change school schedules, you have to do all that. Obviously if you have players on site full time then that means there’s a lot you can do with them. But let’s look at what we’d be competing against compared to other MLS Clubs right now: everybody is in the infancy of these kinds of talks. Even at Salt Lake, who is partnered with another organization to help solve (these issues) in Arizona, but those players are not playing with their first team everyday, so while there are unbelievable benefits to it, it does have a connection, a daily connection, to the ultimate prize there. So you have to take everything in context. If we’re going to do it. Let’s do it right. Let’s get the details right. We’re just not now at a point where we are ready to move on that yet.

Alright then, I also ask you this every year, but this year we haven't had a Homegrown signing. Who are you guys tracking right now through the Development Academy with a view to bringing them to the first team?

Kortney Ford, we’ve been watching him closely, and Quentin Pearson who has been exceptional at the international level U-18s. He’s been a mainstay in that program for some time. He is training full time. (as a Center back) he would be really useful (about now) but you also have to remember, we have got some very intelligent kids as well. So whether or not they are prepared to make that step is not just a soccer specific decision. These kids have the option to take that educational path. Quentin committed to the University of Washington for college soccer. We will never as a kid to not go to college. We may ask kids to not play college soccer, if they have the option, but we won’t ask them to not go to college. At the end of the day those decisions are very very complex.

And so although we haven’t signed a HG this year, we definitely have some guys we are looking at; multiple players in college who have done quite well who we are tracking. A lot of good raw material in the system, but we just need to continue to monitor that and as the situation becomes the right situation, we will continue to bring those players in. This is not a process to be rushed. It’s a process we need to make sure we get right and I think we have been very diligent about going through the process. What we don’t want is a ton of HG’s on our roster that never get minutes for our first team. So we are not going to sign players just for the sake of signing players. It’s not an ego thing for the Academy. We’ll continue to be patient, but that’s the hardest part of this process: being patient.

So then if we're not signing Homegrowns every year, how should we judge if our Academy is successful?

One of the things to look at is whether or not there is a pathway for Development Academy players to contribute meaningful minutes with the first team.

Honestly, our club could use a center back, there’s a pathway there. Are there positions where we wouldn’t want to get logjamed in. We could have signed Dillon in the summer before he went to Akron but we were in a situation where we had very few Reserve games left and we had players who were playing in those spots so his ability to go to Akron to play 25 games there and continue to move forward especially for a player who is creative and attacking to get a lot of those games was important. We might look at another player and say he instead needs more professional training environment so it is an individual process. As we go forward, we expect that we will be able to prepare players on an annual basis to contribute. I think we should set our sight on signing HG’s consistently. But we can’t get it wrong, these are people’s lives as well.

How does the USL-Pro partnership change the equation here?

Let’s use the example of Grant Van de Castele (when we’re talking about the utility of USL Pro side). How difficult were his first minutes in his debut? But think about how different the context may be if he’d played 25 games in USL, he got recalled from the loan because of an injury crisis, and that same situation happened. Now, I’m not looking at the performance from Grant negatively, but what I’m saying is that changes the way we handle that situation if he had the opportunity to play 25 games this year. It’s going to have a massive impact on what we can do and how we can prepare players. The more times they see competition in front of a packed out against guys who are playing for their families and their contracts and trying to eat on account of it, the better chance that our guys will be prepared when they enter our locker room.

So you've got a kid you're tracking through the youth system, how do you know the kid has the potential to be a future player for the Colorado Rapids first team? From a development standpoint, what makes a kid a Rapids player?

Common thread has to be, for a Colorado Rapids soccer player, that they are good technically. If Pablo comes to me, or comes to Jamie Smith, and says "I need a player for training We have a body down. I need one of the 18’s. Who is coming in?" The first thing we look at is, "Are they technically proficient to keep the session going?" Because if you pass them a ball, and it’s a black hole, and it ruins the session for everybody else. And if that happens they won’t ask for more players from us. That is the absolute baseline. The understanding of that environment becomes their expectations in training. Are they able to focus, are they able to have a good technical base.

One of the skills that we don’t list is the ability to learn (Soccer IQ), and that is a massive ability when you want to develop as a player. Because if you can’t take on board information, you’re going to struggle. Our players’ ability to learn is huge and one of the things that we’ve been able to create in our environment is that it’s tough for kids at 16, 17, 18 to come in to our environment because the demands of training are not just about what you do when you’re on the ball, but what you do before and after you have the ball. If they can’t adapt and take on that information then they can’t compete at that level, because honestly that’s the pro environment. You have to be able to take on board information there. That’s a criteria for us for players as to whether they are able to go into that team and be a part of it, a contributing part of the first team.

But if they don’t have that technical base, then everything else goes to Hell. If they’ve got a great technical base, then we look at that soccer IQ. Can they learn, how do they adapt, take on information.

We don’t want to just produce players for the first team. We want to produce players that contribute meaningful minutes the first team.

When we talked last year, you said you guys had a great relationship with Oscar Pareja. With the new coaching staff, has that relationship changed?

The relationship with Pablo, the philosophy has been set by the club so we’ve found people that understand that philosophy. There’s been no change at all with regard to our mentality, except with regard to the fact that we have a more direct dialogue regarding the youth players with Pablo than we’ve ever had. We have dialogue on a daily basis about not only first team players, but how we can create a better player for the first team. Every day we’re trying to figure that out. It’s constant with Paul. It’s constant with Pablo. Obviously all of Pablo’s staff have Youth Development experience so we’ve got a very good relationship. The nice thing about building from within is the expectations, the terminology, the ethos of this club over the past 3 or 4 years has been starting to manifest in every conversation. We start talking the same way. Pablo has been wonderful for us and wholeheartedly believes in what we’re doing.

And what are you doing? What kind of team are you trying to develop through the Academy?

Technically competent, possession oriented to advance, not for the sake of possession not playing it to the back four, possession going through the team. Possession that is positive that can put teams under pressure. Creation of opportunities. Attacking minded. Do we have players in every position that can give us a chance to penetrate, go forward, and score goals. Do we have a great mentality where we defend collectively, that we transition quickly and play at a high tempo. We talk about that from the top of the club on down.