Because I’m weird, and broke, rather than head to the more-expensive marquee event of the MLS All-Star Game, I hit up the bargain-version Chipotle Homegrown game. Which was pretty fun, especially on the Club America U20 side of the ball. The Aguilas (Eagles) of Club America passed beautifully and looked to be the more talented side throughout. Nonetheless, the MLS Homegrowns were impressive. Tommy Thompson had some nice moments, included the game’s first goal. Erik Palmer-Brown impressed me with fantastic close-down speed and good overall defense. Coy Craft and Oscar Sorto looked MLS-ready. On the other hand, Dillon Serna wasn’t very effective, as America kept him pinned on the right wing. And Shane O’Neill played at right back, and proved that he probably shouldn’t be a right back.
What the game really did was let me think and wonder a bit about the Rapids Academy. And by think, mostly I mean worry, since the Rapids Academy hasn’t really made much news of note in a while. Which lead to me think the following:
Ward, I’m a little worried about the Beaver.
And by that I mean, I’m developing a growing anxiety about the product (or lack of product) coming out of the Colorado Rapids Youth Academy.
I’ll be honest that I’m hesitant to write this article, and have been for some time. That’s for a bunch reasons. For one, looking at a group of kids that haven’t learned to drive; or kissed a girl; or finished pre-algebra; and pinning your hopes to them as your franchise salvation is sort of ridiculous. They’re kids. Even the most talented and competitive boys at the top of the academy teams are just kids. If you put excessive pressure and expectations on a kid, you wind up creating Freddie Adu: a young man on his 7th soccer team who many have labelled ‘a failure’ because he wasn’t the American Messi many had hoped. That’s dumb.
For another, I’m no expert. Running a youth academy, developing talent, and coaching kids to become successful at soccer is a frikkin’ mystery to me. I’m not saying I can do a better job. I can’t.
So remember that my goal here is not to criticize the kids in the program, or tell people what training methods to use. I want to highlight concerns, and emphasize that I believe the future of the Rapids success is absolutely certain to come from a strong youth system, and not a big money EPL retiree-signing (looking at you, LA, NY, and Montreal.)
Here are the things that I see in the Rapids Youth system that concern me that it isn’t where it needs to be.
Exhibit A: The Senior Rapids team haven’t signed any Homegrowns. In a While.
The Rapids signed O’Neill and Serna in 2012. Since then, 49 players have been signed by MLS teams to Homegrown contracts, while the Rapids have signed nobody. That means in 2013, 2014, and 2015, none of the players on the Rapids U18 and U19 team were worthy of being signed to a Homegrown contract.
On a related note, the US team recently named it’s current U18 squad, and nine MLS academies produced members of the USMNT U18 callups, including FC Dallas, the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and even MLS noobs Orlando City. No Rapids youth players were selected. This is further indication that the Rapids academy isn't quite on par with the academies of other teams in producing future talent for the senior team.
It’s still possible that a Rapids youth player could go off to college and become an MLS-caliber player; some of this years U18s will be playing Division I soccer in the Fall at schools like Creighton, Loyola Marymont, Oregon State, and Lipscomb. Still, you’d expect a prospect or two to go to the senior team. Creighton was ranked #8 nationally at the end of last year, and is getting Rapids U18 players Kyle Ericson and Elias Helbig. We can only hope that Creighton develops these kids and the Rapids can successfully bring them back into the fold.
Exhibit B: The Rapids Youth Academy team isn’t the top team in Colorado at any level.
Here's a listing of the rankings, based on team performance against other top ranked teams and overall won-loss, from gotsoccer.com.
Here's the U15.
And the U16.
And the U17.
And the U18.
The Rapids youth system have the benefit of having the top professional club in all of Colorado as their big brother and patron. They have great facilities at their disposal: the fields at Dicks Sporting Goods Park. They get visits from Rapids players like Drew Moor, Dillon Serna, and Clint Irwin (I’m friends with a devoted Rapids soccer mom who told me as much) They should have the money, support, organization, recruiting, and coaching to be the best team in the state. But they’re not.
The good news is, the younger teams did pretty well. Last year at the U15 level, the academy team was ranked #2 in the state, with their non-academy Burgundy team ranked #11. The U16 team was ranked third best. Not bad!
The bad news is that the older teams have been much less successful. The U17 was ranked #11, well below several Colorado Rush and Real Colorado teams. And the U18 teams were ranked #8 (Burgundy) and #17 (Academy). The Academy team had 5 wins and 12 losses. Not great.
The best club in Colorado last year, up and down the age rankings and in both boys and girls divisions, is Real Colorado, out of Highlands Ranch. You can really see that in the state club championship results from May.**
Spring season Colorado soccer is a really fickle thing to judge: a lot of the best high school kids might be playing both for their club and their high school team, and might miss some of their club matches. Nonetheless, it seems apparent that the Rapids Academy team (the top kids), and Burgundy and Blue squads (competitive, but not the most elite team) aren’t as good as their counterparts in Fort Collins, in Boulder, and especially in Highlands Ranch. It could be due to a lot of things, but the fact that these other teams simply win more games and score more goals speak for themselves.
Exhibit C: There’s a leadership vacuum in the Youth Program.
As a parent of a four-year old playing with the Rapids*, I got an email at the end of the year telling me that the Executive Director, Stephanie Gabberts, had resigned. I was curious. So I looked into it up, and Gabberts had quit after only 11 months in the job. That’s not long. Furthermore, that was May, and it’s now August, and there’s still no Executive Director for the Rapids Youth program. There also isn’t a Director of Coaching. Or a Director of Outreach. It sounds like the Rapids are struggling to develop and maintain not only a youth program vision, but even the leaders to create that vision are absent.
Like I said, I’m no expert in top-level coaching. But I have witnessed it to some degree. In my younger days, I was a ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley, in New Mexico; a highly regarding ski school that prides itself on innovation and technique development. This was in 1999, when the shaped/parabolic ski had just become fully become universal, and Taos realized that the old 1980’s twist and flex ‘Stem Christie’ method of skiing was obsolete with the new equipment. So they re-invented their ski school and style and method of teaching, top to bottom. In my first week of training, Taos Ski School basically made me, an expert skier, re-learn skiing, right from the wedge. It was hard. It worked. And it was amazing.
That’s what it means to have leadership from the top: somebody looking at an entire organization and saying: this is the style we’re going to teach; this is the way we’re going to build soccer players. The Rapids aren’t doing that, because there’s nobody at the wheel right now, and the last person didn’t even make it a full calendar year.
Thoughts on Ways to Correct
Producing a homegrown MLS-level talent is easier said than done. I’m sure it requires a lot of patience and a lot of luck. But most of all, I think it takes commitment of two things: time and money.
My philosophy on the Rapids future is this: no big name European DP is ever going to look out across the pond and say ‘I’ve always wanted to live in Denver Colorado’. We’re fly-over country. I’d be surprised if Steven Gerrard could even find Colorado on a map. We’re never going to build an MLS Cup team the way the LA Galaxy and NYCFC can. We need to bet our money on our youth system. And I mean all of it.
For example, consider that the money we received for selling Deshorn Brown to Norway, rumored to be upwards of $3 million dollars, could provide a decade of soccer programs for 100+ kids. That’s like flipping a house and buying 10 more fixer-uppers with the profit. It’s smart business.
Putting money in the academy means a bunch of things. For one, it means more coaches; better coaches, and better paid coaches. The Rapids must identify talented coaches and bring them into our system. That would also result in talented kids around the area gravitating to the Rapids program.
The Rapids also need to spend more money to have more teams, and expand their geographic reach. Rapids teams are geographically centered in Central Denver, Aurora, and Commerce City. Talented kids in Centennial, Broomfield, and West Denver are playing with other teams. The Rapids need to expand into those areas any way they can: buying up other teams, starting new teams, etc. Aggressive expansion means more players. More players gives the team a higher chance of turning up the next Homegrown star.
West Denver is a significant area the Rapids must develop. Denver’s Latino population is huge. It is soccer-mad. It is centralized and organized. It is under-served in all variety of ways. And it’s waiting to be tapped by the Rapids, if they can invest in the community there smartly.
Finally, the Rapids need to create a financial model that is more likely to attract lots and lots of kids, instead of only affluent families. Like most MLS academies, the top tier academy players are funded by the club. But at the lower levels, especially below U11, Rapids soccer is expensive- more expensive even than other clubs. When I was looking for a team for my kids, the Rapids team was always $30 to 60 more expensive than another club. It’s not a lot, but if you lose a family from your system at the age of seven because the cost was too high, you may never see them again. The Rapids need to see the youth system as a link to the community, a promotional program, and a very deep extension of their roster; instead of a profit-generating arm for the big club.
This is about the long game: spending lots of money on lots of kids now to produce two things: 1) a few top-notch talents for the senior club, and 2) loads and loads of kids with positive feelings towards the Colorado Rapids, who then are likely to be lifelong fans that buy tickets and jerseys and all that stuff. Dynasties are built slowly, methodically, and thoughtfully. And they start with kids.
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*Note 1: As much as I’m writing about how the Rapids should go about creating the next generation of MLS superstars, my four year old is probably not part of that plan. He’s of the ‘pretend he’s Batman and run behind the goal pretending it’s the batcave’ school of soccer tactics. I’m perfectly ok with that. He’ll be a fine accountant someday.
**Note 2: When I looked more closely at this, I saw that it seemed the Rapids teams didn't enter the CO Cup tournament. Which is weird, because the winners go to the Region IV championships and, potentially, onto this summer's US Youth Soccer Championships in Tulsa. Why the Rapids didn't send a single team seems odd to me. Maybe there's a good reason. I suspect, based on local won-loss records, the reason was a belief that the Rapids teams wouldn't do very well, and that's... not a great reason.