Entering the Rapids front office suite was, quite honestly, entirely terrifying for me, for starters. It's one thing to be a rookie sportswriter on your first assignment. It's quite another thing to be a fanboy-supporter with a day job and an iphone with a 'record' button. I was a little nervous to meet Senior Director of Soccer Development Brian Crookham. But once I shook hands with Brian and we sat down in his office, the conversation was pretty much just two guys who love soccer and the Colorado Rapids, yaking away about our mutual affinity.
Crookham has been working full-time for the Rapids in coaching and youth development since 2007, while also serving stints doing color commentary alongside Richard Fleming and serving as assistant coach under Gary Smith and Fernando Clavijo. Brian is a warm fellow, quick with a handshake or a back slap.
His office has all the hallmarks of a man with a lot to do. His computer was open to his email. Tidy stacks of papers on his three-quarter wraparound desk covered the myriad of roles he plays: one had a ticket itinerary for players and staff to the USOC trip to Dallas, another a flight for Crookham to the USL team in Charlotte, another a handwritten 4-4-2 chart with names in three different color inks: Magee, De Jong, Gerrard. Crookham later told me he was off to the Altitude studios to do the color commentary alongside Fleming for the Rapids game against the LA Galaxy, and was preparing himself by researching every lineup the Galaxy had used this year. And that's just his side gig.
Crookham's main responsibility looms large in the office. Literally. A ten-foot high floor-to-ceiling wipe board has a list of every development academy class from the graduates of U18 in 2011 down to the current U12 players. Crookham keeps taps on every player in the system, current and former, while simultaneously scouting for the system locally and knowing the local Colorado youth landscape, and coordinating with Technical Director Paul Bravo, Sporting Director Padraig Smith, Director of Soccer Claudio Lopez and Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni about ideas and approaches and vision and specific needs the team must address. It's clearly a big job, but Crookham wore a smile on his face and exuded a tremendous joy and positivity about the state of the Rapids youth system and the direction of the club throughout our interview.
We sat down and I immediately had to ask about the USMNT, since the night before was the day of wreckening (punny misspelling intentional) for the USMNT, as they had gotten destroyed against Argentina, 4-0. Crookham's quick take on the match "If you're gonna go press, you've gotta get it perfect on the day, and we didn't get it perfect." We rapped tactics and personnel for a little bit, and then shifted to the Rapids for the interview you see here below. I gave it to you pretty much straight, but bolded some comments I thought standout in terms of what they tell us about where the Rapids are now and where they are headed.
This is part one of the interview on the academy and youth system. Part two (and three?) will be coming later this week, and a bonus section on Crookham's observations on the Senior team will be coming next week. If you want a little context about the Rapids youth system, how it works, and where it's at, check the first part of this series here.
Thanks very much to the Rapids Front Office for setting up the interview and especially to Brian Crookham for taking an hour out of a busy week to talk to Burgundy Wave.
Rapids Rabbi: Let's talk Academy. When I first wanted to do this interview, I wanted to interview the Academy coach. But Jamie Smith left, like, three months ago? Four months ago? And he was a great Rapids player and I'm sure he was a great coach, and I'm sure he's doing really well at his next job. Have you identified what you're looking for in the next coach, and what are the challenges in looking for and finding the right person to shepherd the academy teams to the next level to be really great?
Brian Crookham: Great question. So as we look at what we're doing in the academy, number one, now that we've got a full staff, from a senior staff perspective across the board with the Rapids, Paul (Bravo)'s been able to spend a little bit more time with us as well and will be very active in searching for the next person who will be the program manager for the Academy. He (Paul Bravo) will still oversee the direction of everything on the technical side. But getting a program manager in place again is quite important. Jamie (Smith) was very good. Jamie was certainly a player that helped us win a championship, he was able to come into the academy and make an impact on the players, so, we want a similar type profile of person, somebody that's got similar playing experience, and understands MLS and whats going to happen there. Somebody that has a lot of coaching experience at the youth level, so that they understand player development in general.
It's not an easy transition, coming from playing to coaching. Being able to articulate, sometimes even just recognize why you might have been successful as a player. That's not an automatic transition, so that it takes somebody that's extremely talented in understanding what that process is, and then being able to articulate it. Because there's a lot of people that can write X's and O's on paper, but getting that across to a twelve year-old or an eighteen year-old or a twenty-two year-old takes specific skill sets. So, I think a combination of experience in our league and experience in youth development is very very important to the next person that we bring in.
That quickly limits the pool of people, as well as the timing, because we've got to be respectful in any situation. Coaches that have those credentials are also in a situation right now where you can't leave, necessarily, in May. Their calendar is going to be different at the youth level than it is in MLS, because you follow more of the academic calendar at the youth level versus a traditional calendar.
RR: And you know that very well because you yourself came to the Rapids from the college game. When you were hired from Metro State, it had to be the right time and the right place.
BC: And that's the whole thing is getting it all right. Look, we've identified candidates. I think that in the next couple of weeks, we'll be able to announce something very exciting, but again, we're going to be respectful of situations of candidates we have. We'll be up and running in the middle of July, prior to our high school tryouts. We spoken to a number of people, but we need to allow those people to finish out their commitments.
RR: The last Rapids academy player to go to the senior team was Dillon Serna in 2012. If you look at the other teams around MLS, that's a long time, by comparison. The jewel in the MLS Academy crown right now, that everybody talks about, is FC Dallas, or the Red Bulls, who are churning out development kids and signing them to the Senior team right and left. It seems to be a challenge for the Rapids the last couple of years. What do you attribute that to? Have you thought to think about where you're at and where you want to get to in order to start produce a few more senior team players.
BC: We think about it every day. This is a big investment for the club, for Kroenke sports in general, so we have a responsibility with that investment to do a good job for them. When you look at the Davy (Armstrong)s and the Shane (O'Neill)s and the Dillon (Serna)s, there's one thing that's different now then there was when those guys were there, and that's the lack of a reserve team. That was a significant factor in each of those guys preparation for us to sign them as eighteen year-olds. If we wouldn't have had that ability to see them in professional competition prior to signing them, we might not be as comfortable and the player might not be as comfortable with that decision to then forego college soccer. It's a major decision. That's the biggest gap that we have currently.
RR: It's also a challenge when you try to sign players off the SuperDraft because you don't have that many slots to put them in, so guys like Javon Torre, they pretty much have to make the 23 (man roster) off the bat, or one of the couple slots you have at Charlotte (Independence) . It's a challenge.
BC: Exactly. Look, ideally, we would have that setup, a PDL setup, and all the way down in a full pyramid, based out of Dicks Sporting Goods Park. And that's not reality right now.
Look, we've made some major investments in our soccer product. This year, I don't see us bringing a USL team to Dicks Sporting Goods Park. That's in the plans, it's not going to happen this year.
RR: But the whole team sees that that is the direction you'll need to be in in order to get back...
BC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so we've got to solve that issue in other ways. So when you take a step back, the most important thing is that we look at these individuals and how they are progressing. Quite frankly in our academy, we've had a thin year of older players. That's fine. It's cyclical. It's also a group that didn't necessarily have when we started the academy. That's aging out. And now we will basically have age groups that we've had, and we've had the core of the players since very young. So now the system has flushed itself and we're going through. It's a pretty exciting time from that standpoint.
But when you look at all the college players on the board here (Crookham gestures to the wipe board on his left), we've have a lot more that have gone the college route now that have professional potential, so that if you go through our list of players, even that 15 group (the 2015 Academy team, listed here) those graduates right there, and you look at Sam Raben, he started all year at Wake Forest as a centerback as a freshman, you've got Courtney Ford that's at Denver from the '14 class, that started as centerback there all year, and these guys now, we've got an under 23 group that we started this summer, so they're able to come back, and we're able to start bridging that gap.
RR: Who do they play?
BC: Well, we played an exhibition against Albuquerque Sol, which is PDL, we play Harpos next week next Wednesday at 7pm. We're doing a game with Alianza...
RR: Harpos! The guys on the Flakoglost pod will probably be very excited about that. You know that podcast?
BC: Yeah! I haven't listened to it, but I'm aware.
RR: Buckle down for a lot of swear words, but other than that it's a lot of fun. I can't listen to it in the car with my kids in the car, unfortunately.
BC: ...And the Pearsons (Quentin Pearson, Rapids U18 in 2015) and Andrew Epstein is the goalkeeper of the national championship team (at Stanford), so all those guys are coming back in the summers, and we're able to keep them on our homegrown list, so there's two pathways to get homegrowns there. Kids who played on the same team as Dillon and Shane in the development academy will now be Seniors in college this year. So you've got to think about it like that. So although we haven't signed a player from that time period right now, there are still players active from those teams their age and younger that are still on our radar. So they don't have to come in at eighteen, they can come back as a homegrown at twenty-two.
Part Two of my interview with Brian Crookham is coming later this week.
* Padraig is pronounced ‘porrick'. Throws me for a damn loop ever time I hear it.