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Brian Crookham Interview, Part 2

In Part 1 of my interview with Director of Soccer Development, Mr. Crookham shared the Rapids developmental priorities, addressed the struggles the U18s and U16s had experienced, and revealed an exciting new project, a Rapids U23 team. In Part 2, Crookham and I discuss how to fix NCAA soccer, the contribution of USL affiliate Charlotte Independence, the homegrown tag in MLS, and how to go about getting all the most talented players in Colorado into the Rapids system.

Development Director Brian Crookham, puttin' in work.
Development Director Brian Crookham, puttin' in work.

Part 2 of my interview with Brian Crookham is loaded with great insider info for the diehard Rapids fan. For Part 1 and an overall Rapids Academy primer, go here and here. Bolded quotes are highlights for the TL;DR crowd.

Rapids Rabbi: There is a huge debate within the US soccer world of what do we need to do to produce national team players. Do you feel like the NCAA can be a good breeding ground for Rapids players down the road; that you can put the homegrown tag on them at, say, at 18 and then say, ‘You go off to Creighton, you go off to Michigan, and play college soccer.' Do you think that has been good for the Rapids, for MLS? Or do you think that the FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy's and the Philadelphia Unions that are gung-ho into large pyramid development is the better path?

Brian Crookham: I think that it is a necessary pathway, because if you say that a player is either ready or not ready at eighteen, we'll probably miss out on some players. Also, if you send them all the college route, we're going to lose guys that were probably ready, and that wasn't the best environment for them. So, we've got to balance that. It (the NCAA) is a necessary pathway right now. It's got its limitations, clearly, for access to coaching staff at the college level...

RR: Do you think (NCAA) season length is a problem?

BC: It's a major problem. You even see that in the draft picks that come in. They come in here and they'll hit a wall, somewhere around May, because they've never been in an environment where they have to push through five months, much less ten months. And so, almost to a person, you'll get the college drafted guys will start really churning through their early summer months, because it has been a grind since early January, and they're not quite used to that. There's a lot to it. So, yes, it's very limited from a seasonal standpoint. There's a lot of proposals out there that can make that better. Whether the NCAA is prepared to get to that point, I don't know. I'm out of that loop these days.

RR: I think having a U23 team they can come back to is a good step.

BC: It's a major start for us now, because right now, we've got masses in college that have come out of our group, and some very talented players, that, for whatever reason, were not ready at eighteen, but may be ready at nineteen, twenty, or twenty-two, whatever that age is. So for us to bring them back in, stay in contact with them, keep our  homegrown status with those guys, it's a very important thing.

It also allows us - when we were in Albuquerque - we were able to take some of our (U)16s and (U)18s. When we were talking about missing that gap where we could use our reserve team, we can now fill that in other ways. And can we get them there, and can we fill that with having them play with the U23s? Whether that's in our current format, whether it's an exhibition season, or whether we move that to an actual PDL schedule, either way, we can now stretch our top kids.

We have some really talented U16s that have been playing with our U23, and training with them now in the mornings in the summer. That's great. Our 23s and our most talented academy players train at the same time as the first team. So we've had, probably eleven players out of our academy training with the first team this year, and we've had countless guys from our U23s to rotate in there. Because, if you look at our roster, you throw couple of injuries in out of a 28-player roster, you throw in a couple of players that are in Charlotte (the Charlotte Independence, a USL team the Rapids have an affiliation with), and you have a couple guys on international duty... and you've got training on a Monday and you need that filler, it's a great bridge builder.

We currently now have a setup that allows us to solve some of the issues that we were creating in the reserve league. We're not above sending some players out during the summer months, especially those high school players, to Charlotte, to spend some time there. Mike Jeffries and his staff have been tremendous with our young players, and think we feel very good about our relationship with Charlotte...

RR: (GK John) Berner was player of the week this week, right?

BC: Berner's had a great go at it. Caleb Calvert went there as a young player, and had to learn how to be a bit of a pro a year ago, and now he's coming in, and he's scoring big goals for the group. And he's still a very young player. And you look at Marlon (Hairston) and Badj (Dominique Badji), some of the guys that went last year and had success in some stints there, it shows the importance of doing it. Rumor is, LA will be bringing in some guys from Galaxy II tonight to fill out their roster given the fact that they played on the weekend, and play next weekend, and they play through a very aged roster, to get through a Wednesday night game. Those are important pieces. We've got to think a little bit outside of the box to solve those problems, given the geography. I spend ten days or two weeks at Charlotte every month, in monitoring what we've got there from a player development standpoint and being that link, and in that, our entire youth development system is linked up.

RR: You mentioned things are a bit cyclical. This is a down year a little bit. The US Development Academy Championships are going on this week, next week. Looking at the academy championships, we're not there, but also, there aren't any Colorado teams there right now. So, taking a step back to take a look at the region, and what's going on, how do you look at Rapids Development Academy in context to what's going on at Real Colorado or FC Vrain, the other teams in the area? How do you scout those teams? The Rapids always have a lot of advantages in that you get to train with pros, you have a giant infrastructure, we're the jewel in the crown here, in soccer in Colorado... How does that play when you look at a kid at Real Colorado, and you can offer them something here (at the Rapids), and be in a position to recruit?

BC: It's an interesting question. For the record, Real Colorado's U16s are in the playoffs, and they're the one team in Colorado that's there, but not the 18s. So it has been a down year in general. In the past we've had some years where all three Denver clubs have teams in the playoffs there.

RR: Mallory Pugh probably took all the talent from Colorado for this year...

BC: She's had a pretty good run, hasn't she? Between Mallory and Lindsey Horan, and some of the girls that come out of the clubs around here, a lot of clubs have done a good job.

The question about local recruitment is a sensitive one. And to be honest with you, we've been very hands-off with in the past in the way we've approached that.

RR: It's a challenge, right? I mean, maybe I don't understand the homegrown tag, although it seems like some other MLS teams have had debatable homegrowns that they've claimed, NYCFC, and so on...

BC: Atlanta just claimed a homegrown and they don't even have a team!

RR: Right! So could you put a homegrown tag on a Real kid?

BC: The answer is no, because we don't have enough contact with them. Somebody would find an exception in some markets, but... So eventually, if we feel that a player has pro potential, then we need to approach the club, find a way to speak with the club, and try to get the player in the situation that we feel is best for them.

RR: You've got to get to them before AS Roma gets to them.

BC: (Big grin) Exactly. There you go. All these kids that are running around with European passports, right?

In the end, we are going to have to be a little more aggressive with that, because now we are making a significant investment in this piece of our business.

RR: And other teams are doing it.

BC: And other teams are doing it. In the end, we need to try to get the best raw materials in our system to have the best chance of having a truly successful development pipeline. We'll work more closely with the clubs to do that. We'll spend more time on the scouting piece of it. Part of that is simply a staffing question. Our guys are spending 200 days a year on the field in critical hours with the players here, so they're not spending a ton of time out in the community looking at those other things. So it becomes about relationships, it becomes about doing a lot of the things that we haven't taken the time to cultivate to this point, or they've been on the list, but haven't quite been executed upon. And now, like I said, with the difference in investment we've put into these programs, that will become a big part of it.

RR: Publicity-wise, the senior team takes a lot of the publicity. The academy gets a couple pictures, a little bit on the website... Do feel like there's a tension between promoting success between kids at the younger levels, and hyping kids up and putting pressure on kids?

BC: There's definitely got to be a balance of that, because we can identify: we've have six players in the national team programs this year, six that have gone into national team camps this year. So if we start having their picture on the website every day, the expectation of that kid, that puts a lot of pressure on that player to ‘get there'.

Which is not a bad thing! Look, they're going to need to be able to deal with pressure.

RR: (Laugh) Look, do think Christian Pulisic had an easy night last night? Prom... to Argentina.

BC: (Laughs) No! And that's the reality for these players, is balancing all that stuff. They need to have pressures put on them. Quite frankly, and one place that we haven't been good at this year in the academy side is they need to have pressure, not only to perform well, but in a way that it'll help their team get results. We haven't gotten enough good results in the academy this year with some pretty talented players. And that's the next step. It's not just about teaching the kids to pass and receive. They need to contribute to having a successful group, and someday their going to need those skills in addition to being able to pass and receive.

Look for the final installment of my interview with Brian Crookham in the days to come...