Thousands of kids descend upon Dick’s Sporting Goods Park every season to watch their hometown team, the Colorado Rapids, play soccer at the highest levels. Sunburns on their necks, grass stains on their knees, some still wearing their cleats from an all-day tournament in Aurora or Westminster or Broomfield, they watch intently for a deft pass or a clever turn from their burgundy-clad heroes. Throughout the stands, fathers whisper to sons and mothers to daughters “Work hard enough, and someday, that could be you.”
But there are 73,000 youth soccer players in Colorado, and not all of them will go on to play soccer at the highest youth levels. After club and high school soccer, even fewer still will play soccer in college at one of the US’s 206 NCAA Division I soccer programs. Onward from there, only a tiny fraction of those young men will be lucky enough to be one of the 80 or so players to get selected by an MLS team. And fewer than half of those selected will make it through pre-season to earn a spot on an MLS team.
From a veritable ocean of American soccer players, only a trickle will survive the competition and culling to end up on a professional soccer pitch.
Sam Hamilton knows this. And he’s not throwing away his shot.
“It’s a big step from college, but at the same time, this is something I’ve dreamt about my whole life. With all the fans, and the video that comes on before, the fireworks and all that, I’ve wanted that my whole life.”
Hamilton grew up in Evergreen, Colorado and played soccer for local club team Colorado Rush, as well as his school, Evergreen High. He was one of those grass-stained kids getting discount tickets in the south stand. Born July 21, 1995, Sam is just barely older than the Rapids themselves. He was still playing with the U12s when the Rapids moved from the cavernous expanses of Invesco Stadium, with its football field stripes, to their current home in Commerce City in 2007.
“I’ve been to the stadium so many times growing up as a Colorado kid. It kind of hit me being in locker room before that this is my team now. From that perspective it was really cool. When the team won, it was my win too.”
Hamilton joins a core of Colorado-born-and-bred soccer players on the roster. Bobby Burling, Dillon Serna, Kortne Ford, and Ricardo Perez are all Coloradans that have taken different paths to becoming part of the professional team that represents their home. Burling was raised in Monument, Colorado, and only recently returned to his home state after an MLS career spent playing in Los Angeles and San Jose. Serna, who grew up in Brighton, was one of the Rapids first-ever ‘homegrown’ players, along with Shane O’Neil and Davy Armstrong.* Serna was signed to the club from the Rapids U18 academy in 2012 after playing for one year at the University of Akron. Ford and Perez were both homegrowns as well, signed at the end of 2016 to form a core of Rapids players who grew up practicing at altitude, in the snow, and with the Rocky Mountains as their everyday backdrop.
Since Hamilton played for Colorado Rush, he wasn’t eligible to be a homegrown player. But clearly his success with the University of Denver made an impression on the Rapids scouting team. Playing at defensive midfield, Hamilton, along with teammate Ford and Real Salt Lake draftee Reagan Dunk, helped lead the Pioneers to their first-ever NCAA Soccer Final Four appearance this past Fall. The Rapids made Hamilton their first round pick, selecting him 15th overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft this past January.
Being an MLS draft pick is by no means a guarantee of a roster spot; even first round picks are sometimes cut pre-season. Hamilton was aware of the challenge he was facing.
“It was tough. It was definitely not an easy two months. It’s walking out on the field everyday and knowing that it’s life or death. At the same time, you can’t look at that way. For me the best piece of advice that I got was: focus on getting better every day.”
Hamilton knew that it was important to focus on the details that the coaches and his teammates were trying to impart upon him.
“(They told me to) approach the training session focused on the little things, and just do all the things that make you good. It’s important to show them that I have that ability to learn and apply what they’re teaching me. That’s how I’m ultimately going to get on the field.”
There’s no doubt he’s trusted in his teammates for their advice and support in what is certainly a demanding, high-pressure environment.
“The veterans in the locker room do a good job, they put their arm around you and ask how’re you doing, and make sure that you’re doing ok. Top down, from Pablo to everybody.”
The Rapids of course have two of the best defensive midfielders in MLS starting regularly, in Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira. While it probably can be frustrating for a young player to be stuck behind a talented veteran on the depth chart, Hamilton also sees the advantages of being able to learn from two talented and successful MLS veterans.
“From Sam (Cronin), there’s a lot of things I can learn from him as a soccer player. Just how he approaches each session, how he talks to the guys, how he carries himself all of those things that made him successful. Azira is always pulling me aside and saying ‘you should think about it this way’ ‘you should think about it that way’ ‘you should do this’. I think just learning how they think about the game will help me. What better two players to be behind?”
All the hard work and efforts certainly have already paid off some for Sam. In one of his first matches, Hamilton got the chance to live the dream a little by playing against a football legend. “We got to play against (Andrea) Pirlo in preseason; he’s somebody I’ve always watched. That was cool.”
There is no telling when Hamilton will get his first chance to start for the Rapids. Unless there is an injury, it’s likely Hamilton will see his first significant playing time during the US Open Cup, when the Rapids first opponent will be a lower-league team. That will give the team a chance to rest their veterans and also give their younger players a chance to show their stuff.
For a player like Sam: young, scrappy, and hungry, that first opportunity to make his mark at the senior level can’t come soon enough.
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*An earlier version of this story omitted this fact. Thanks readers!