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In the pipeline: The Colorado Rapids Development Academy

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You may see some of these youths on the Colorado Rapids senior team someday. And based on the buzz and recent call-ups, you might even see some of them on the USMNT.

Rapids Development Academy players warming up before a friendly in San Francisco, Panama this past December.
Rapids Academy via twitter

While there have been many changes within the Colorado Rapids organization over the past few months that make the future somewhat unclear, there is one thing we know for sure—hope springs eternal from within the Rapids Development Academy. The Rapids maintain a youth program for soccer players in Colorado, New Mexico, and (strangely) North Carolina that extends from a summer U-23 team all the way down to kids as young as four years old.

The best of the best play for the Rapids Development Academy, a fully-funded, top-level youth club that travels across the US and around the world playing other top youth clubs. In fact, some of the best young players in MLS came through an MLS academy. Tyler Adams, Justen Glad, Andrew Carleton, and Jordan Morris, are just a few names that began in their local youth club and rose through the ranks to become professionals for their hometown club.

The Rapids, too, have produced some impressive players who successfully made their way through the system and to the pitch inside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in front of 17,000 supporters. Davy Armstrong, Shane O’Neill, Dillon Serna, and most recently Kortne Ford and Ricardo Perez, have worn burgundy almost all their lives, and made the jump from being youth players to being on the senior team. Our youth academy provides a beacon hope even at the end of a sub-par season: the next great Rapids player might be just a year or two away.

After several down seasons over the past few years, the 2017-2018 Rapids DA teams are having a tremendous season. The U-16 are currently 9-1-2 (WTL) and sit in second place in the USSDA Central Conference/Frontier Division. The U-18 team also sits in second in the region with a 6-4-1 (WTL) record. And some of the Rapids U-23 players have been exceptional contributors to the top NCAA programs in the country.

And the really big news: four Colorado Rapids players were among the 153 youngsters called into the USYNT Camp to scrimmage with the U-17, U-18, U-19, and U-20 National Teams. To my knowledge, that is the largest number of Colorado Rapids ever called up by the national team.

Given that, now seems as good a time as ever to provide an update on our youth academy boys. Below you’ll find the recent accomplishments of some of the noteworthy youth players in the Rapids system, but it is by no means an all-encompassing list of every youth player with a shot at the pros.

I was also able to get comments on the players from the Rapids Director of Soccer Development Brian Crookham. Nobody knows these players or cares about their success as people and as soccer players as much as Brian, and I am very thankful for his contribution.

Alongside each player’s name is their position and birth year. If they have graduated from high school, I included their year in school and their college. If not, I included their hometown.

I restrained myself, particularly with some of the younger players, from getting too excited, since heaping attention and expectations on a bunch of 15-year-olds seems both premature and slightly irresponsible. So while some amazing things are happening at the U-15 level and below, I’ll wait to call attention to those boys for a few more years.

Defenders

Andrew Epstein (GK, 1997, Stanford Graduate)

Epstein was the Cardinal’s keeper in 2015 and 2016 when the school won back-to-back NCAA Men’s National Championships. Specifically, it was his penalty kick-saving heroics that earned Stanford the 2016 College Cup. Epstein was also named the 2016 NCAA College Cup Most Outstanding Player.

Having completed his degree and his athletic eligibility at Stanford, the Fort Collins native seemed poised to begin a professional soccer career. Instead, he went to Africa with the Peace Corps. Indications are that Epstein will pursue professional opportunities other than soccer when he returns from serving abroad, but you never know...

Sam Raben (D, 1998, Jr, Wake Forest)

Raben has started every game on the backline for the Demon Deacons beginning in his Freshman year, and in the three years he’s been with the team, Wake Forest has gone to the NCAA Tournament every single year. In 2016 Wake met the aforementioned Stanford Cardinal in the title matchup. This past season, Top Drawer Soccer named Sam to the NCAA Men’s Team of the Week for October 31.

Brian Crookham said, “the hardnosed defender has been a very consistent performer since he stepped on campus. Raben is simple on the ball, a good individual defender and has anchored a back four that has been one of the best in the nation over the last three years. Raben spent time with the Rapids U23s last summer before participating in the Maccabi Games* in Israel. He is expected to again see action in the PDL this summer.”

Quentin Pearson (D, 1998, Jr, University of Washington)

It is going to sound like I am repeating myself, but since moving to Seattle, defender Quentin Pearson has also started every game over his three years for the Huskies, and also was named to the TDS team of the week on October 31.

Crookham tells us that he is “a very consistent defender that can play center back or full-back. He has very good concentration and 1:1 defending ability. Sam is excellent in the air, both defensively and as a threat on set pieces. Intelligent, reads the game very well. I anticipate him coming back for PDL season this summer.”

If Pearson and Raben continue to develop and Kort Ford stays in Commerce City, it is conceivable that the 2020 or 2021 Colorado Rapids could have a backline composed of three defenders born and raised in the Centennial state.

Kainoa Likewise (GK, 1999, Colorado Springs)

First of all, what a name.

Kai has been touted for years as the best keeper in the Rapids system, starting for the U-16, U-17, and U-18 squads. If you went out to training field 23 to stand on the berm and watch the Rapids practice, Kai was the answer to the question ‘Who’s the big kid with the mop top standing next to Tim Howard?’ Kai was homeschooled for his education, and upon his completion of studies, went to North Carolina to join the Charlotte Independence.

Because the Rapids released their third goalkeeper John Berner this past November, and because most MLS teams regularly stash their third netminder with a USL team, I think odds are decent that the Rapids sign Likewise to the senior team. The other possibilities are for the Rapids to acquire a third keeper in the MLS SuperDraft next week, or sign a free agent keeper from somewhere around the league, but I think calling up a homegrown would make the most sense.

Trevor Mowry (GK, 2000, California Polytechnic State University)

If you were worried that the Rapids youth teams might start leaking goals without the dominant presence of Kai Likewise, fear not—Trevor Mowry’s got us covered. Mowry, a native of Greeley, is said to be “a great shot stopper who also has good range comparative to his size”, so maybe more Nick Rimando than Tim Howard. Mowry will likely be the Rapids #1 GK for the U-18s until he heads off to college in the fall. Trevor committed last month to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. Cal Poly is also the alma mater of newly signed Rapids and New Zealand NT defender Kip Colvey.

Luke Hansen (D, 2001, Littleton)

Hansen is one of the four Rapids called into USYNT camp this past week. He’s another left back, which is a blessing considering how important the position is and how incredibly hard it is to find good left-footed defenders with pace and passing. Hansen got perhaps my favorite comment from Crookham when he called him “a nasty competitor who is always up for the task.” #RapidsThugLife is bred deep and early, y’all, and I’m more than ok with that.

Sebastian Anderson (D/M, 2002, Highlands Ranch)

The youngest of the players profiled here is Sebastian Anderson. As a 15-year-old, he’s far enough away from the pros that you might wonder if he’s worth mentioning. He is.

Anderson was the only Colorado player from any of the local Development Academy clubs** called into John Hackworth’s U-17 US National Team. Note also that he was called in despite playing up a year (at his age he should be with the U-16s). The kid is that good. The most exciting thing about this fullback/wing midfielder is that he was described as “a good athlete that will rarely be beaten for pace.” You can’t coach speed, and a kid who is fast at 15 but still has years and years ahead of him to learn the technical and decision-making skills demanded at the highest levels of soccer is about as exciting as it gets.

Midfielders

Sam Vines (M/D, 1999, Colorado Springs)

Vines is also attending the USYNT summit in Florida, where he will be playing with the U-20 National Team. Last summer the left-footed winger/fullback played 450 minutes for the Rapids U-23 team, and this fall he was in Charlotte on an amateur contract with the Rapids USL affiliate Charlotte Independence.

Crookham tells Burgundy Wave that Sam had “a breakout year”, as he led the Rapids U-19 team to the Development Academy Final Four, trained with first team regularly, and is “one of the best passers” in the entire Rapids Academy program. Crookham added that Vines is “deadly on free kicks” as well. If that isn’t impressive enough, Sam was named to US Development Academy Best XI for the 2016-17 season.

Here’s a pretty cool Adidas/Rapids video of Vines bossing the midfield Garden of the Gods and talking about his passion for the game.

Vines hasn’t committed to a university for the fall, fueling some speculation that he might possibly turn professional very soon. If you wanted to keep your eye on just a handful of Rapids youth players over the next few years, you might want to start by circling Sam Vines’ name: Crookham called him “clearly one of our top homegrown prospects.”

Greg Tracey (M, 1999, University of Portland)

Tracey is a talented and technical central midfielder for the U-20s and another of the Academy boys called up to the USYNT for January camp. Crookham called him “one of the most technical players in the academy” who hadn’t garnered much attention outside of Colorado until December, when he absolutely tore up the USSDA Showcase event.

Brian’s description of Greg’s dribbling skill and penchant for working in tight spaces evoked images of a soccer magician juggling his way out of phone booth and sombrero’ing a defender without breaking a sweat. Tracey is likely a long way off from the senior team, seeing as he doesn’t enroll in college until fall of 2018, but his star is clearly on the rise.

Forwards

Brooks Crawford (F, 1998, Fr, University of Denver)

Crawford had an exceptional youth career with the Rapids as a U-18 and signed with the Pioneers upon graduating in 2017. “(Brooks) tore his ACL in the spring in a DA game and had to redshirt this fall as a freshman,” says Brian. “He’s a versatile attacking player that can play in any of the front 4 positions.”

Hopefully he comes back at full strength in 2018. The Pios certainly could have used him, as they had a below-expected season this year, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

Rhys de Sota (F, 1999, Redshirt Fr, Stanford)

If you’ve been recruited to play for Stanford, you can ball a little. The Cardinal have won three NCAA College Championships in Mens Soccer, back to back to back. And their best player, Tomas Hilliard-Arce, has been tabbed by all the analysts as a lock to be the first pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft next week. You can start the ‘de Sota hype-train’ now, I think.

Rhys spent the first year training in Palo Alto as a non-medical redshirt. De Sota played 6 games and 301 minutes for Rapids U-23 this summer, and the team was excited enough about his talent that the digital team made this sweet little hype-video for the guy a few months back.

In his final high school year in Colorado, de Sota was the leading scorer for the Rapids U-19 team that made the 2017 USSDA Final Four. Crookham tells us that his style of game is as a target forward “who is good with his back to goal and very effective in the box.”

Matt Hundley (F, 2000, Littleton)

I know this is going to sound crazy, but the Colorado Rapids score a lot of goals. They just do it mostly with their U-18 team—and Matt Hundley is a big reason why.

Hundley joined the Rapids from another top-notch local club, Real Colorado, to begin the 2017-18 season. He has an outrageous 11 goals in 12 games for the Rapids U-18 DA team. In one match against the Houston Dynamo, Hundley put up four goals on the Orangemen. Uh, wow?

Crookham’s glowing comments on the attacker are like sweet music to Rapids fans ears: “Very aggressive attacking player with a nose for goal”, “Loves to take on players 1:1 from wide positions and is a scoring threat from almost any angle”, “Attacking skillset and mentality that is very difficult to find in youth players.” Yowza.

Hundley was also one of the four boys called up to USYNT camp in Florida from January 2nd to the 11th, where he was on the U-19 team with other boys born in the year 2000. In June of 2017, he almost made the final cut of players to join the US U-17 National team at a tournament in Spain, alongside highly touted players in the US system Andrew Carleton, Ayo Akinola, and Chris Goslin.

I really try not to get excited about youth players, because they still have a long road until it is certain that they can replicate at the professional level what they did as kids.

But... I’d be lyin’ if I told you I wasn’t excited about Matt Hundley.

Again, my sincere thanks to Brian Crookham for generously adding his input to this article. As excited as I am about the future of the Rapids, Brian is more excited by a factor of ten.

— — — — — — — — —

* The Maccabi Games are known as ‘The Jewish Olympics’. Held every four years in Israel, they are an international competition of Jewish athletes at both the youth and senior levels. Raben and the US team won the gold for the second time in a row, beating Uruguay, Mexico, and Great Britain in the knockout stages. Maryland striker Jake Rozhansky scored 6 goals in the tournament, and just Thursday announced that he would skip the MLS combine and draft and sign with Israeli Premier League team Maccabi Netanya FC. This was a good team.

** In addition to the Colorado Rapids, two other local clubs, Colorado Rush and Real Colorado, maintain USSDA top-level academy clubs.