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Talking with Kort Ford Part 1: Youth development in the US

Part one of our conversation focused on growth of the sport, starting with his experience and perspective on youth development in the US.

In a lost season, another in a decade where struggles outnumber successes, it’s easy to forget that this organization is special. There’s a humility that permeates from the EVPs through the players to the rank-and-file employees. They don’t have all the answers and they know it, but they’re working hard to figure it out. Fans have a right to be frustrated that the Rapids Way is still a series of U-turns, but scratch below the surface and you’ll find hard-working, kind people easy to root for.

Kortne Ford, in particular, feels like part of the family to most Colorado Rapids fans. Most discussions about him quickly involve his mom and her ongoing battle with cancer. After his years in youth soccer, a college career at DU, and now playing for the Rapids, it’d be easy to miscast the young man as just a “hometown kid.”

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The 22-year-old centerback might be in just his second year as a pro, but he is someone who has a clear perspective on his past, understands the present, and has a plan for the future. Ford easily moves through topics from health and fitness to the USMNT to the flaws of the MLS Players Union. Early in one’s career, it’s natural to just focus on what you have to do, but with Ford, you see a professional paying attention to everything around him. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, you see him negotiating a CBA deal or pacing the sidelines with grey hair and a suit.

Part one of our conversation focused on growth of the sport, starting with his experience and perspective on youth development in the US.

College or the DA

Our conversation started with this question: “If today you were entering your senior year of high school, would you choose to go to college? Or would you look to a development academy or try to head overseas?”

Ford didn’t even have to think about it. “I’d do it identically to how I did. I know that there’s a lot of talk about how well kids develop in college. I think there are a few programs in the country who are good at developing players and I was lucky to go to one of those at the University of Denver.”

It’s a theme that would come up again and again in our conversation. For Ford, Colorado isn’t just the place he’s from. It’s clear that he has a broad and deep support network here. They’re the people he trusts to help him be his best self.

“I had talked with the first-team staff at the Rapids about signing straight out of high school,” he explained. “I had to ask ‘am I ready to step into a lineup, play, and compete?’ The answer was ‘no.’ I went in this same height but super skinny. I had a great coaching staff at DU. I put on about 30 pounds of muscle.”

The 18-year-old skinny kid accurately figured out that he needed some time and coaching to develop into a pro. “For the guys who say ‘I can control my own development’ in college, and they have specific goals they want to reach, that’s perfect. But there a lot of kids who go off to college and they’re immature. They don’t have goals spelled out,” Ford said. “Or their actions don’t match their ambitions. At the end of the day, it’s all on the kid. You have to pick the right college. You can’t pick some party school where you’re going to lose your ambition.”

The future of youth development in the US

In the USMNT qualification failure, numbers are often cited about how much German clubs spend on youth development versus the US. But college programs aren’t accounted for. Have colleges let MLS teams off the hook for building robust youth development systems?

“It’s kind of a Catch-22. A lot of guys who are young and talented are going overseas. They’re not being recognized by MLS teams or they feel like they can’t develop well here. But there’s the movement that’s going on in the league with TAM money that can only be spent on players over max salary,” Ford continued. “That number keeps increasing. When you look at it, a team might rather go to Europe, spend over $500K of TAM [from MLS] rather than spending $70K of their own money on someone in the US and it counting against the salary cap.”

Ford explained that he believes TAM is hurting American soccer and “especially colleges. As long as that trend exists I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of successful guys coming out of college. You can already see it starting to happen. Guys are drafted in the first and second rounds, signed, then cut.”

The future growth of MLS and the USMNT will be decided by the growth of the ecosystem, and that includes MLS working with college programs, according to Ford. “Look at the relationship between DU and the Colorado Rapids. It started with me. I was an academy player, but the Rapids trusted the process over at DU. Now [that there’s precedent], there are a lot of guys over at DU being looked at by our upper management here. That’s a win-win for both organizations. There needs to be more of that around the league.”

The problem is, the priorities of a college program might be at odds with a pro team. “Jamie Franks, the head coach at the University of Denver, he’s really selfless. He wants the DU team to do well, but at the same time he wants to set us up for the future. He wants to grow us as individuals,” Ford again reiterated that when pro teams and colleges work together, it benefits everyone involved. “Building that relationship allows the pro team to say ‘we feel comfortable with this [college program] developing our young players.’ Then, when that development process is done and he’s ready, [the pro team] can get him back. It’s a mutual relationship.”

On being a homegrown player

By virtue of participating in the Rapids Development Academy, Kort is designated as a Homegrown Player. “For me, being a Homegrown has been only plusses. But I know there are a lot of guys around the league who would argue that. If you look at Homegrowns playing for some teams, they get signed then cut before preseason ends or before half of the season is over. Now they can’t go to play in college [because they’re no longer amateurs] after being loaned out to some USL team.”

While every player’s situation is different, it “falls on the player and the parent to educate the young person on what can happen,” Ford said. “For most Homegrowns around the league, the idea is that they still need to go and develop with a USL affiliate. In my eyes, that’s the same idea as going to college.”

With the Rapids, Ford felt like signing as a Homegrown was a big deal at first, but “after that honeymoon phase then you’re just another player.”

For players and management coming from outside the US, maybe there’s some discounting of Homegrown players. “You have to make it over a hump to be able to make the money like players coming from Europe,” he reflected. “Sometimes we’re locked into a low salary because you signed so young and signed a five-year deal.”

Will Ford stay in Colorado forever? “My goal is to play in Europe,” he admitted. “I’d like to go there then come back and finish where I started here with the Colorado Rapids. That’d be the dream come true.”

In Part 2 we’ll dive into topics like rehabbing from a major injury, what Ford learns from the players and coaches around him, and charting a path to the USMNT.