Read Talking with Kort Ford Part 1: Youth development in the US here.
The 2018 season feels like a tipping point for Major League Soccer. Wayne Rooney has joined DC United for a couple victory-lap seasons and help to fill the seats of a new stadium, but that’s the old model. The future of MLS is guys like Tyler Adams, Ezequiel Barco, and just maybe Kortne Ford. MLS is evolving into a selling league where players early in their career can get minutes, grow, build a profile, and then move on to a bigger stage.
Ford calls playing at a high level in a top-tier European league a “dream come true.” I asked him about Bill Hamid, who just returned to DC United after 18 months in Denmark where he played just three matches. How does a guy who was on the cusp of the USMNT keeper job go to the Danish second tier and sit on the bench? Was it a year-and-a-half lost out of a career?
“You can look at it a lot of different ways,” says Ford. “As a goalie, you can only play in one spot on the pitch. If you’re an outfield player you can be tested in two or three different positions and earn your way in. But just getting to go train there for a year-and-a-half, there’s no way he lost that time. The development that he gained there, the opportunity to see different teams, see different work styles, see a different system—he gets to bring that [perspective] back to DC and keep that going. So it’s not a loss.”
Developing national team players
There’s still no replacement for match minutes. Take Liga MX, for example, where they are mandating a minimum amount of minutes for young players who are eligible for the national team. Which makes you wonder—does MLS have a responsibility to make teams develop and play future USMNT players?
“You can’t say that just because a player is eligible for the national team that they can just show up and collect their money,” Ford says. “Or that they’re going to get to play because there’s this rule in place. They have to show up, train, and develop like everybody else. Having more young national team players might be good for the league so they can [promote them] on television, but for the team and the individual it wouldn’t be beneficial at all.”
Soccer wisdom says that a national team is only as strong as the domestic league. The future of the USMNT and MLS are tangled if not wholly intertwined. MLS set up the international slots to effectively levy a tariff on foreign talent. Financially, non-US players need to be significantly better than what’s available domestically in order to justify using an international slot that (by way of the 2018 transfer market) is worth $150K per season.
The Rapids Front Office, to their credit, have demonstrated an aptitude for manipulating the system. With green cards raining down, our team has all our six international slots filled but another five guys who are not USMNT eligible. A team front office is measured in wins, losses, and championships. Getting a player called into a USMNT camp is neat but it’s not saving your job.
The priorities of the club, league, and national team are often at odds.
Priorities as a player
As a player, you’re a part of all three and yet you have to always look out for yourself. This year the Rapids saw their first and second round draft picks walk away in favor of potential opportunities abroad.
There are plenty of opportunities for players around the globe, but only if you get on the radar. “A team could select a player the first round [in the SuperDraft],” he says. “Then they go through the whole pre-season and by that time no other team is looking at them. Then [without any competition] the team can just sign him to a minimum salary. If I were going into the draft, I would hate a rule like that. But, for the league, it’d be better for them to include it. Because obviously [the current system] hurts a team like mine—our first two draft picks were wasted.”
Ford also considered it from the player perspective: “you don’t want to get screwed over and locked into a certain salary when you might deserve more.”
Keeping up with all the changes
With three head coaches and a tremendous overhaul in the last two seasons, there’s been a ton of change within the organization. Ford praised former head coach Pablo Mastroeni for his mentality. “Arguably he made mistakes as a manager,” he admitted. “But the mentality that he carries is contagious. If you show up, you have a fighting mindset, and you work your ass off—if you can control that on a daily basis—then the rest will come. Even if you make mistakes but you’re working hard, you still have something to offer to the team.”
Mentality wasn’t enough, though, and this offseason saw the appointment of Anthony Hudson. “He’s been incredible so far,” Ford continued. “When we came into preseason he was very hard on us. He set standards—very clear, there were no blurred lines. It’s hard for him to come in and manage a team that he didn’t draft, that he didn’t put together. The management has done a great job with bringing in players that fit the system. And they find other spots [through trades or releases] for players that don’t want to be here or players who don’t fit the system in general.”
Roster building can be as much about who you shed as who you add. You can hear in Ford’s voice that he’s bought into this continuing overhaul.
“[Coach Hudson] has done an incredible job along the way,” reflects Ford. “Managing players, getting to know us on an individual level. He’s tried out different systems, he’s figuring out what works, then staying consistent with it. His mentality with how we approach training sessions, his non-negotiables—his consistency has helped to build the locker room culture. It’s not easy to take a losing team and develop them. It takes time. The fans and critics don’t always understand how long that process of change actually takes.”
Dealing with injuries
The line “trust the process” shows up in the most sarcastic fan comments during a frustrating season. The first quarter of the season showed a lot of promise, while the second quarter it seemed like the wheels came off. Ford’s first significant injury early in the year started some of the uncertainty along the back line.
Rehab is a difficult thing, though, as the teams and the league have one opinion about how to do things while the players may have another.
“In general I think that teams and the league need to be more supportive of second opinions. They need to be more supportive if you want to go somewhere else and get extra treatment,” he believes. “But, at the end of the day, as a player, you have to watch out for yourself and find a way to trust the staff, trust the process. Most times when a player gets injured they don’t know how to rehab themselves. [The medical staff] has to trust you; you have to trust them. Everyone needs to have the best interests of the player in mind.”
So what did happen with his 8-10 week injury that ended up being much longer?
“They told me 8-to-10 weeks,” he tells me. “We really killed the rehab. I was being over-professional with how many hours of rehab I was doing outside of the stadium.”
Wait, over-professional? “Yeah, it was probably way too many hours. But things were on a fast-track. My numbers on both legs got even. There was no atrophy. It looked like I was going to be back in six weeks.” The 22-year-old body rebounds quickly.
“Then a nerve problem came up with the back of my knee,” he continued, “that had nothing to do with the original injury. That wasn’t as easy to work with. It was the nerve damage that put me out for a lot longer. It was frustrating because I worked so hard to get back early then it just wouldn’t heal.”
When your career depends on your body, there doubts will creep in. What if these nerves just never come back? What if this is it? “It’s scary,” he says. “But personally that’s where I give it up to God. Wherever you’re at spiritually, you just kind of trust [that it’ll work out]. And, at the end of the day, you have some kind of Worker’s Compensation that will take care of you if you have a career-ending injury. [But that worry] stays in the back of your head.”
Thankfully, for the Rapids and Kort himself, the road to recovery is looking good. While he says he’s still not 100%, he’s able to train and play well. His re-introduction to the back line has coincided with an uptick in results. The losing streak is over. Recent games have seen the best team performances of the season. And just maybe these last few games start the momentum for 2019.
In Part 3 of this interview, we’ll learn more about Kort’s place on the team. What is Tim Howard shouting about back there? What does it feel like the wingbacks are crashing forward and you’re susceptible to the counter-attack? Can club success turn into a shot with the USMNT?