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From Ligue 1 to MLS: Nicolas Benezet is excited to be in Colorado

“We have a young team, but a good young team.”

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

The Colorado Rapids added to their Toronto FC connection this past off-season with a player many Rapids fans haven’t seen much of, considering his brief MLS career so far. However, Nicolas (Nico) Benezet welcomed a reunion with Head Coach Robin Fraser and defender Drew Moor and brings a top-tier pedigree—along with an attacking mentality—to Commerce City.

“I told Robin, I (did) not come for trial. If I come there, I want to win now,” the 29-year-old native of Montpellier, France, recently told Burgundy Wave. “I don’t come just to chill, take the sun, and drive the nice car—I don’t care for this. I like to prove on the pitch that 29 is old but I can run, I can score, I can make assists.” Benezet has shown he can produce on the scoresheet, notching 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 French Ligue 2 appearances and 18 goals and 13 assists in the French Ligue 1.

Rapids fans may also remember that Benezet played a key role in Toronto FC’s run to MLS Cup 2019, even scoring a long-distance curler in that match.

So how did the confident, creative attacker end up in Colorado? “Robin (Fraser) called (Toronto FC Head Coach) Greg Vanney, and Greg told him, ‘if you want Nico, you have to because he’s a good human, a good player,’ so now I’m here,” explained Benezet.

“It was more easy for me, because if you’re a new player and know no one it’s tough. Robin talked to me when I signed for Colorado Rapids and I was so happy because I knew Drew (Moor) and Robin. Robin is a good human, but I know he has the same mentality as Greg about football so I like this. When (Robin) called me and (asked) if I want to sign I said, ‘yeah, because I know you, I know your mentality about the football, I want to play for you’.”

A family affair

Benezet’s football career began with the influence of his father and grandfather. “My dad, my grandfather made a football when we were young, so just naturally I loved football. I could not (play) tennis or ping pong, it was not really for me or for my little brother.”

“The problem is in Europe, you live for football, die for football. In Europe, when you go watch the game you can see the crazy fans,” admitted Benezet, who was one of those fans dreaming of playing in front of a packed Ligue 1 stadium. “For them it’s life—they live for football. I’m so happy because I can live my passion. I play for pleasure, but it’s also my job.”

While still a young player, it didn’t look as if his career was to take off the way he’d wanted after being told he was too small. Luckily, Benezet was fortunate enough to move to Nîmes in Southern France, where his game and skills proved that physique doesn’t matter as much as some thought when he was a teenager. From there, the midfielder earned his first professional contract with Nimes of Ligue 2. “Now, it’s not young because the new players sign at 16 years old, me?... I signed at 19 years old. It’s not old, but in Europe, it’s not young,” he said.

Benezet also had something in common with many kids learning to play sports growing up in the U.S., and that is having his father as a coach for a time. That experience, as many of us fathers and our kids can attest to, started out well but eventually had to come to an end if Benezet was to mature as a player (and keep a good relationship with his father).

“When I signed, my dad came in to coach with Nimes. It was the worst experience and my better experience,” he said with a laugh when asked how that worked out. “The first problem was I was in his home. Every day I saw my dad at training, after training, in the house. My dad is a professional. After many trainings, we came in the house, he put down his computer and said, ‘Nico, come’. After three months, I said ‘dad I can’t do it anymore’ so I went to my mum’s house,” he admitted. “It was better for him and me, and after this on the pitch, I was better.”

“The second problem was when he screamed at me, he’s not the coach screaming at me. He’s my dad screaming in front of all the players,” he continued. “I was so angry about this, but it was good experience because after that season I went to Ligue 1.”

Becoming a professional

That was always the plan, according to Benezet, as Ligue 1 is the highest level of football in France and it was the ultimate goal for the young player. “My first objective is I wanted to play in Ligue 1. After two years (at Nimes), I went to the French Ligue 1 so it was a dream for me. When I was young, I played for that. I went to watch the games, I said to my dad, ‘I want to play like them. I want to play on that pitch with the fans.’”

“He told me I have to work, work, work every day, and keep my passion because when you are young it’s passion. Now, I’m an old man, my passion is second. It’s my job.”

Benezet has carried that ethic to MLS and Colorado, knowing that the way he treated himself is different than when he was a kid. “When I was 20, for example, after training I went to my house and that’s it. Now, I know I have to (do) stretching, the ice bath, because I’m an old man. Now, I’m better than when I was young due to the experience, and I grew up. I know what I can do on the pitch and what I can’t do on the pitch.”

Coming to Major League Soccer

Moving to MLS in 2019 was a gamble for a lifelong resident of France, but Benezet was eager to explore the game and life in North America. “When Toronto called me, I didn’t want to stay in France. I wanted to discover something else,” he said bluntly. “I had two choices–Toronto and another (European) club–so when Toronto called I said I want to go, I want to discover the American states, I want to speak English, I want to discover other things in football because in France it’s not the same.”

Benezet wasn’t ready to leave North America, but Toronto was unable to re-sign him after a working a big-money deal to retain Michael Bradley. “After I could not come back (to Toronto), I said to my new agent Pierre, I want to come back to MLS. I like all the things about the football because it’s not the same as in France. You are free.”

Which brings us to the Rapids, who signed the winger on January 14, 2020.

Unfortunately, Benezet’s time here has been a very start-stop experience so far. He had just joined the Rapids for preseason training in California and was beginning to fit in with his new teammates and the gameplan, only to break his nose just 10 minutes into his only preseason match.

He clearly described exactly what happened. “A head-butt. I remember the action when Younes (Namli) tried to give me the ball. I tried to go inside to give the ball to the left back, and when I gave the ball the defender stopped his run so I took his head-butt. I was so angry about this because I’m the new player and after 10 minutes–injury, surgery.”

He suddenly had to restart everything, which put him behind in his fitness as Colorado returned for the start of the MLS season. Before the season was put on hold, Benezet was just getting back to fully training and was expecting to see his first minutes in Vancouver.

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Looking forward to getting on the pitch

So far, though, Benezet likes what he sees from his new team and expects to be part of a young, attacking midfield that will look to continue their early success in 2020 once the season resumes.

“We have a young team, but a good young team,” he explained. “Kellyn (Acosta), I like because he can play offensive and defensive. For me, it’s tough to find this kind of player. Nico Mezquida is a good player too. Younes, technically the level is high. (Jack) Pricey is a very good player. We can do something in the season I hope. We need these kinds of players because so many teams doesn’t have them.”

When asked where he fits into the Rapids system, Benezet said his preference is as a left winger but he also shows in training he’s versatile enough to move inside or even to the right if need be. “I can play all the attack, but I know me. If you want results about me you have to make me left side. But, if you want the right I could play, but I know I would be better on the left side than the right. I like to move, I like to have the ball at my feet, Younes and Kellyn like to play football, so it’s my game.”

Another role the newest Rapids attacker is taking on is that of teacher for some of the younger players. As a man who has seen different styles and levels in Europe, Benezet hopes to pass along even small things to help others think about the game differently. “I’m a new player, but if I want to say something, I will. I have the chance, I played in Europe, so when I talk about something the guys listen. Maybe when I say something, it’s not good, it’s my opinion, but I have to say something. Now I have the experience. It’s natural for me, so I have to explain to the young players that you have to be there, or there on the pitch. I like to talk, but if I talk it’s for good reasons.”

Time will tell where he fits into the Rapids scheme; however, a multi-year contract should give him plenty of time. He is also looking forward to exploring more of Colorado and the U.S., as well as perfecting his second language. “For me, I have to speak English every day because I like the language,” he said. “When you leave for vacation, you can talk with everybody. So many people can speak English so I want my kids to speak English. My girlfriend and me are so happy to come back to America.”