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Colorado Rapids Homegrown Sam Vines’ ascent to the national stage

“... through the opportunity that he was given with the Rapids, he’s shown that he was quite a capable player, beyond his years, really, as an outside back in MLS.” - USMNT U-23 head coach Jason Kreis

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Sam Vines has been chasing after soccer balls since he was in kindergarten. He is also chasing after a dream that many rising athletes can only imagine — playing their favorite sport while representing their nation on the world’s stage. And right now, the Colorado Spring native/Colorado Rapids homegrown has the world on a string.

Vines’ competitive youth play started with the Colorado Springs Pride Soccer Club. Like many youth clubs in the state, Pride SC realized that Vines was full of potential, and supported his efforts to explore the Colorado Rapids Development Academy (DA) program up I-25 in greater Denver in 2013.

And the Rapids were interested in the young Samuel Marques Lloyd Vines. Following a compelling try-out, he was offered an invitation to join the Rapids U-13 DA side. And with that offer came plenty of heavy commitments.

Speaking from first-hand experience, the youngster and his family were expected to step up to the plate in exchange for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And step up they all did.

All in a year’s hard work for a committed DA player

A new reality soon set in for Vines and his parents: commuting from their residence in metro Colorado Springs to his training and playing pitch at Dicks Sporting Good Park, sometimes six days per week, 11 months out of the year. If not to DSGP, then to home fields of local DA rivals Colorado Rush and Real Colorado. Add to that weekend junkets with his teammates and coaches to MLS DA opponents in Missouri, Texas, Utah, and California, plus the occasional U.S. Soccer youth-identification and evaluation camps, and even a team trip or two abroad.

The roundtrips to his evening training sessions took a toll on Vines’ ability to stay up with his high school studies. Vines took his schooling seriously, so his family stepped in and the student-athlete was home-schooled during his 11th and 12th grade years.

The unassuming Vines worked his way up the ranks playing for the Rapids U-15, U-16, U-18, and U-19 Development Academy squads, often ‘playing up’ with teams senior his age. According to his bio on the Rapids website, he made 63 appearances for the DA — 60 from the start — and scored eight times.

He was U-17/18 US Soccer Development Academy Best XI for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League (USSDA) Central Conference. In 2017 he was named Rapids Academy Player of the Year. The left-back has also earned over 20 U.S. Youth National Team invitations.

Since his journey started eight years ago, Vines has amassed experience at all levels of play- within the former USSDA, United Soccer League (USL), MLS, and throughout the ranks of U.S Soccer youth and men’s teams.

Soon after he was signed to his first MLS contract in early 2018, the then eighteen-year-old was farmed out on loan to the USL Charlotte Independence. While in North Carolina, he started 29 games and earned 2303 minutes of playing time. His success rate for passes from the back was an impressive 80.4%. As the Rapids’ starting left-back, he has played over 3800 minutes in just two seasons.

An asset to the USMNT

Last week, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter named the 21-year old Vines to the senior roster that will host Trinidad and Tobago on January 31 in Orlando, Florida. Berhalter also summoned Kellyn Acosta and Jonathan Lewis to join Vines.

Berhalter told the Burgundy Wave, ‘With Sam, we see an attacking fullback who is calm under pressure ... able to get forward and puts good crosses into the penalty box. And his processing and play really helps the team in what we are doing with the ball. That is all good things.”

During a recent press conference, USMNT U-23 coach Jason Kreis said that Vines is a “really, really interesting player, from my point of view ... because he really wasn’t on anybody’s radar about a year and a half ago. But again, through his production and through his stepping forward with his career in Colorado, through the opportunity that he was given with the Rapids, he’s shown that he was quite a capable player, beyond his years, really, as an outside back in MLS. So he pushed his way into the scene. And every time we’ve had him, we’ve been more and more impressed.”

Kreis continued, “Left fullback is an area that we continue to sort of look for the answer for the long term. And Sam falls into a category that you start to think OK, could he have the potential to be a left-back solution for the full team going forward? Maybe still a little bit away from that. But I do think he’s making himself more and more a candidate for that.”

During the same press conference, Vines added, “I’ve just taken in as much information as I could throughout every camp that I’ve been in ... it’s a lot of stuff to bring in and a lot of ways that they want you to play, and I think it suits the way I play. So since January, and since the last camp [December 2020], I think I’ve learned a lot of the style of play and what [the coaches] want from us outside backs. So I’ve just been working hard on that.”

Witnessing Vines’ evolution

Someone who has observed Vines’ development from the get-go has been Brian Crookham. The venerable Crookham has been wearing the Rapids crest since 2007 and is the club’s Sr. Director of Soccer Development and oversees the DA. He is also the General Manager of the Rapids’ USL affiliate, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.

(L-R) Padraig Smith, Brian Crookham, and Sam Vines on February 23, 2018, when 18-year-old Vines was signed by the Colorado Rapids.
Abbie Mood

When Vines joined the Rapids’ DA, one could find Crookham roving the sidelines, assessing players in hopes of identifying the next big Homegrown prospect — Sam Vines included. When Vines was signed by Colorado in 2018, he was loaned to then-USL affiliate the Charlotte Independence and came back to his home state the following season.

Crookham spoke with the Burgundy Wave recently and shared a few anecdotes. He resided in the same apartment complex that Rapids-on-loan lived in. The father of three would check in on Vines, to make certain that the young player’s apartment cooking initiatives were spot on. Crookham added that one should not underestimate Vines’ quiet demeanor, as the defenseman’s ability to assimilate instructions, then apply the knowledge on the field is first-rate. He gives all the credit to Vines for his ascent to prominence.

“The greatest individual on Sam’s development was Sammy himself,” Crookham said, referring to Vines as the proverbial “gym rat.” He was often first to training and last to leave, putting in overtime in order to master his craft.

“And coming off of that, it definitely was a team effort,” Crookham added. “He hit every single offering in the full process — U-14s, U-23s, in our USL system, he experienced every single thing we had from the DA, to PDL, to USL, to the first team. He always had the guidance — the push from the guys [coaches] who had him at the time, and the patience and the pull from the guys at the next stage.”

Crookham credits all of the Rapids DA coaches who mentored Vines, especially Chris Martinez, who is now an assistant coach with Sporting Kansas City’s II team and played five seasons as a defender for the Rapids from 1997-2001

“Every coach had their piece of that influence,” Crookham said. “Sam is a very talented player. He can go forward, he is a good passer, and has attacking skills. For Sam, there were times when he felt he should be used higher on the field. And there were those who used him to that extend. And he was exposed, and with that, he was refining those skills. He also had many national team coaches that influenced him greatly.”

An ability to adapt to the changing demands of the game

“A testament to Sammy is what he has been able to achieve. He is almost a chameleon at every level. He is able to break in, and then take on the spots of what is needed for that level. To do that, you need a very good technical base but also have to have the ability to quickly learn and adapt. He has certainly shown that,” Crookham said. “I think it is rare — there are not many guys that are breaking into the full U.S. national team at the age he has broken in.”

He’s also overcome his fair share of injuries, while in the DA and on the youth national teams. After consecutive successful youth camps, he seemed to fall out of favor with the national team.

But that resiliency is part of what makes Vines the player that he is. As Crookham said, “Sammy was able to re-calibrate and come back from injuries. He keeps performing, keeps adapting, and puts himself back in the national team mix. That resilience piece — when you get knocked off your pedestal a little bit, can you come back?”

Development marches on thanks to Robin Fraser and company

As for Vines’ continued development and the smoothing out his still rough edges, Berhalter told the Burgundy Wave the onus is principally on the Rapids’ shoulders.

“I know Colorado is primarily responsible for that. We can give advice, we can give what we think he can improve on, but the driver for that is going to be his club. I know Robin Fraser and the staff there. They do a good job of helping young players develop,” he said. “You look at Kellyn Acosta’s progress, Robin had a big hand helping him move along as well, and develop, and he is doing a really good job ... Sam can continue to improve on defending in the penalty box, connecting with the back line, sometimes his one versus one duals. But he has a big skill set and we are anxious to see him keep developing.”

It means a lot at the club level to see a Homegrown player wear his country’s kit. “We’re proud anytime a Colorado Rapids player plays on the national team jersey, for whatever country that is — it’s fantastic. For us, there’s obviously the added incentive of having homegrown players represent their country and it was certainly a proud day when Sam Vines did that for the first time — that a Rapids homegrown player represented the United States at the full level,” said Rapids’ Executive Vice President and General Manager, Padraig Smith.

Plenty of international play on the horizon

The 2021 international season is just about to get underway in the Concacaf region and the U.S. Men’s National Teams— U-23s and seniors alike — have a dense schedule.

First, there is a not-so-friendly revenge match against the Soca Warriors from Trinidad and Tobago on January 31. Then the all-important U-23 Concacaf Regional Olympic qualifiers in March, followed by the Concacaf Nations League Final Four in June, the Gold Cup from July 2–August 1, plus the start of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers. Friendlies are expected to be interspersed with must-win games.

Vines should be a candidate to play in more than one of these events. And that should keep Rapids fans on the edge of their couches, looking up for their mile-high shooting star.