Role: Wing Back
Squad Status: Departed
Season in a Sentence: Esteves started the season off strong with some impressive showings, but the Brazilian failed to keep up the pace across the season and Colorado justifiably passed on the chance to bring him back for 2023.
Lucas Esteves’ arrival as the Colorado Rapids’ ostensible replacement for homegrown left back Sam Vines looked like a win for all parties involved. Vines had just parlayed an impressive breakout season into a dream European move. Colorado was looking to benefit from their investment in South American scouting. Esteves, a Palmeiras academy product, got a fresh start after three seasons of minimal involvement with his hometown club’s first team, and was poised to make a big statement in MLS as the Rapids’ second-ever U22 Initiative signing.
Failing to get consistent minutes with one of South America’s giants wasn’t necessarily an indictment of Esteves’ ability or potential—Brazilian soccer is ruthlessly competitive, and late bloomers occasionally slip through the cracks at big clubs. Esteves fit the mold of a Smithian “distressed asset” with the potential to blossom into a reliable long-term first team contributor in the attacking wing back role that Vines once occupied under Robin Fraser.
With midfielders Braian Galván and Kellyn Acosta getting nods at the position in Vines’ absence, the Rapids swooped in and acquired Esteves on loan with an option to buy. The São Paulo native bedded into Fraser’s side quickly, and earned starts in nine league matches during the final two months of the regular season. He developed a reputation as an aggressive creator on the wings, with a penchant for the occasional defensive mishap. Those frailties came to a head by the end of the season, and Fraser notably left the wing back off the Rapids’ squad for the club’s season-defining playoff exit against the Portland Timbers on Thanksgiving Day.
Acosta’s off-season departure to Los Angeles F.C. and Galván’s season-ending knee surgery opened the door for Esteves to become Colorado’s first choice option at left wing back. But while Esteves showed well in the Rapids’ first home matches of the season, the Brazilian’s quality dipped significantly away from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. He took one for the team against Comunicaciones before showing his creative potential in back-to-back wins against Atlanta United and Sporting K.C., but Esteves sustained a hamstring injury and dealt with a subsequent drop in form. His defensive issues were exposed in early road games against F.C. Dallas and Minnesota United, and he got hit with a two-game suspension for defending Nicolas Mezquida’s honor in a stoppage time altercation with Daniel Salloi in Kansas City. To further complicate matters, 35-year-old veteran Steven Beitashour improved the defensive rigidity of Colorado’s porous back line when Esteves had to sit due to suspension or injury.
When the time came for the Rapids to make a mid-season call to exercise Esteves’ buy clause, the club punted by negotiating an extension to the end of the year. The Brazilian hadn’t yet proved that he could consistently produce enough goal-scoring opportunities to outweigh his below-average defensive play, and Colorado wasn’t keen on dropping a reported $1 million for only 50% of the defender’s rights.
Delaying the decision was a smart call from the club’s perspective, because Esteves clearly blew his chance. The 22-year-old failed to record a goal or primary assist in any of his 19 appearances for the club after the mid-season international break while continuing to struggle at the back. Esteves failed to impress in several crucial, final-stretch matchups against the Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo, Nashville SC, and the L.A. Galaxy—all winnable fixtures where a result could have altered the club’s ultimate postseason fate.
The Rapids' squad-wide regression hit Lucas Esteves as well this year. The narrative has always been that his defensive frailties could be excused due to his ability to get forward. But he looked significantly worse at the back in '22 without improving his forward play: pic.twitter.com/6Uqo5VAxlc— Joseph Samelson (@jspsam) December 1, 2022
Offensively, Esteves finished the season well below the 50th percentile compared to his peers in every major distribution metric (74.8% overall pass completion, 14th percentile; 2.18 crosses per 90, 36th percentile), only managed 2.02 shot-creating actions per 90 (56th percentile), and underperformed his average expected goals total (-0.03 per 90, 29th percentile). Those numbers wouldn’t have been bad for a defensive fullback, but Esteves didn’t help much in tackles won (0.95 per 90, 40th percentile), blocks (0.91 per 90, 30th percentile), interceptions (1.07 per 90, 40th percentile), or clearances (1.67 per 90, 31st percentile). He still got the club and media nod for young player of the year at the season’s end, but he didn’t have much competition after homegrown winger Dantouma “Yaya” Toure suffered a late-season ACL tear.
Colorado did retain Esteves’ rights in MLS by selecting him during Stage 2 of the Re-Entry draft, but the club ultimately passed on exercising their purchase clause when the do-or-die December 1 deadline arrived. The Rapids could have likely afforded to keep him around, but the financials of the situation didn’t make much sense given Esteves’ issues in adjusting to the level and style of play in MLS.
With Esteves’ MLS rights in the Rapids’ hands, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the club to sign the defender on a free transfer if he fails to renew with Palmeiras when his deal reportedly expires in 2024. That’s a pretty tenuous proposition, but the opportunity could arise under the right circumstances. In the meantime, Esteves’ departure opens up an international slot and one of Colorado’s three U-22 Initiative roster spots for a new signing. Given the Rapids’ consistency in utilizing MLS’s nascent young transfers program, it’s a safe bet that the club won’t keep their empty U-22 spot open for long.
Stats via FBref.