The Colorado Rapids announced their 10th Anniversary squad of the Rapids Unified program last month as they look to once again get back on the road and compete for multiple Cups in 2022. The program began in 2012 thanks to Rapids Senior Vice President of Team Operations, Wayne Brant, and is now being overseen by Caitlin Kinser, Senior Director for Community Relations and Youth Programming for the Rapids.
The squad was presented at the Flatirons Mall Dick's Sporting Goods location a few weeks ago. The team followed that up with their Media Day duties, including uniform reveals, at their home stadium in Dick's Sporting Goods Park this week.
Seventeen athletes from the Adams 12 School District in North Denver will be representing the Burgundy this year.
"The majority of the athletes are from Horizon (High School in Thornton), but everyone else still goes to school in the Adams 12 District," explains Kinser, who took over in 2016. "Part of our mission with the Rapids is to grow soccer. It's exciting to have some new athletes on the team this year just to give people the experience."
Head coach Molly Underly, Assistant Coach Sierra Hoover, and returnees Aiden Ramirez, Zech Steinmetz, Scotty Stephens, and Olivia Stoolman will welcome their new teammates Ayanna Domingo, Trevor Walsh, Daniel Desta, Adrian Fontes, Trace Ho-Tran, Sam Huerta, Enzo Muncy, Skylar Neil, Louie Persico, Shelby Rainers, Lily Simmons, Colin Underly, and Trinity Unrein.
In July, the Rapids will begin their campaign by traveling to Real Salt Lake to take on the Rocky Mountain Cup rivals following the senior team's match that same night.
"It will be a big epic Rocky Mountain rivalry that we're trying to re-create. They'll go with the first team and play right after our game and we're hoping to pick up two trophies that night," said Rapids President and GM Padraig Smith.
The Unified schedule also features a home-and-away series with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks and possibly one more contest before the end of the season. "We started the partnership with the (Colorado Springs) Switchbacks last year, with a home-and-away with them, so we'll do that again this season," Kinser explains. "There's an actual cup this year - We're calling that the I-25 Cup."
Smith consistently speaks with so much pride and a smile on his face about the program that it's tough not to feel the same when one sees this program in action. "I can't say enough about Caitlin's job with this program and really working it up to what it is. It's an incredible program," Padraig told Burgundy Wave at the contract-signing event.
"For me, I'm the fortunate one," further explaining his emotions regarding this team. "I get to come in and see it happen. There's no doubt, it is the best thing we do at the club. I have no hesitation in saying that. You start to get to know some of the athletes; you start to get to know some of their families, it's an incredible way of infusing the sport of soccer and really having an impact in the community."
"I love the fact that the athletes embrace it. They want to be involved. For them there's not a level of expectancy. They're in it. You cannot be a part of this and walk away without a huge smile on your face."
That enjoyment is a big reason why Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin continues to come back year after year to help coach the young players, and will be joined for the first time by Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar in support of the staff.
"This is pure joy," Clint said simply about his time with the Unified team. "For me as a player, it reminds me of the first time I put my boots on, the first time I joined a team. That first time... you never get to experience it again so to see someone else experience it just reminds you of why you play and share it with them."
Smith reminds fans of just how special an opportunity this will be for these young athletes now being part of the Rapids organization, saying, "I was speaking to Lalas, it's his first time doing it, and Clint and I were talking to him about ultimately how emotional you can get. When you see them in the locker rooms, only 4 teams get to use our home locker room (Rapids, US women's and men's senior team, and our Unified teams)."
"I think the first one I did was 2014 so I've done it every year I've been with the Rapids," said Irwin, who stepped right back in when he came back from time in Toronto. "I love coming back, it's something I love being a part of and being able to contribute, to see the athletes compete and have a great time just keeps me coming back. It's cool to see that their experience is so wonderful that they want to come back again."
An essential part of the experience for the players, many of whom have not been on a team or even played soccer yet, is meeting new friends and experiencing different situations together while having a blast. "Soccer's a sport we all love to play, but at the same time just being part of a team I think is a great opportunity to meet new friends, make life-lasting connections with fellow athletes," Irwin said.
"We haven't traveled anywhere on an airplane since 2019, so there's been years in the past that's been the first time anyone has been on a plane, used public transportation, stayed at a hotel, so a lot of firsts," Kinser reminds fans. "It's a really cool experience to be away from your family, making new friends, seeing a new city."
"I'm just excited more than anything," she says with the same enthusiasm as Padraig and Clint. "It really is such a rewarding experience to go on the road. We always do some sort of event with the other team that we're playing because it's not just about competition. It's about making friends, listening to other people's experiences, talking about soccer, talking about Unified, so we usually do that before we play the game."
Another experience in the works, but not quite firmed up yet, is an additional road game in Los Angeles against the Galaxy later in the season. Regardless, Kinser re-iterates these are often times new experiences that even many veteran players have not witnessed. "There is a bit of autonomy now, we're not with our parents, we can walk around the city, but they can lean on each other. Even going to another MLS stadium, seeing how they do things, what their crowd is like, the atmosphere is exciting."
Stay tuned to the Colorado Rapids site for further updates on the Unified team's season as there will be ongoing promotions to highlight this special 10th anniversary. Follow along as the team will be going through various training sessions ahead of their July 9th match in Utah.