Rapids Journal

Despite Serna Departure, Colorado Poised to Reverse Homegrown Fortunes

The Colorado Rapids are signing homegrown players en masse – it’s become a clear trend to bring in both local academy players and graduates from elsewhere in MLS under the management of Pádraig Smith. This approach is pragmatic, as it affords the club advantages in cap management and transfer profit alike. However, the release of Dillon Serna and Sam Raben has once again shed light upon the failures of the Rapids organization to turn promising local talent into significant transfer profit, much less long-term contributors for the first team.

While the promising introductions of Kortne Ford, Cole Bassett, Sebastian Anderson, and Sam Vines over the past three seasons have inspired confidence for the future of Colorado locals in MLS, a review of the Rapids’ past attempts at development inevitably becomes cynical in nature.

This calculation takes upon additional implications, given the rumors that the Rapids are intent on acquiring a high value young designated player in 2020. If the club is unable to put its own young players in a position to succeed and improve, then any significant investment in outside talent will be a riskier proposition. Faithful observers will naturally remember the myriad of problems surrounding the signing of ex-Young Designated Player Juan Ramirez, and long-term followers of the Rapids won’t find the history lesson below surprising at all.

Early Misfires (2007-2011)

Colorado’s first attempts at developing academy players hardly inspired confidence. The first Rapids academy graduate to make the jump to MLS, Davy Armstrong, joined the Rapids Academy in 2007, three years before he would sign his professional contract with the first team. The American-Cambodian defensive midfielder from Aurora wouldn’t make a league appearance until 2012 – a mere four minutes off the bench. The following season he spent on loan with (now-defunct) Phoenix F.C., where he suffered an ACL tear that ended his season. After recovering, he made two more substitute appearances, but couldn’t impress enough to secure a new deal. Armstrong played a few more seasons in USL with Colorado Springs, but retired from the sport in 2017 at the age of 26. He has the distinction of being the sole homegrown player that was rostered on the Rapids 2010 MLS Cup-winning squad.

Armstrong was never able to break out of his position in the squad’s reserves and his short professional stint hardly can be associated with ‘successful development’ on Colorado’s part.

Steven Emory spent a half a year in Colorado’s youth system in 2007 before leaving to play college ball at Metro State. He was then “discovered” by the club at an open tryout in 2011. Two months later, he signed as a homegrown player. The Fort Collins native made no league appearances and was released before the following season began. He retired from professional play three years later, after playing briefly in the Premier Development League and – strangely enough – the second tier of the Finnish league system with Närpes Kraft Fotbollsförening.

Like Armstrong, Emory’s career offers hardly any indication of player improvement on the Rapids’ part. But his status as a homegrown player is only due to his brief stint in the summer in the program before he went to school and his short tenure with the first team seems more indicative of poor talent identification rather than poor development.

Update: Although listed among other Rapids homegrown players on the team’s website, Emory wasn’t ever eligible for a proper “homegrown” contract in MLS. League rules now and at the time required players to spend one full year in a team’s academy to receive the designation. Why Emory didn’t participate in the 2011 SuperDraft and why the Rapids insist on applying a post-career homegrown status to him isn’t clear. I’ve reached out to the Rapids for comment.

Promising Talent Poorly Developed (2012-2016)

Defender Shane O’Neill was poised to be the first shift in Colorado’s homegrown fortunes. The Irish-American joined the academy in 2009. While initially intending to attend college at the University of Virginia, O’Neill instead opted to sign a professional contract with the Rapids in 2012. He spent most of his first season in reserve, before breaking out in the first team the following year. After making more than 20 league appearances in two consecutive seasons, O’Neill fell out of then-manager Pablo Mastroeni’s favor and was shipped off for a paltry fee reported to be less than $500,000 to a Cypriot club, where he experienced the loanee-merry–go–round in Europe before an unimpressive season on contract with Excelsior in Belgium. O’Neill returned to MLS in 2018 with Orlando City, but only appeared on a rotational basis for the Lions and has had his option for 2020 declined.

There are many reasons to be disappointed in the premature departure of O’Neill. He was out of Mastroeni’s favor partially due to the large quantity of available talent at center back, including Drew Moor, Bobby Burling, Jared Watts, Axel Sjöberg, and Joe Greenspan. At the time, it made sense that O’Neill couldn’t make lineups as regularly as he had in years before. However, a bloated roster in central defense indicates poor roster planning on the part of Colorado’s management and it was clear that the homegrown was not in a position to succeed in Colorado. Ultimately, O’Neill pushed for a move when it was clear he couldn’t get on the field. The tiny sum received in return for his transfer – not to mention the middling career that followed – doesn’t inspire confidence for future outgoing homegrowns.

Dillon Serna signed with Colorado in 2013 and made his mark on the squad a year later amidst O’Neill’s first team break out. Every time Serna made the field, he brought with him a fearless mentality and a cat-like quickness on the wings. More than anything, Serna is often remembered as the fan favorite willing to try something crazy in the final third. However, a willingness to try does not necessitate an ability to finish. Though Serna exhibited promising play, he never seemed able to develop that killer instinct in front of goal. Different coaches tried their hand at converting him to an outside back or a central playmaker, but their efforts didn’t pan out in consistent play. Serna remained primarily a utility man off the bench in his final seasons and didn’t impress management enough to justify a new deal after his contract expired in 2019.

If you’re reading this at or around the time of publishing, you’re probably familiar with Serna’s tenure and status as a fan favorite in Colorado. Yet, out of all the players covered in this piece who have departed the Rapids, Serna’s legacy is perhaps the most difficult to judge. He made over one hundred first team appearances, so describing him as a flop would be harsh and misleading. After all, Serna is unquestionably the most successful academy product in the Rapids’ short history. The talent was clearly there, ripe for improvement – it just remained fairly stagnant throughout his tenure. Season-ending knee surgery during the Rapids run at the Supporter’s Shield in 2016 certainly didn’t help. However, it’s far from preposterous to lay the blame at Colorado’s inconsistent management and constant playstyle shifts during Serna’s career with the first team. Like O’Neill, Serna will likely be remembered as another promising talent to depart the Rapids after being set up to fail. Others will just remember this long range screamer during Colorado’s pummeling of F.C. Dallas in 2015:

A New, Still-Undefined Era (2017-)

After Serna was signed in 2013, the Rapids wouldn’t sign a a homegrown player to the first team for four seasons. In 2017, Colorado kicked off a new era of developmental focus that saw seven academy graduates signed across three years. Though two of those seven have already been released by the club after little to no contribution to the first team, there’s reason to believe the remaining five can potentially reshape Colorado’s perception as a developmental graveyard.

The two players from this group that were cut – Ricardo Perez and Sam Raben – hardly had a sniff of the first team. Both spent their entire contracts with the Rapids on loan to Colorado’s USL affiliates and only made non-league appearances with the first team.

Defenders Kortne Ford, Sam Vines, and Sebastian Anderson, midfielder Cole Bassett, and forward Matt Hundley make up the remaining of Colorado’s local homegrown contingent still on contract in MLS. Ford has already demonstrated his  reliability in rotation at central defense and looks to make a fierce return from a knee injury that sidelined him for the entirety of 2019. Vines, on the other hand, has made a statement case for first choice left back following Edgar Castillo’s departure. Cole Bassett and Seb Anderson have also demonstrated that they can compete for starting minutes (with the former attracting at least some interest abroad). The only truly unknown quantity is Hundley, who is likely to remain on loan with the Switchbacks for another season as he tries to break through a corps of wingers that is only expected to expand this off-season.

The full developmental story for these players has yet to be written, but the decisions made in the next three seasons will have the potential to rewrite the narrative surrounding Colorado’s homegrowns. But what does future success look like? The past is rife with signings that failed to demonstrate consistent improvement during their time with the club. Breakout seasons come and go, but jury’s still out on Colorado’s ability to hone talent into assets that can contribute for more than a handful of seasons. Pay close attention to Vines, Bassett, Anderson, and Ford’s improvement as they vie for first team action.

Thankfully, a look at the numbers supports the view that Colorado is taking development seriously – insofar as the kids are getting opportunities again. The influx signings across 2018 and 2019 led to a season with more league minutes given to academy graduates than any before in Rapids history:

But talent arbitrarily labeled as ‘homegrown’ doesn’t even tell the full story. An impartial critic can and should rightfully point out the failure to develop non-homegrown young transfers like Nana Boateng or the lack of significant improvement from external MLS homegrowns like Kellyn Acosta during their time with the club. With an increased focus on acquiring players before they enter their prime under Smith’s leadership, it’s of the utmost importance that Colorado exhibits an improvement on this front. Development is just as vital for non-homegrown-but-still-growing players like Jonathan Lewis, Andre Shinyashiki, and Lalas Abubakar.

The appointment of Robin Fraser, coupled with the arrival of a new decade and a more firmly organized developmental structure with a nascent USL partnership represents a blank slate for the Rapids’ coaching staff. In terms of developing local talent, the 2010s can only be described in negative terms. However the promising play of some exciting new prospects and the signing of another external homegrown in Auston Trusty does inspire hope for the future. Fraser’s accession to manager at the end of last season marks the fifth full-time Rapids head coach to take charge of a roster with homegrown players. If he’s up to the challenge, Colorado can reshape their developmental reputation. If he’s not, supporters might witness more local heroes making unceremonious departures.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @jspsam

Image Credit: Colorado Rapids


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