As the Rapids’ U17/18 team begins play in the Development Academy championships on Friday evening in Carson, Calif., the club is on the cusp of making a major soccer statement for the state considering no Colorado team has ever won a Development Academy title.
Beyond that, the amateur club that’s enabled by the homegrown player rule — which allows MLS franchises to sign Development Academy players directly to first-team rosters — is also evidence of the professional team’s increased emphasis on developing and retaining grassroots talent.
“We’ve had two other teams that have done quite well with playoff runs in the Development Academy, and both of those teams had a pair of homegrown players,” explained Brian Crookham, the Rapids’ Senior Director of Soccer Development. “Our 2012 group that did well had Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna, and our 2013 group had Kortne Ford and Ricardo Perez.
“Clearly, the focus for us is the preparation of individual players to be able to eventually contribute to our professional team — but the on-field success of our academy team is generally an indicator of the level of talent within the group and their ability to affect games.”
Serna, Ford and Perez have all grown into contributors for the Rapids, as did O’Neill, who emerged as a reliable defender for the Rapids before the club sold him to Apollon Limassol in 2015.
O’Neill is now playing for the Dutch club NAC Breda, and serves as the epitome of the benefits the homegrown player rule gives to both MLS teams and rising American amateur players.
Development Academy teams are fully funded by the club and give youth players access to top-tier facilities as well as the opportunity to fast-track their professional ambitions, while MLS franchises can then reap the benefits of their investments because they own the rights to homegrown players and those players’ salaries don’t count against the cap when they initially come into the league.
“Stories like O’Neill’s are big for us to realize — he’s a homegrown player from Boulder who contributed greatly to our first team and was recognized for that, and we were able to move him on from there,” Crookham said. “That’s the ultimate pathway for these guys — from the Development Academy to the first team, and then creating a value for them on the world market.”
The U17/18 Rapids (seniors to be and graduated seniors) made a push to Friday’s semifinal match after sneaking into the backdoor of the Development Academy playoffs with the 20th overall seed and ninth of 11 wild-card spots.
Strikers Rhys DeSota (Grandview graduate, Stanford commit) and Enoch Mushagalusa (Denver South) combined for 29 goals for a potent one-two offensive punch. Meanwhile keeper Kainoa Likewise (Discovery Canyon) played big in net throughout the postseason while also doubling as the backup goalie for the Charlotte Independence, the Rapids’ USL affiliate.
“He signed an amateur contract and has been with them full-time since the beginning of June, and then he travels to meet us and play for us, too,” said Chris Martinez, the Rapids’ U17/18 coach. “Having him experience that pro environment on a day-to-day basis, and then for him to bring that experience back to our group, has been fantastic. ”
Martinez, a former Rapids player, took the coaching gig before this season after over 15 years of coaching with Real Colorado. He led the Real Colorado U15/16 team to the Development Academy semifinals last season, and now boasts an even more potent cast that includes DeSota and defensive stalwart Bailey Heller, both of whom followed Martinez over from Real.
“I think that last year in our semifinal loss, we weren’t mentally prepared for the other team to come out so fast-paced,” said Rhys DeSota. “This year, the players that were on that team learned from that, and now within this new group we’ve worked hard to develop our chemistry and belief in each other over the course of the season.”
The Rapids’ U17/18 team (16-7-7) is familiar with the other three squads left standing, especially semifinal opponent Texans SC Houston. The two sides both hail from the Frontier Division of the league’s Central Conference, with Rapids U17/18 holding a 2-0-2 advantage in the four head-to-head regular season matches.
Thus, the team is confident and eager for the opportunity to prove the Colorado Rapids franchise — which also saw its U15/16 team reach the Development Academy quarterfinals — is ready to win a national amateur title now in order to make a serious statement about the professional team’s future.
“Martinez gave a paper at the beginning of the year and asked us to write down our goals,” Enoch Mushagalusa said. “We all wrote down that our goal was to be in the playoffs, and also to win the championship. We’re two wins from accomplishing that, not only for us and this team and this state, but to make a positive showing for the Rapids’ franchise overall. This team is already doing great things, but it’s also a sign for fans of great things to come.”
2017 Development Academy U17/18 Championships
Semifinal Match: Friday July 14, 6:30 p.m. — No. 20 Texans SC Houston vs. No. 30 Colorado Rapids
Championship Match: Sunday, July 16 — Texans SC Houston/Colorado Rapids vs. Seattle Sounders FC/L.A. Galaxy
Watch: Live stream available via the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Facebook page