U17/18 team play­ing in cham­pi­onships

No Colorado team has won de­vel­op­ment ti­tle

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Kyle New­man Kyle New­man: 303-954-1773 knew­man@den­ver­post.com or @KyleNew­manDP

As the Rapids’ U17/18 team be­gins play in the De­vel­op­ment Academy cham­pi­onships Fri­day night in Car­son, Calif., the club is on the cusp of mak­ing a ma­jor soc­cer state­ment for the state con­sid­er­ing that 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,” said 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 (se­niors-to-be and grad­u­ated se­niors) Rapids made a push to Fri­day’s semi­fi­nal match after sneak­ing into the back door 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 more than 15 years of coach­ing with Real Colorado. He led the Real Colorado U17/18 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 from Real.

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