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Red Cards and Redemption: Colorado Rapids rookie Niki Jackson learns valuable lessons

Mar 10, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; Colorado Rapids forward Niki Jackson (12) celebrate with midfielder Johan Blomberg (8) after scoring against the New England Revolution during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – For Colorado Rapids rookie Niki Jackson, the 2018 campaign has marked a season of both growth and growing pains.

There’s been plenty of highs – like his first career Major League Soccer goal in his league debut and his first hat trick as a professional two weeks ago during a 3-2 friendly win against United Soccer League side Tulsa. There’s also been lows – like his late own goal in a 2-1 loss to D.C. United and his now infamous early sendoff in Colorado’s 6-0 rivalry thrashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake.

“Niki is someone that I value a huge amount,” Rapids head coach Anthony Hudson told Pro Soccer USA. “I believe in him and he’s got something quote special. But I’m reluctant to go too far in how much I say because he needs to keep his feet on the ground and keep working hard. What he’s shown, and what I’m pleased with is that with every little challenge he’s faced, he’s responded well.”

There’s been additional challenges for the 23-year-old lately. He’s spent the past two weeks recovering from an ankle injury originally suffered against Tulsa in Memphis. Yet for every setback he’s faced, Jackson has approached it as an opportunity to get better.

“It’s very important in your rookie season to learn as much as you can in your first year and take everything in,” said Jackson. “I can see myself growing not only on the field but off the field.”

The lesson learned from the devastating RSL loss was particularly impactful to the first-year player, who was selected 73rd overall in this past January’s MLS SuperDraft. In that game, Jackson was sent off in the 9th minute for a headbutt of RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak.

“I knew for me, the team wasn’t happy with what I did,” Jackson explained. “I put them in a bad position so I knew the best response would be a positive one.”

The following week in Memphis – the town where Jackson spent his youth– Jackson responded with the hat trick.

“It was a great bounce back for me,” he said. “I wanted to do my best to show that I’m still here and I want to compete.”

Jackson isn’t your typical American soccer player. After being recognized by Brazilian coaches through a program called TetraBrazil, Jackson moved to “the country of football” to participate in a residency program. In Brazil, he lived with a host family while learning more about the culture and customs, and even picking up Portuguese. But most importantly, he learned more about how to “Joga Bonito”.

“I met a lot of great people and the soccer was amazing. It put me a few steps ahead at such a young age,” said Jackson.

The head start put him head and shoulders above the competition at the collegiate level, where he tallied 41 goals in 69 appearances for Grand Canyon University. He’s continued his success in MLS – his two goals rank second among rookies taken in the 2018 SuperDraft, second only to Orlando’s Chris Mueller (three goals, six assists). Despite the success, he’s found out there’s still much to learn as a pro.

Explained Jackson: “At the beginning of the year, I would leave right after training. I didn’t really take in how important it is to take care of your body, because your body is what’s giving you paychecks. For me, one of the big things was taking care of my body and making sure I didn’t get hurt.”

Making sure Jackson learns the demands of a top professional has been one of the focuses of Hudson and the coaching staff, as they look to mold Jackson into the team’s striker of the future.

“If Niki continues to have a complete, disciplined mind and is completely focused on being a top professional, I think we’ve got a really good player there,” said Hudson. “I have a huge amount of belief in him.”

The opportunity has come perhaps earlier than anticipated because the Rapids shipped off goal-scoring leader Dominique Badji to FC Dallas in exchange for Kellyn Acosta back in late July. It was a bittersweet moment for Jackson, who looked up to Badji as mentor.

“We have the same background coming into MLS; both fourth-round picks,” he said. “I really did look up to him and I could see how my future can go down the same path as him. It was bittersweet, but I’m happy for him. He’s doing well in Dallas and it’s an opportunity for me as well.”

With Colorado struggling for goals at the moment (having been shutout in the previous four matches), no one in the Rapids’ camp has really taken hold of the role vacated by Badji. Nonetheless, it’s created intense competition within the team’s forwards during practices.

“We’re still looking for it,” said Jackson. “With Badji gone, myself, Jack [McBean] and Sam [Nicholson], all those guys up front are really pushing to be that guy. It’s a great motivator.”

With just six games remaining, including this weekend’s visit to Columbus, Jackson hopes to change the Rapids’ current goalless drought and bag some more before season’s end.

“As a team, we want to finish out strong. For me, I want to get at least four or five goals. In the long-term I want to be the go-to striker in 2019.”

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