COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – As the sun beats down on the training field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Sam Vines needs to take a breather before speaking with the media.
It’s a visible sign of how hard the 20-year-old defender has been working this season.
“We had a hard session today,” Vines told Pro Soccer USA following a recent session. “We’re here to compete, we’re here to win. We want to win the game.”
Vines has not just broken into a regular starting role with the first team, but solidified a left back position with which the Colorado Rapids have experimented to find an answer for all season. Vines has featured in all five of Colorado’s wins thus far, starting in four.
All of those wins have come under interim head coach Conor Casey, who’s witnessed Vines’ professional development first hand.
“He’s taken the position and he’s run with it,” Casey said of Vines’ performances at left back. “He’s getting even better experience now being able to start week in and week out and be able to get into the rhythm of being a professional and competing against guys like Carlos Vela.”
Ironically, the door to the position opened up to the young homegrown because of an injury to teammate Deklan Wynne, a favorite under former head coach Anthony Hudson. Vines himself was held out earlier this year due to a quad injury he has sustained in preseason.
Now healthy, getting a regular run of games is what Vines cites as the defining factor behind his improvement.
“Playing a lot more games has boosted my confidence a lot,” Vines explained. “I’ve been fortunate to play enough games this season to feel confident and like a part of the squad.”
Apr 20, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Colorado Rapids defender Sam Vines (13) kicks the ball against the Chicago Fire during the second half at Bridgeview Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Aside from the misfortune of injury, this past offseason had been the most productive of his young career. Vines put on muscle as part of a weight-training regimen, and both he and Rapids teammate Cole Bassett trained with recently promoted German Bundesliga club SC Freiburg last November.
“It was a good experience going overseas,” Vines said. “They have a lot of weight training and sometimes train twice a day, especially in the preseason. The language was a bit of a barrier, but it was good because Cole and I were together the whole time and stayed in the same hotel room.”
Fittingly, the duo will be roommates yet again when they head to Orlando to participate in the sixth edition of the MLS Homegrown Game next Tuesday.
It will mark the second time in which a pair of Rapids homegrowns have featured in the same Homegrown Game. Dillon Serna and Shane O’Neill represented Colorado in 2015.
It’s a sign of the growth and strength of not just the Rapids Development Academy, but of soccer in the U.S. as a whole. Casey, a Colorado native who played five seasons for the Rapids, remembers a time when infrastructure and resources weren’t readily available for developing players like they currently are for today’s homegrowns.
“When I was a kid, it was: You’d have to know somebody that knew somebody to be able to get into even possibly train with the team,” Casey said. “The fact that kids like Sam, like Cole Bassett, Seb [Anderson] can come in and they can train every day here, we have that connection with their coaches where we can track them, keep an eye on them and then bring them pretty seamlessly into the first team. I mean, it’s totally different the way that football’s evolved in America with the academies.”
As a Coloradan who battled his way through the professional ranks before eventually playing for his hometown team, Casey is an original homegrown of sorts. But so is Monument, Colo., native and former Rapids defender Bobby Burling, who also has taken time to mentor Vines.
“Bobby and all the other guys I was training with since I was 14 years old have given me advice and wanted me to do well,” Vines said. “He tells me to keep my head down and keep working hard. Especially when you’re an academy guy, you’ve got to work twice as hard.”
The relationship between Burling and Vines started as a bit of ribbing over a longstanding local high school rivalry between Burling’s alma mater, Lewis-Palmer, and Vines’ Pine Creek.
“I always told him I never lost to Pine Creek,” Burling jokes. “But Sam was always a good kid and I always thought he had potential. At ages 15 and 16, I was playing more basketball than soccer. I think getting the shot to prove yourself as a professional at that age now is mind blowing to myself. I think if [MLS] can become a development league, we’ll be looked at differently.”
Arguably the toughest challenge Vines has faced this season was marking MLS Golden Boot frontrunner Carlos Vela. It was a test he passed with flying colors, as the Rapids shutdown Vela and a potent Los Angeles FC attack in a 1-0 win.
Next week, the MLS homegrowns are set to face another formidable task in the Chivas Guadalajara under-20s. It’s another opportunity Vines is looking forward to.
“It’s obviously exciting, especially with all the homegrowns from around the league and to be able to go down there with Cole,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to go down there, get some minutes, have fun and maybe catch a glimpse of the All-Star Game.”
Vines’ coach will be one of the many tuning in.
“I’ll be watching it, for sure,” Casey said. “I mean, they’ve, they’ve earned it. So, it’s really cool. It’s good for them, it’ll be a good experience. And you know, they’re young pros, and they’re showing well, so it’s bright future for them.”