Language barrier throws wrinkle into Rapids' team-building

Colorado Rapids midfielder Martin Rivero

Photo Credit: 
Garrett Ellwood/Colorado Rapids

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – When the Colorado Rapids opened the 2011 season, every single player in their starting lineup spoke fluent English.

When the Rapids visited the Seattle Sounders barely more than a year later on April 14, more than a quarter of the starting lineup – three out of 11 players – did not speak English, presenting a new wave of challenges for a Rapids team that already underwent a coaching and tactical shift during the offseason.

Three regular starters on this year’s team – Colombian midfielder Jaime Castrillón, Argentine midfielder Martín Rivero and left back Luis Zapata – are all playing in an English-speaking country for the first time, and as a result, none of them speak any English.

And as Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja recalled from his own early playing days in MLS, not being able to speak the language of your teammates can be lonely and testing.

“It was very tough, we had those limitations of not being able to speak the language,” said the Colombian Pareja, who split his first season in MLS between the New England Revolution and the Dallas Burn. “Communication is key when you’re in a new country, so it’s tough.”

While the Rapids’ English-speakers try and learn Spanish to help out their colleagues, Pareja remains confident that his new players will quickly get a grasp on English.

“They’re learning English, they’re smart guys and they’ll learn,” Pareja said. “They have the desire and want to learn it.”

Despite the trio’s inability to speak English, the team has managed to work around their new counterparts’ language differences by learning bits and pieces of each other’s languages, efforts that led to all three reporting a sense of comfort playing alongside their English-speaking teammates.

“I don’t get worked up about not knowing English,” said Rivero, who had only left Argentina once in his life before moving to Colorado in February. “I understand my teammates well. A few of them have even learned some Spanish.”

And as for Rivero’s latest addition to his English vocabulary?

“I don’t know,” he said in perfect English, a wide smile spreading across his face.

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.