The Colorado Rapids staged a homecoming of sorts at Denver's South High School Thursday, announcing that Rapids MVP and South High alum Conor Casey has agreed to a three-year extensions with his hometown team.
"It's fun to have an event that comes full circle," Rapids managing director Jeff Plush said from a podium set up on the South High soccer field. "This is an exciting day and it tells you what can happen when you put a lot of hard work into something. We're very excited to announce that we've singed Conor Casey to a three-year extension to stay with our club in his hometown.
"When you have a national team forward, our starting striker, who's our leading scorer, commit his future to our club, and he's a Denver South graduate and a product of the youth system through the state of Colorado, we couldn't be more thrilled."
With Casey's parents in attendance, along with representatives from his local club team and faculty and students from his old school, Casey was clearly in his element, basking in the good news and an environment that has constantly pushed him to new heights.
"It's strange to grow up here at South High School and at Wash Park and to have a chance to play for my home city and my home fans and my family and friends," Casey said. "I'm extremely excited for the opportunity on the field to accomplish something hopefully great in the next year or two at the latest. Being from Colorado and being able to play at home is really a great feeling."
Casey proved invaluable to the Rapids last year in just his third MLS season, earning Best XI honors and setting a single-season scoring record for the club with 16 goals. He finished second in the MLS Golden Boot race, missing out by only a goal despite having missed nine games to U.S. national team call-ups. Casey earned his 20th career cap with the national team during those call-ups and added to his highlight reel with a two-goal effort against Honduras in October, clinching a berth for the USA in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
"I think we've been able to secure the services of an individual who means so much to the local community and serves as a player who at this point I believe is not only one of the best, but possibly the best center forward in the MLS at present," Rapids head coach Gary Smith said. "He gives the whole group qualities that would otherwise be found in two or even three individuals that would need to play.
"It's not often that you get a combination of a decent athlete, someone who has creativity and culture with his play, but also that famed target person who knows exactly what, where, and how to hit the back of the net," Smith continued. "That's an incredible combination for one player. We're fortunate to have him. I'm delighted that he's chosen to stay. I really hope that he'll be not just a catalyst, but a very big part of what we achieve in this season and seasons to come."
Holding the event at Casey's alma mater helped highlight the striker's deep roots and ongoing role in the community. Casey cited his work with America Scores, an inner city program based on Denver's west side, as one program he's enjoyed working with, noting that he looks forward to new community projects in the coming year. Plush called Casey's off-field commitment a testament to "the quality of the character and the integrity of the man."
Casey's on-field promise was clear even back in his high school days, when he was an All-American his senior year and helped bring South back into contention. He recalled a senior year playoff loss among his favorite high school soccer memories - a 3-2 final that saw South play the last 20 minutes a man down after a red card ejection.
"I remember 10 years ago when I was in their position," Casey said, noting how much it meant to him to have the boys' and girls' soccer teams from South High in attendance for the announcement. "To come from here and have my fellow South High kids around - I still live very close to here, so I drive by every day. It's great to be back."
Casey, the Rapids, and the hometown fans still recall the impact Casey had on the local fields a decade ago, and they hope to see him have a similar effect on a Rapids side determined to turn its fortunes around and bounce back from a club-high three seasons out of the postseason.
"He was magic," said Skip Wiggs, Casey's coach at South, now retired. "He was a handful. Competitive kids are. He was so focused on soccer. Everything else was trivia. You name it, it wouldn't have mattered: prom, homecoming, it didn't matter, it was soccer. You got to have kids who soccer is their life, and he was that kind of kid. When you got him a ball in the offensive third, more than not it was going in the back of the net. He was a special kid. And he still is."
After a career year in 2009, the 28-year-old Casey had no shortage of options to consider as he looked to his future. Having played six years in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, Karlsruhe SC, and FSV Mainz, Casey's stellar 2009 season with the Rapids and the U.S. national team made him a highly sought after player both at home and abroad. For Casey, however, sticking with the home team was an easy choice to make.
"I don't know if I seriously looked into [anything else]," he acknowledged. "There were some other options out there, but I felt that the timing was right and this is where I really wanted to be. They made a good commitment to me, and it made me feel very sure about my decision."
Though Casey will undoubtedly continue to miss time with the Rapids to play for the national team, he is more optimistic than ever that the Rapids are on track to revive their days as consistent postseason participants.
"It looks very bright," Casey said of the Rapids future. "They made a commitment to me, we have Pablo [Mastroeni] around, and we're putting some pieces in there that we need. Obviously the last few years we've come up short, and this year we don't want that to be the case. It's looking good."