COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — If there’s any player on the Colorado Rapids who can identify a player with the quality to compete in Europe, it’s Hendry Thomas.
A three-year EPL veteran with Wigan Athletic and winner of more than 50 caps with Honduran national team, Thomas confidently and calmly volunteered a strong assessment of Rapids youngsters Clint Irwin, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown following Colorado’s 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake last weekend.
“If I’m being honest, those players are very young, and if they keep working like they have, they will have the opportunity to play in European soccer,” Thomas told MLSsoccer.com last Saturday of Irwin, Powers and Brown.
WATCH: Clint Irwin wins SotW for PK stop
Thomas is usually a stoic quote who doesn’t reveal much in interviews. So Saturday’s statement from the 28-year-old stood out – and it offers the Rapids an auspicious look at their youth-based rebuilding project.
LISTEN: Rapids Podcast with Clint Irwin and Hendry Thomas
Although the standings suggest a bleaker picture (five points from six matches), the Rapids are still well on their way to developing the team they ultimately want: built from within (draft picks, Homegrown signings) and stocked with skilled youth players ready to fit manager Oscar Pareja’s possession-based attacking style of soccer.
Last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake perhaps best represented the team Colorado want to become. Though mostly due to injury, the Rapids featured five players in their starting lineup aged 24 or younger, including two rookie draft picks (Powers and Brown), a Homegrown signee (defender Shane O’Neill) and two players (Irwin and defender Chris Klute) picked up from USL sides in the last seven months.
“We had the second oldest team in the league last year, and that didn’t necessarily translate into results,” Rapids technical director Paul Bravo said this week. “It took us a while to really get to a point where we feel comfortable with the young players that we’ve been able to bring in but also the veteran presence around them to help them become better each and every day.”
Many fans were surprised last offseason when Colorado parted ways with many of the team’s iconic figures from the 2010 MLS Cup-winning side, including the franchise’s all-time goalscorer, Conor Casey, striker Omar Cummings and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. But in their places, the Rapids drafted Brown sixth overall in January’s SuperDraft, and five picks later Colorado took Powers 11th overall. The youth-inspired moves have started to pay dividends.
READ: Will Drew Moor get his starting spot back from Shane O'Neill?
This week, MLSsoccer.com placed Powers and Brown in second and third place, respectively, in their Rookie Rankings. The duo has combined for two of the club’s five goals so far this season (one each) while both have started each of Colorado’s six games. Irwin, meanwhile, has perhaps been the team’s most pleasant surprise, providing big saves and leadership in starter Matt Pickens’ extended absence due to a broken forearm.
Growing pains are a part of any maturation process – just look at Colorado's place in the standings. But if Thomas’ comments and recent lineups are any indication, they should serve as a reminder that the Rapids’ youth movement appears to be on the right track.
“You see that even through the adversity or lack of results in the first four games, you still have a guy who has emerged into a good goalkeeper now,” Pareja said on Wednesday. “Chris Klute is getting some solidness in that position. Shane is now making us doubt if he needs to be starting instead of Drew. The club now has five players that could now be the base for this franchise for many years.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.