National Writer: Charles Boehm

Colorado Rapids' Younes Namli finds natural fit in the Rockies after his Caucasus misadventure

Younes Namli - Kei Kamara - embrace

Did you catch Younes Namli’s goal over the weekend?

The question is more literal than you might think. Even if you were in attendance at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for the Colorado Rapids’ home opener, or watching the broadcast closely, it was a blink-and-you’ll miss-it moment. 

A subtle drift into a pocket of space. One slick, quick turn, seven knifing touches — or was it eight? His feet were a blur — the last of which was a vicious low drive tucked inside the right post from 25 yards out. All of it unfolding in about five fleeting seconds.

“I’ve found, in my long history in soccer, that you get some players that come from overseas and they're just different. They're different than what we see here,” head coach Robin Fraser said on the eve of the Rapids’ season opener. “Younes is one of those guys. 

“He has a really nice ability to move with the ball, glides by players, is a good passer,” Fraser added. “His passing range is really good on the move, whether it's a long pass or a short pass, and he does a lot of things to unbalance defenders … the type of player who can help us in possession and help us in the final action, to create goals.”

Namli’s debut MLS goal was a decisive element in their 2-1 win over Orlando City, which took them to six points from six in this young season, in stark contrast to the 11-game winless slump that opened their 2019 campaign. And though it unfolded in the mile-high air of Commerce City, Colorado, the play can be traced all the way back to the dense neighborhoods of his native Copenhagen. 

“I came here to play for something, to compete,” Namli told in a one-on-one sitdown last month. “Of course I'm a player who likes to entertain as well, but that's just my style of playing. It's not because I want to bring a show every time, it's just [that] I've been playing my whole youth, I've been playing on the streets. So I do some things differently, which is entertaining sometimes.

“Basically street soccer, that’s my childhood,” the 25-year-old added with a grin. “I was out there the whole day, every day. That's what made me. Because when you play on the streets, you learn how to stand up for yourself, you learn how to win, and the importance of winning. That's what I learned, because you don't want to lose there. They'll speak about it the whole week! So to this day, that's what made me, for sure.”

Saturday’s strike was also a moment more than two years in the making for the Rapids, who have admired the Danish attacker since he rose to prominent in the Dutch Eredivisie with Heerenveen and PEC Zwolle, but had to bide their time when FC Krasnodar lured him to Russia last year with the carrot of UEFA Champions League and Europa League soccer.

Things quickly turned sour in the Caucasus, however. 

“I wanted to try that,” Namli explained of his Krasnodar adventure. “We had a deal about how things were supposed to go. They did something else; that’s their choice. And that's why after six months, I knew that Colorado wanted me a couple of years back.

“The way [Fraser] wants to play is pretty similar to how we played in Holland,” he explained, adding that Frank de Boer’s arrival at Atlanta United has made it easier to watch MLS games in the Netherlands. “That league is really all about playing – playing from the back, possession football, and that's what the coach wants [here] as well. Of course we also have a positive side of fast players as well, so we can also be good in the counters, but overall we want to play with the ball.”

A classic playmaker who can also work on the wings, Namli was handed the keys to the Rapids attack upon his arrival on a two-year loan, and it’s not hard to see why. That silky grace on the ball is matched by a nuanced understanding of time and space — and underneath it a strong self-belief.

“He's got not just the right skill set, technical qualities, tactical awareness — I think he's got a very strong mentality,” said Rapids executive VP and GM Padraig Smith. “This is an individual who performed very very well in the Dutch league and then went to Russia, which is a very challenging environment to succeed in at times, and was performing well.”

Born in Denmark to Moroccan parents, Namli has been subjected to the racism plaguing European soccer at multiple stops in his career — “for sure, many times,” he revealed straightforwardly — and seems to have been consistently ignored by the Danish national team despite showing both promise and productivity on his rise through the professional ranks.

It’s made him a good fit for this often-overlooked Rapids team’s outsider mentality, as they aim to thrust themselves into a national conversation dominated by flashier, spendier counterparts on the coasts.

“That's only logical, you know. Some teams, they buy players for $10, $12 million. Of course they get more attention,” said Namli. “That's how it is in the soccer world.

“I did my research and I saw that they really did a great job after [Fraser] came. You know, it's okay to be the underdog sometimes. I mean, we can only surprise, so that's cool with me and it motivates me as well to show people from the outside that we are better than what they think.”

So far, so good. And though Colorado must hit the road for three of their next four matches, including a Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry clash at Real Salt Lake on April 11, the resourcefulness they’ve shown in last-gasp wins at D.C. United and vs. Orlando suggests that they’re well equipped to keep pushing forward.

“This is just the start,” said Namli after Saturday’s win. “I've been here for like four weeks, I think – if we can do it like this after four weeks, then imagine what we can do when we get a couple of months into the season ... we need to go for it every week and hopefully this will continue.”