Cole Bassett could’ve packed his bags and jetted off to one of Portugal’s biggest clubs over the summer.
The Colorado Rapids had already reached an agreement on a multi-million-dollar transfer deal with SL Benfica for the homegrown central midfielder, the Lisbon giants having outbid several other suitors from across Europe. But the 20-year-old decided it just wasn’t quite time to leave his hometown side yet, as MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert first reported.
“I did turn it down. And I think the reason why I did is for this night right now,” Bassett told reporters after the Rapids’ 5-2 Decision Day thumping of LAFC at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a result that clinched them the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and a 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot.
While few beyond the Front Range rated his Rapids as title contenders, the Littleton, Colorado native thought his squad was capable of hoisting hardware this year. And while they haven’t put their hands on a trophy just yet – and his own personal path has posed its own particular challenges – he sounds vindicated.
“I think a lot of people know I do want to go to Europe,” continued Bassett, who placed No. 10 on this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list. “But there's a reason why I stayed this year. And even though it's been a little bit of a different second half of the year for me, ever since the transfer window went down, there's a reason why I stayed and that's because I know this team can win. And we showed that tonight.”
Bassett was alluding to his playing time down the stretch. Since the end of August he’s just started six of Colorado’s 13 matches and appeared as a substitute in another six, despite ranking near-tops in both goals (5) and assists (4) plus shining in other metrics like shot creation and pressing. For the club, it’s a sign of how deep and competitive their roster is, and the egalitarian culture instilled by head coach Robin Fraser since his arrival in August 2019.
Though Bassett doesn’t disguise his underlying frustrations, he says he trusts Fraser in the long run.
“When he first came in, you could tell tactically he understands the game a lot different than other coaches,” said Bassett. “I think it's all about numbers for him and he's helped me tremendously – and we've had our ups and downs. I've had to prove to him every single year why I deserve to be playing, and even during the second half of the year, it's been a little weird.
“I've had to come off the bench a lot more than I would like to and you know, you want to start every game as a footballer. But for me, having a relationship with the coach where I know I'm going to develop and continue to try to reach the top, get back into the national team setup, hopefully get to Europe – I think he's a good coach for me to do that.”
Fraser has been uncompromising with his young talent, emphasizing Bassett's cultivation of work rate and physicality in engine-room battles where so many games are won and lost. Perhaps no surprise, then, he drew attention to something other than the 1g/1a that Bassett bagged in 34 minutes against LAFC.
“I think Cole was leading the league with hitting the crossbar or the post some months back, I think he's hit the post seven or eight times this year. So he's someone who always, always, always has an eye on goals and assists,” said Fraser. “It was great for him to be able to get one tonight – that's great. Players love that and everyone loves goals. Fans love that.
“I love the effort. And the work rate that Cole put in tonight, and the shift that he put in, was very, very good.”
Winter will bring decisions for Bassett and the Rapids to make. Both parties will surely explore the options for a European move, and it’s not out of the question they could reach agreement on a contract extension, with what would likely be a significant pay raise from his current deal.
In the meantime, there are ample collective achievements to pursue over the next month, and Bassett believes these Rapids can go toe to toe with MLS' elite. In a Thanksgiving day Western Conference Semifinal on Nov. 25, they'll play either the Portland Timbers (No. 4 seed) or Minnesota United FC (No. 5 seed).
“We are ready, but we have to go show it,” he said of his side’s championship prospects. “The difference between this year and last year is the mentality of the team. I think that's switched a little bit and we've become a little bit more confident in who we are and what type of team we are, and we know that we can go out and beat any team.
“So I think we can talk all we want, but really it comes down to the game and when we play in playoffs. So we've just got to go out there and show why we deserve to be in first place, and why we deserve to win an MLS Cup.”