There's a youth movement happening in Colorado, perhaps flying a bit under the radar on the national stage. In addition to acquiring a number of young talents from within the league, including Jonathan Lewis and Auston Trusty, the Rapids have a few academy graduates making waves.
Left back Sam Vines won the starting role in 2019 and the 19-year-old even made his national team debut. Sebastian Anderson made his MLS debut at age 16 last season. But perhaps the crown jewel of the current crop of academy talent in the first team is central midfielder Cole Bassett.
Bassett signed his Homegrown contract with the Rapids during the 2018 season, just a few weeks after he turned 17. He scored his first professional goal before season's end. He appeared in more than half of the club's games last year and his influence continued to grow in 2020. He is a regular with the US youth international teams and was likely to be an integral part of the US U-20's as they continued their cycle towards the 2021 U-20 World Cup before coronavirus stoppages.
The Rapids find Bassett to be one of the best young talents in MLS.
“I think Cole can be a national team player and can certainly play at a high level in Europe," Rapids GM & EVP Padraig Smith told MLSsoccer.com last week. "When you have a midfielder with the type of engine he has, the intelligence he has and the ability to contribute goals, that’s a potent combination. If he continues to do that in a consistent manner, it’ll take him right to the top.”
A number of European teams seem to agree with that assessment.
Bassett has been on training stints with Premier League giants Arsenal as well as Bundesliga sides Freiburg and Hoffenheim. Various reports stated in 2019 that Freiburg made a bid, while MLSsoccer.com can confirm that and reveal multiple bids have been rejected by the Rapids from Freiburg. A source also went as far as to say they were "convinced" a bid from Arsenal would have come following his training stint if not for visa/work permit hurdles. Even before Brexit, it was notoriously difficult for non-European players to get work permits for England.
Freiburg and Hoffenheim continue to track Bassett, while Swiss Super League club FC Laussane-Sport and Austrian side Rapid Vienna are also keen admirers of the midfielder, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. Laussane currently sit second in the Swiss league while Rapid are second in the Austrian league and begin their Europa League campaign on Thursday.
“We’ve had offers for Cole in the past from European clubs, but we didn’t feel they matched our valuation for Cole," Smith said. "And we feel Cole’s progression as a player was best served here, we think Cole’s performances this year is further evidence that he can further develop under coach (Robin) Fraser.”
Fraser is the third head coach Bassett has earned the trust of in his teenage years. Anthony Hudson gave him his debut in 2018 as a 17-year-old, while he retained regular minutes under interim head coach Conor Casey and now continues to develop under Fraser, showing Bassett's talent as well as a club commitment to giving youth a chance.
So, what makes Bassett so good?
“From the inside, it’s his mentality," Smith said. "From the outside, I think fans are impressed by the nonstop nature of his play and the intelligence of his play. He picks up good positions, he’s technically sound and knows how to find spots where he can cause the other team damage. He’s got a real nose for getting into the box in good moments. His all-around energy is something to be seen. ... Mentality is something that sticks out about Cole. He’s been driven since the very first day we talked to him about potentially having a career as a professional. He’s driven to get better, he leaves no stone unturned in his own development. His commitment to excellence has helped drive and develop him.”
Bassett is one of the best space-covering midfielders in the league. Among players with at least 500 minutes this season, Bassett is fifth in distance covered per 90 minutes (11.29 kilometers/90 mins), per tracking data via Second Spectrum. He trails only Alex Muyl, Nico Lodeiro, Pablo Piatti and Marky Delgado.
The box-to-box midfielder has also consistently popped up in the right places to find goal contributions. He already has seven career goals in 1,935 minutes as well as six assists. While his rate of four goals in 565 minutes this season is surely not sustainable (he has those four goals on 1.74 xG), he's more than proved his eye for goal.
Bassett's development will continue, he is far from a finished product.
“He needs to keep working on his physicality," Smith said. "What you’re looking for is a player who can go out there for 34 games a year and dominate from midfield. When you’re up against some of the top class midfielders you have in this country, you’ve got to be able to physically dominate as well as being able to contribute from a tactical and technical perspective.”
Bassett seems to be well on his way. He's expected to place highly on MLSsoccer.com's 22 Under 22 rankings, a list in which he'd keep great company, recognized among the brightest young talents in MLS.
"As with any young player, you’ve got to earn the trust of those around you," Smith said. "Cole has done that by consistently producing, consistently committing himself to his own development. He’s earned his position, he’s earned the right to be called one of the best young prospects in the league.”