As part of MLSsoccer.com's annual "24 Under 24," presented by adidas, we are presenting various features about young players in MLS and player development in the league. In this profile of Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp,, beat writer Andrew King explores what the 21-year-old standout means to the club, the community, and, maybe someday, the country.
Find out if Wil Trapp is on the final 24 Under 24 ranking on Thursday, September 25, only on MLSsoccer.com.
COLUMBUS - The Columbus Crew have had their share of legends.
But when Crew fans think of the biggest names who have come and gone for one of Major League Soccer’s founding franchises – Brian McBride, Jeff Cunningham, Frankie Hejduk, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto – there’s always been something missing.
McBride is from the Chicago suburbs, while Cunningham was born in Jamaica and grew up in Florida. Hejduk is California to the core and Schelotto spent most of his life in Argentina. None of the big names in the franchise’s rich history are from Columbus or even the state of Ohio, one of the great soccer hotbeds in the United States.
Wil Trapp is out to change that. He's a local kid from the Columbus surburbs and was something of an Ohio schoolboy soccer legend before he signed with the club in 2012. At 21, he still struggles to go grow hair on his face and carries around a somewhat diminutive 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame, but he’s already earned a fitting nickname inside the Crew locker room in just his second year on the team.
“I don’t know if it was me or some of the guys, but we just started calling him ‘The Franchise,’” says Crew defender Eric Gehrig. “Wil is such a humble guy that he just laughed, it wasn’t one of those things he grasped onto. It was just some of that stuff between the guys.”
They joke about “The ‘Chise” while walking in from training. They hashtag #Franchise while trash talking with Trapp on Twitter about Bundesliga, Xbox or conflicting movie taste.
It's the type of witty banter thrown around in most MLS locker room. Luckily for an organization that’s always been looking for a hometown hero, the "franchise" tag for Trapp is no joke.
There’s no need to use statistics to spell out how important the state of Ohio has been for Major League Soccer, but they certainly don’t hurt the argument. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 48 Ohio-born players signed league contracts between its inception in 1996 and 2013, and 20 MLS players boasted Ohio hometowns last year, according to MLS. That’s third behind California (62) and Texas (28).
But few of those players – if any – are used to carrying the expectations Trapp has since his youth days in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna. He first came on the Crew’s radar when he was barely in his teens, still well before he won the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year or the NSCAA National High School Player of the Year, and long before he signed his first professional contract.
“I saw Wil when he was 13, and you could tell he was going to be a good player,” says former Crew head coach and current Seattle Sounders boss Sigi Schmid. “You could just tell.”
Adds Crew Juniors executive director Andrew Arthurs: “It was very easy to see that the technical ability, vision and soccer IQ was uncommon for a 13-year-old. We had no questions about that part of it.”
Like most players of his generation, Trapp was strongly influenced by the heroes of the United States’ unlikely run in the 2002 World Cup. McBride was the star striker for the Crew when the US team toppled Portugal in the teams’ opening game in South Korea that summer, and McBride’s diving header in the 37th minute was a moment that left an impression on the nine-year-old Trapp not far from where McBride played his club games.
“My brother and I went out in the backyard and literally reenacted it for hours,” Trapp says. “That’s when I realized, ‘this is a dream.’”
Wil Trapp signed a Homegrown contract in December 2012 after one of the most celebrated youth careers in Ohio history. Says former Crew head coach Sigi Schmid: “I saw Wil when he was 13, and you could tell he was going to be a good player. You could just tell.” (USA Today Sports)
Trapp went on to be named to the U-14, U-15 and U-18 US national teams, and led Gahanna Lincoln High School to the national championship in 2009 with a game-winning penalty kick. But it wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Akron in 2011 – as the fifth-ranked recruit in the country by Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News – that he started believing the hype himself.
“I don’t think I came to the realization that I could actually make the squad and this could be my job until my freshman year of college,” he says. “I was just kind of like, ‘I’m fully ready to move on to the next level.’ It had always been something I wanted to do, but to feel the actual thought that I’m ready for it probably didn’t come around until then.”
Even when making the transition from amateur to professional status, Trapp didn’t have to wait long. He signed a Homegrown contract with the Crew in December 2012 after just two seasons with the Zips.
He also captained the US Under-20 team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey in 2013, and earned the instant admiration of head coach and former USMNT regular Tab Ramos.
“From the beginning, Wil was one of those guys who fit into the puzzle,” Ramos says. “He continued to get better camp after camp and as time went by. He’s one who connects everybody together. He’s one of those players who makes everyone around him better.”
It’s easy to spot Trapp’s talent in the center of midfield. He’s fluid on the ball, he's equally adept at short, intricate passwork and long diagonal balls, and he’s working on a shot from distance that will keep defenses honest.
But as the United States soccer landscape shifts, Trapp represents an important step in that evolution.
“We are starting to look for different types of players,” Ramos said. “Since I took over the U-20 national team, it’s been one of the important things to me, having players who are comfortable with the ball. Wil is certainly one of those players that no matter what situation you get him the ball in, he can get out of it and he can make it better.
“He cleans everything up for the team. Everything that comes from his feet is already a ball that can put a team in an advantage situation. When you look at a player like Wil and you’re trying to build a team with offensive talent, he’s the one that’s going to connect those offensive players with the rest of the team.”
The team was disappointing in Turkey, but Trapp’s performances were encouraging. During one of the most tumultuous years in the history of the Crew – which eventually resulted in new ownership, a new coach and sporting director and a new head of business operations – Trapp’s rising stardom was a sign of hope for many. And when he arrived back in Columbus last summer, Trapp was immediately thrown into a reeling squad.
At just 20 years old, he responded by starting each of the final 16 matches in 2013, cementing his position as a starter and showcasing what Crew fans always hoped would come to fruition.
The club had found its new face.
By the beginning of the 2014 season, Trapp’s face was on the side of Crew Stadium, and he was featured in World Cup promotions and Chipotle deals. He was at the center of the team’s marketing plans, but he was even more entrenched in their play, a move that first-year head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter said he envisioned even before he was hired last November.
“When I watched the U-20 World Cup and the Crew games in that time period, you start to see that [Trapp] is a valuable piece – among others – that we could definitely work with,” Berhalter says.
But the connection to Columbus was something special, and the Crew have embraced it. Along with Trapp, they have six other Homegrown players on the books -- Chad Barson, Ross Friedman, Matt Lampson, Ben Speas, Matt Walker, and Matt Wiet -- tied for second most in MLS.
“We want a connection to this community; that’s very important to us,” Berhalter says. “There’s no better way to do it than to have the community represented on the field. And with Wil and our other Homegrowns, we have that. And the connection goes deep. His family is at the games, his relatives, and it’s important to what we’re trying to do.”
Columbus first-team players say they knew of Trapp's reputation when he was still in the team's academy system. Says defender Eric Gehrig: “I remember when he used to train with us. We knew sooner or later he’d be coming around the team.” (USA Today Sports)
Hejduk spent 12 seasons in MLS between 1996 and 2012, including eight years in Columbus. He now works as a brand ambassador for the club, and says that Trapp has a chance that he and other MLS trailblazers never got.
“He was born and raised here, and he’s really legitimately part of this community from day one, which you can’t really say for any of the rest of us. It’s something special,” Hejduk says. “No matter where you’re from, you’d always love to be a part of where you were born and raised and play for that club. That’s what it’s all about. A lot of us didn’t really have that opportunity. I didn’t have that opportunity, McBride didn’t have that at the time…so I’m sure there’s a real sense of pride.”
That community connection isn’t just a marketing ploy. As the Crew – and MLS – emphasize their academy and Homegrown players, local products like Trapp increasingly comprise the core of the first team and the standouts become the paradigms for the younger players still in the academy.
“[Players like Trapp] are hugely critical for us,” Arthurs says. “Our academy guys certainly aspire to be in similar situations moving forward. Six or seven years ago it was just in theory that we could produce pros. Now we’ve got seven guys on the roster… And our kids very much look up to those guys.”
When Trapp was growing up and watching the Crew – he went to games as early as the team’s inaugural 1996 season – he remembers not being able to tie the players to their development. Even Danny O’Rourke – who played for the Crew from 2007-2013 and hailed from nearby Worthington, Ohio -- hadn’t been promoted to the kids in the Crew youth system.
But Trapp has helped reverse that trend. When he was still in the Crew academy, some of his teammates knew his name better than players on the Crew roster.
“He had a pretty prestigious and historic youth career, and everyone knew him coming through the ranks with the academy,” Gehrig says. “I remember when he used to train with us. We knew sooner or later he’d be coming around the team.”
Today, many MLS clubs are littered with homegrown talent. Columbus alone has seven Homegrown players and other local products in Josh Williams - who grew up near Akron and went to Cleveland State - and Brad Stuver, a goalkeeper from outside Cleveland who attended Cleveland State.
In the team’s July 7, 2013, win over the Portland Timbers, five Homegrowns and Williams were in the squad for the match, marking the height of the local movement. It was a moment noticed and appreciated by the Columbus fans.
“At the game last summer where we had six players with Ohio ties, I think a lot of people were proud of that – I know I was,” says Crew Supporters Union president John Clem. “MLS isn’t set up like the European teams from the ground up, but at the same time you want that club feel. And there is more of a connection with the community than a lot of other pro sports teams… if they’re successful and they’re from around town, it makes it feel even more like a community.”
In May, the Crew traveled to Seattle to play the Sounders. On the morning before their match, Trapp caught up with his friend and former Akron teammate DeAndre Yedlin. The pair walked to Seattle’s historic Pike’s Place Market, where Trapp was shocked at what he saw.
Yedlin – who was only 20 years old himself at the time – was a celebrity. The speedy fullback had begun to break into the USMNT scene, and was an even bigger star for the Sounders.
And unlike Trapp, who can largely move about Columbus freely, Yedlin was flooded by Seattle fans.
“We got stopped every ten feet with someone trying to talk to him,” Trapp says. “I was like, ‘I’m glad they don’t know me, man.’”
Trapp’s everyday activities come in stark contrast to his experience with Yedlin. Even earlier this month, Trapp and his girlfriend went to a see country act at Crew Stadium – where the Crew had played just days earlier – and he had no issues.
“My girlfriend and I were walking up and wondering if anyone would look up and see my face on the stadium and I’m just there waiting in line like anyone else,” he says. “I always say I’m a pretty unimposing-looking kid, so you don’t really expect much, looking at me.”
But the Trapp brand is growing in Columbus. Sponsorship deals and gameday promotions have raised his profile significantly over the past year. And while Trapp admits he enjoys it on occasion, he still isn’t accustomed to his increasing celebrity.
“I get people going into Dick’s Sporting Goods and I’m on something in there and they send a photo to me,” he says. “It maybe doesn’t seem real, I don’t know. I never even thought it would be like that.”
“Anyone would be lying if they said they didn’t enjoy it at least a little bit, but I don’t search for that. It’s cool, but I don’t really think about it too much. I can imagine it would be overbearing if everyone is always coming up to you and saying stuff, so I’m glad it’s not at that point.”
Trapp (left) and DeAndre Yedlin warm up while with the US Under-20 team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey in 2013. Trapp says he thinks about following Yedlin's shoes to Europe, but that "everyone has different paths and different ways of getting to their goals." (Getty Images)
But visibility is low on Trapp’s list of concerns. After his extensive international youth career, his immediate goal is to break through to the senior squad like Yedlin.
“The next jump is really the national team, I think, whether via the U-23s at the Olympics or getting called into a camp,” he says. “I think that’s the next level I have to hit, so there are plenty of things I need to get better at before I’m there.”
And while it’s not quite the senior team, Ramos made it clear that Trapp is in his plans for the Olympic squad in 2016.
“I do know that we have an Olympic team to prepare for, and he will be part of that preparation because he’s one of those players who fit in that group,” Ramos says.
Last year Trapp was U.S. Soccer Young Male Athlete of the Year, an award that has a history of predicating success on the senior team. Past winners include Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.
“Of course he’s on [US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's] radar because he’s a good player and all the good players are on Jurgen’s radar,” Ramos says. “Sometimes it depends on the position. Sometimes it’s a little easier to bring in a younger player in a more advanced role than it is in a defensive role. But I’m sure at some point Wil will get an opportunity because he’s a good player and he’s always getting better.”
And while Trapp says he feels fortunate to able to grow his game in MLS, he’s also curious about the possibility of playing in a big European club like McBride or Hejduk did before him, but only if it's the right option.
“I think the highest level of football is overseas, so I would be naïve to say that I don’t want to go to Europe and play,” he says. “But you never know what’s coming in the future. Everyone has different paths and different ways of getting to their goals. I just hope I can get there one day.”
As evidenced by the franchise-record sale of Giancarlo Gonzalez to Palermo, Berhalter and the Crew are willing to deal their players, provided it's the right deal and they are confident they have adequate replacement in the squad or coming through the ranks.
But it seems that Hejduk’s opinion echoes the thoughts of Crew players and fans alike who are eager to see what they hometown hero can do in the future.
“Hopefully we can keep Wil for as long as we can,” Hejduk says, “because he’s basically how our pyramid has been set up. Hopefully he’s here for many more years.”
Adds Gehrig: “[The ‘Franchise’ nickname] might be a lighthearted thing, but at the end of the day we kind of mean it. He means a lot to the team, he means a lot to the club, and I think the sky is the limit with Wil.”