COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Marlon Hairston has been burning defenders with his red-hot play in the Colorado Rapids’ past four games, scoring three goals and tallying an assist along the way.
It’s a continuation of his long road from his youth days in Jackson, Mississippi to playing in the pros in MLS.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with Hairston this week to discuss his stellar rise this season, his international aspirations and his love of video games as he and his Burgundy-and-White teammates prepare for Saturday’s clash of Western Conference titans, their visit to the LA Galaxy (10:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
Work, work, work, work, work
What’s been the key to Hairston’s meteoric rise this season? He says he's simply been putting in work.
“It’s hard work, it’s commitment, it’s a belief to get better every day,” Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said of Hairston’s recent success. “Marlon can be as good as he wants to be. He’s doing double sessions at the beginning of the week, gaining strength. He’s doing a lot of work that people don’t realize. It’s not just happenstance that he is where he is. He’s been working extremely hard every week.”
Mastroeni has also praised Hairston for his speed and ability to stretch and get behind opposing defenses. But just how fast is he? One of his former soccer teammates in Mississippi, Mathew O’Neal, is a recently-graduated collegiate track athlete who narrowly missed out on an Olympic bid in the triple jump, an athlete Hairston said could “run for days.”
When it comes to his own run speed, Hairston estimates he could run a 40-yard-dash in approximately 4.5 seconds.
“I feel like I’m quick over the first 10-15 yards, but over longer distances, that’s when my speed comes out,” he explained.
Where it all began
Hairston scored his first professional goal on Aug. 20, 2014 against the LA Galaxy – yet the Rapids eventually lost that game, a 4-3 come-from-behind win for LA. Hairston is looking to rectify that result and continue his current run of form on Saturday, when the Rapids seek their first win at StubHub Center since 2013.
“It’s huge,” Hairston said of this weekend’s match. “I had a couple chances in that last game [at LA]. I’m in form right now, so hopefully if I have another couple of chances I’ll be able to put those away this time.”
Within the Rapids locker room, Hairston is the undisputed champion when it comes to EA Sports' popular soccer video game FIFA 16.
He beat out multiple teammates to earn the title, earning him a shot to play the game against a lucky fan on the big screen at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. He annihilated that fan by a score of 6-1.
Having proven himself against teammates and fans, he looks to take his game to bigger heights. He’s openly challenged former Sporting KC trialist, NFL wide receiver and self-proclaimed FIFA champ Chad Ochocinco to a grudge match:
All in the family
Growing up, Marlon took after his older brother Marcus Hairston, who himself played collegiate soccer at the University of Cincinnati.
“My brother was probably my biggest influence,” Hairston recalled. “I always wanted to be like him. Soccer was his dream growing up. I would always be at his games to go watch him play.”
Hairston’s parents first introduced him to the game when he received a soccer ball as a child at the age of 3, and his father became his first youth coach through his own self-study of the game.
“To not being able to see my family every day was a huge sacrifice to me,” he said of his first experience away from home, when he went to the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida to pursue his soccer dream in high school.
Growing up, Hairston was exposed to the island culture of Caribbean nations via his youth coaches.
“We only had a small club, but we had high-level coaching,” he explained. “We had coaches from Trinidad, Jamaica and Cuba. It’s the islands. They came back and for some reason, ended up in Mississippi. They started the coaching at our club and that was the best coaching we had in the area.”
So it should come as no surprise that he’s quickly become close friends with Mekeil Williams since the Trinidad & Tobago international joined the Rapids.
Avoiding the distractions of a rough town
Hairston’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, has one of the country's highest murder rates, according to a recent FBI Uniform Crime Report, and is colloquially known as the murder capital of Mississippi.
But Hairston used soccer as a positive outlet to escape the distractions of his hometown when he accepted a scholarship to the IMG Academy.
“I tried to keep a lot of activities going on growing up, just to keep a positive thing going,” said Hairston. “I stuck with soccer and that’s when I knew I could have something going for the future. Growing up, where I was from, was against all odds. To get to this point, nobody ever expected a kid from Jackson, Mississippi to make it this far.”
Like many soccer athletes growing up in America, Hairston took up several sports during his youth, including track & field, American football and basketball. He’s the cousin of NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs, and follows the sport closely, shooting the ball around whenever he has the opportunity.
But Hairston, who played as a kicker and safety on the gridiron, believes he could have made in in the NFL as a kicker, a la former FC Dallas goalkeeper Josh Lambo.
He cited one of his former teammates as another example: “One of my close friends, Jonathan Brown, came to Louisville for a year to play soccer. When I left, he transferred and switched sports from soccer to football.”
Hairston didn’t declare a major during his time in college at Louisville. But he has a penchant for fashion, and has a keen interest in it as a career path outside of soccer. His brother Marcus owns a clothing store outside of Atlanta, where Hairston says he’d probably be working if he wasn’t playing.
And when it comes to staying stylish, he's very much a member of Generation adidas:
Renewed USMNT hopes?
With the run of form Hairston has put together in the Rapids’ past four games, it’s going to be hard for defenders around MLS to ignore him – and perhaps the US national team coaching staff, too.
Hairston has flirted with international duty before, having received call-ups to the US U-23 and U-20 national teams in late 2014 and early 2015, only to see his most recent opportunity get cut short by injury. But he’s hoping his recent play has revitalized his aspirations to be a part of the USMNT.
“Hopefully this isn’t the end,” Hairston said. “There’s still a lot more that I want to have in my career and I’m still chasing the dream at this point.”
Marco Cummings covers the Rapids for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.