Marlon Hairston, Colorado Rapids, celebrates a goal
Ron Chenoy, USA Today

Marlon Hairston emerges as Colorado's newest star, but he's not done yet

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Marlon Hairston is just like any typical 22-year-old: He enjoys Drake concerts, bowling with friends and, along with his Colorado Rapids teammates, proving people wrong.

“We’ve been fighting and even when people didn’t give us the chance that we deserve, we continue to show people that this wasn’t going to just be a one or two win season,” Hairston told MLSsoccer.com this week.

The midfielder has been a breakout star of the his team's turnaround this season, racking up three goals and five assists in 14 starts. But the transformation has been a long time coming for Hairston, now in his third season with Colorado since the club selected him 12th overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.

“Coming into this season, I wanted to prove to myself, my teammates and coaches that this was where I wanted to be and where I thought I belonged,” Hairston continued. “I was just trying to keep my body ready and as fit as possible so that when I came into preseason, I was a little more prepared than the years before. It’s paying off for the team right now.”

Hairston’s effort was recognized by head coach Pablo Mastroeni entering the 2016 campaign, and he gave the Louisville product the starting nod at right back in Colorado’s season opener.

“Marlon came into the preseason fit, he had a changed mindset and we continued to talk about where he wanted to go in his career,” Mastroeni said. “It was about seeing the drive of a young man who’s changing his own life, taking responsibility for his own career.”

Right back was a position of need for Colorado over the past two seasons and Hairston took on the challenge to learn it.

“Playing on the wing has been a good move for me and it’s definitely paying dividends,” Hairston said. “But I appreciated [playing right back] at the end. It definitely gave me a wider perception defensively while still being able to get into the attack. It was good to get to defend a bit more and have that position in my locker.”

When he returned to the midfield as a substitute in late May, he began to show a spark, earning his first assist on Sam Cronin’s opening goal in a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia. It was that performance which led to Mastroeni making Hairston a more permanent fixture in the midfield, starting when he gave him a starting nod on the wing in the next match against Chicago.

A month later, Hairston scored his first goal of the season with a game-winner against Sporting KC.

“I’m not one to believe that one moment defines somebody. It’s a bunch of little moments that finally culminate into a bigger moment,” Mastroeni said of the steps forward by Hairston this season. “Patience is one thing, perseverance is another. Patience is huge but it’s only warranted when the player wants to apply himself to continue to get better and not make the same mistakes. We’re seeing it manifest now. It’s so great to see all of his hard work being validated with performances at the weekend.”

Hairston gave equal credit to the head coach, who has stayed the course through the rough seasons which defined Hairston’s first two years in MLS and Mastroeni’s first as a manager.

“Over the course of my three years here, he’s been the same guy,” Hairston said of Mastroeni. “He’s consistently telling me to just be free and to continue to perfect my craft at practice, after training and to do things on my own to just continue to try to get better. He’s given me a lot of confidence.”

This season, Hairston can pull knowledge from a variety of mentors, with Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard and Kevin Doyle amongst the sources he can now pull from. It’s a resource that’s proven to be invaluable.

“It’s been great having Jermaine, Tim and Kev on the team. All of those guys are experienced players who’ve played at the highest levels,” Hairston said. “For the younger guys, it’s easy to talk to those guys about anything. Those guys make the job easy. This year they’ve come in and have been great for us.”

Howard offered high praise for Hairston, saying that his young teammate could see US national team call-ups in his future if he continues his trajectory.

“He’s been taking on a big role and scoring big goals for us,” Howard said. “As long as Marlon keeps doing that and putting himself in the shop window, that’s all you can ask for. National team calls come when you play consistently well for your club team.”

Mastroeni sees similarities between Hairston and former USMNT and LA Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones, due to pace and the ability to create crosses and goals from 1v1 situations. But Hairston most tries to model his game after world greats Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane, not because of their technical ability, but their on-field attitudes.

Explained Hairston, “I watched a lot of soccer growing up. Those guys had fun on the field. Every time I watched them they played with a smile on their face and it was something that has stuck with me up to this point.”

He’s hoping to put that carefree attitude on display in front of the Colorado faithful for their remaining home matches, which will hopefully continue well into the postseason.

“Playing at home definitely gives me confidence. Not having lost a game all season has been huge,” he said. “It’s a credit to our fans and the group in the locker room. Other teams come here and altitude is tough to play in. If we can get a home game [in the playoffs], that would be clutch.

“Definitely we’re in a good position going into the playoffs, but there’s a lot more we want to accomplish. Now we’re playing for a Supporters' Shield and hopefully we can make a deep run.”