After career year, Rapids' Dominique Badji aims to hit double digits in '17

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Last season marked a historic campaign for the Colorado Rapids, but it also marked a career year for striker Dominique Badji, who posted career highs with six goals and four assists in 2016.

That same success carried over into Colorado’s home opener, with the 24-year-old striker marking the game’s lone tally in a 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday.

“It felt great,” Badji said of the goal, and the win. “The most important part was getting the win, but it’s always nice to score, get on the mark, and hopefully keep this momentum going.”

For Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni, it was a positive indicator of the growth shown by the Senegalese-born striker since being drafted 67th overall in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.

“I think Badji has been a revelation of sorts, being drafted in the fourth round, having spotty appearances in his first year, and coming in last year and having a very productive year from a performance perspective,” Mastroeni explained.

“I think you want continual growth. I don’t think you want a great year and then a year of questions. You want gradual progress and Badji brings that. He came in to camp with six pounds of added muscle and stronger. He’s a very important player for this group so I’d like to see continued progress.”

Shkelzen Gashi’s preseason Achilles injury opened the door for Badji to make an appearance in Saturday's starting lineup and the third-year player showed his gratitude by providing the goal.

Will it mean increased playing time for the Boston University product? When asked about it, Badji pointed out that increased minutes and production go hand in hand.

“It just comes down to scoring goals,” he said. “I want to hit double digits for sure.”

He’ll be helped in that department this season with the addition of former Rapids striker Conor Casey to the coaching staff as an offensive assistant, as well as the offseason roster addition of veteran Alan Gordon.

“[Casey] was a great player and he played forward so he’s got a lot of knowledge on that,” Badji said. “It’s just the little things he’s worked on like movement. That half a second can help you score that goal. It’s the final product.”

Likewise, Gordon has been a welcome influence to the young striker.

“Gordo is definitely someone who’s constantly in my ear, constantly giving me advice,” Badji added. “He’s had a great career and he’s definitely willing to help me out.”

But perhaps the biggest motivator for Badji is one of his peers. Rapids midfielder Marlon Hairston also has a career year in 2016, and the pair continually work to push each other on and off the training grounds.

“On the field, it’s all competition,” Badji said of the relationship. “Us being friends is showing on the field. We push each other to be the best we can be. I want to score more goals and get more assists and he wants the same for me. Competition is definitely positive in our group.”

With his first goal of 2017 in the bag, Badji feels he’s completed the transition from nervy young player to seasoned professional.

“I feel a lot calmer than I was the previous two years. The first year was kind of hectic. The second year was a deep breath. But now I feel my game is settled and my game has come to form and it’s showing on the field.”