Sam Vines - Colorado Rapids - September 9, 2020
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Could Colorado Rapids' Sam Vines become the USMNT's left back of the future?

It doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of the United States’ male player pool to know that right back is a position of strength for both the senior national team and the Under-23 Olympic squad.

“There's a tremendous amount of depth with Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, now Bryan Reynolds. Aaron Herrera is in this group with us, Kyle Duncan. So it seems to be we have no shortage of right-footed fullbacks,” U-23s coach Jason Kreis said in a call with media on Tuesday.

“I think we have a little bit of dearth still at the left fullback position.”

That might be an understatement, both currently and historically. For some reason, the left back spot has bedeviled a long line of USMNT coaches for decades, forcing a variety of stopgaps like converted wingers and center backs, deputized right backs and other makeshift solutions.

As both the Olympic and senior teams wade into an intense 2021, could a baby-faced Colorado Rapids homegrown be the answer for Gregg Berhalter?

While there’s lots of work to be done, that’s the vision and the dream for Sam Vines. The 21-year-old has already racked up 3,814 MLS minutes as the Rapids’ starter the past two seasons, earning multiple call-ups to both US squads and showing enough quality to fuel hopes of a long and successful international career.

“Really, really interesting player, from my point of view,” said Kreis of Vines. “Because he really wasn't on anybody's radar about a year and a half ago. But again, through his production, and through his stepping forward with his career in Colorado, through the opportunity that he was given with the Rapids, he's shown that he was quite a capable player, beyond his years, really, as an outside back in MLS. So he pushed his way into the scene. And every time we've had him, we've been more and more impressed.”

Calm, rangy, technically adept, composed both going forward and defending in space, Vines has drawn European club interest in addition to the attention of USMNT staff. He earned two caps for Gregg Berhalter’s side last year -- starting both of the Yanks’ domestic friendlies -- and with the U-23s planning to mirror the senior side’s tactics and philosophy, he looks well-placed to contend for the left back job in Olympic qualifying.

“Yeah, obviously 2020 was a big year for me, I got to play all the games with my club team and I had two caps with the full team,” said Vines, who didn’t miss a minute for Colorado aside from their playoff game, where he came off the bench due to a hamstring issue.

“I've just taken in as much information as I could throughout every camp that I've been in,” he added. “It's a lot of stuff to bring in and a lot of ways that they want you to play, and I think it suits the way I play. So since January, and since last camp, I think I've learned a lot of the style of play and what [Berhalter] wants from us outside backs. So I've just been working hard on that.”

Kreis isn’t quite ready to anoint the kid from Colorado Springs yet, though it’s telling that he didn’t shy away from the idea.

“Could he be a little bit stronger in the one-v-one defending, could he be a little bit better with his positioning to help cover his center back on his side and those sorts of things defensively? I think there's some room to grow,” said the coach. “But he has a real good knack for when to get forward, his timing of when to join attacks. And the service that he provides has has been really quite, quite good. So I've been impressed with him.

“Left fullback is an area that we continue to sort of look for the answer for the long term. And Sam falls into a category that you start to think OK, could he have potential to be a left back solution for the full team going forward? Maybe still a little bit away from that. But I do think he's making himself more and more a candidate for that.”

Vines himself plans to keep his head down and make sure he stays in the mix.

“You don't know what's coming up next in your career, you just have to keep working hard,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep performing at the club level and national level as well as I can.”