Colorado Rapids: More than a team

By Patrick Shea

Commerce City – Isaac Martinez raced down the left wing with the ball at his feet, but opposing defender Davy Armstrong slid for a tough tackle and dribbled away during a Colorado Rapids training scrimmage at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Wednesday, June 5. Assistant athletic trainer Michael Heitkamp helped Martinez limp to the bench, and reserve team head coach Wilmer Cabrera quickly filled the left fullback spot with another player.

When Major League Soccer began in 1996, the Rapids struggled to get 22 players for a scrimmage. Growing from a single team to a full club today, thousands of players of all ages and abilities might kiss the Rapids crest when they score. It could be a first-team player scoring at home against the San Jose Earthquakes on June 15. Or maybe it’s a recreational 11-year-old wearing her Rapids uniform at practice.

On top, 30 men field the first team and reserve games, and the top 24 women play in the Western Division of the USL National Women’s League. The youth academy and competitive teams boost the team count to about 60. In total, when you add the recreational teams and after-school programs for boys and girls, more than 5,000 players compete for the Colorado Rapids.

On the day when Martinez twisted his leg, the Rapids occupied two fields for their training session. The first team ran difficult drills on one field while Martinez played left fullback for the U-18s against players fighting to earn a reserve team roster spot in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania three days later.

With his leg elevated on the bench and wrapped in ice, Martinez listened to Cabrera’s halftime speech. When the players returned to the field, the coach told him that he had his name on the list to travel to Harrisburg — tentatively. Limping, Martinez tested his leg.

Two days later, Armstrong made the reserve team roster for the trip to Harrisburg. Armstrong was in Martinez’ shoes a few years ago before becoming the first homegrown player to sign with the Rapids first team in 2010. A native of Aurora, Armstrong has worked hard to maintain his spot in the talent pool.

Both U-18 goalkeepers and three field players earned a seat on the plane to Pennsylvania. Andrew Epstein has trained with the first team for months, and the 17-year-old goalie started and played the entire game in Harrisburg. Epstein starts his freshman year at Stanford University this fall.

Backup goalkeeper Brad Holub will head to the University of Nevada Las Vegas with this trip as a memory too. The three U-18 field players include Bryan Windsor (midfielder, Princeton), Ricardo Perez (forward, Creighton University), and Alex Braman (defender, St. Mary’s College, California).

The first team enjoyed a 13-day break at the time of the reserve game against the Harrisburg City Islanders. Riding a six-game unbeaten streak, the Rapids moved up from the bottom of the MLS Western Conference to fifth place (5-4-5) before hosting the Earthquakes on June 15.

As it turned out, the leg injury was too much for Martinez, but the 17-year-old is still one of the top prospects in the club’s talent pool. Martinez has been driving from Greeley to play for the Rapids youth academy since 2009. Like the majority of the U-18 players enrolled in colleges across the country, Martinez plans to attend Aims Community College in Greeley and continue developing his game, particularly with the Rapids crest to kiss.

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