COMMERCE CITY — Colorado Rapids coach Oscar Pareja envisions a future for Major League Soccer in which rosters are full of American players, rather than carrying such a high percentage of foreign-born athletes as many do now to remain competitive. He sees a day when perhaps the Rapids roster itself features a heavy Colorado influence.
Pareja is no stranger to facilitating “homegrown” players’ ascents to MLS. As head of FC Dallas’ academy program over the past six years, he sent six players to the organization’s first team.
So it was no surprise that the first-year Rapids head coach was excited after Tuesday’s practice as the team introduced recent Fairview High graduate Shane O’Neill as its newest member.
O’Neill, a member of the Rapids’ academy system, signed a three-year professional contract with the club over the weekend, a deal that became official Tuesday with league approval. The team did not make terms of the deal public.
O’Neill himself was born in Ireland but came to the United States at a young age and honed his game here.
“I do believe in the development of young talent,” Pareja said. “I’m a foreigner in this country, and I’m amazed every day at all the talent America has. But we have to believe in the talent. …
“What happens is sometimes it’s around us and you’re looking for something special somewhere else, and you have it in your back yard. I think everyone in America has realized that development is the way. Major League Soccer has supported this idea tremendously.”
O’Neill, who led Fairview to a league title last fall and left the school as its all-time leader in both goals and assists, took the occasion in stride Tueday.
Has it set in that he’s a professional soccer player yet?
“I think once I get my first paycheck that will be exciting,” O’Neill quipped.
A talented multi-sport athlete whose bravado alone — whether on the soccer pitch or the basketball court — gave him an edge on many of his high school competitors, O’Neill said he plans to change little about his impressive work ethic as he strives to make the first team roster for the Rapids.
“I’m prepared to be patient for it,” O’Neill said. “But I’m going to work for it every day, so hopefully my chance will come soon.”
While O’Neill himself is humble as he admits he’s got plenty of work to do to make an impact for the Rapids, there were indications Monday that his chance on the big stage might not be too far off.
“There’s been some moments within our injury-riddled first half of the season where you could see a kid like Shane being able to step in and contribute,” Rapids technical director Paul Bravo said.
O’Neill, who passed up a full scholarship to Virginia to sign with the Rapids, has been training with the squad since February. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound midfielder has played in five Rapids Reserves games, including all 90 minutes in a 3-1 victory over Kansas City’s Reserves on June 9.
Bravo, who said O’Neill’s mental approach has helped him hold his own as the stakes have risen for him the last few months, said O’Neill’s also got all the physical tools desired — size, strength, technical ability — in the physical MLS.
“I don’t use the term lightly when I say he’s had some dominant performances with the Reserves,” Bravo said. “He has. And he’s playing against pros. That was impressive to see. When you get out there and you watch him, you say, ‘He is not an 18-year-old kid. He’s a man.'”
O’Neill is just the second Rapids homegrown player — a designation allowing teams to sign players in their own academy systems without subjecting them to the draft or counting them against the MLS salary cap. He follows former Rangeview standout Davy Armstrong, who signed in 2010.
Bravo said the ultimate goal with the academy system is to achieve an “integrated” style of play so that youth players in the system are playing the same style as the Rapids first team players. That is the key to the Rapids sustaining success, Bravo said, and will also lead to more players like O’Neill — albeit still a small percentage — getting their shot at the pro level.
The philosphy is one Pareja backs 100 percent, which is one reason why O’Neill is excited about his own prospects.
“I like his style, physical play, being really aggressive,” O’Neill said. “He’s trusting me by giving me a spot on the roster, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Follow Josh on Twitter: @JoshLindenstein