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SSFC Spotlight: Sam Vines is yet another potential fullback option

The Colorado Rapids defender appears to be a favorite of Gregg Berhalter.

Colorado Rapids v Vancouver Whitecaps FC Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

After winning the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League, the United States Men’s National Team is using the Gold Cup to test depth in advance of World Cup qualifying. One potential option is Sam Vines, a thrice-capped senior international in his fourth professional season with the Colorado Rapids. The 22-year-old left back is yet another domestic player who has impressed in Major League Soccer and could be due for a move abroad.

Born in Colorado Springs, Vines spent his youth career with Pride SC before joining the Rapids setup at 13 years old, a move that required a long commute five-to-six times per week and switching to homeschooling. “I was driving to Denver every day,” he told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “It’s hard to keep up with friends when all of them are throwing parties on Friday and Saturday nights, and you have games and you have training sessions… But for me, I don’t really party or do anything like that, so I wasn’t missing out on much.”

Vines dealt with a “fair share of injuries,” overcoming the struggles that have derailed many careers. As a youth player, his nickname was “Seven-Goal Sam” due to his scoring prowess. In 2017, the Rapids U-19 squad reached the semifinals of the Development Academy playoffs, with the now-defender being named to the Best XI for the Central Conference. He received “too many Division 1 offers to count” from the country’s top collegiate program but elected to pursue the professional game.

Prior to making the jump, Vines played with the Rapids U-23s and spent a brief period training with the minor league Charlotte Independence on an amateur contract. In 2018, Colorado signed him to a three-year Homegrown deal and immediately sent him on loan back to North Carolina. The club was excited to add the “special signing” and “one of the best passers” in its Academy. He made 31 total appearances during his first professional year, registering five total assists. There was even a late-season MLS debut, playing 45 minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Despite starting 2019 on the bench and being considered for another loan, Vines eventually claimed the starting left back position. He appeared in the Homegrown game against the Chivas U-20s and was named to the MLS 22 Under 22 list. A late-season performance against Carlos Vela drew rave reviews, completely shutting down the league MVP and Golden Boot winner.

Last year was another step forward, registering one goal and three assists in 19 matches during the COVID-shortened schedule. This current season has displayed more growth and consistency, as he has become one of MLS’ best left backs. The Rapids are an exciting team, rising from the depths of the table largely due to a talented American core, although the group may not be together much longer. At Vines’ still somewhat young age and with years of professional experience, the questions of moving abroad grow more frequent.

Already having attracted overseas interest, Vines plans to go to Europe “at the right time.” Like most players, his “ultimate goal” is competing in the Champions League and “at the highest level.” According to writer Charles Boehm, clubs “have begun exploring his work-permit prospects.” He recently signed a long-term, four-year contract extension with MLS, hypothetically keeping him with the Rapids through 2025 but more likely securing the club a future transfer fee.

At the international level, Vines first appeared with the U.S. U-14s. His senior debut was in 2020, closing out January camp with a start against Costa Rica. His three appearances with the U-23 squad at the recent CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship were solid, although his performance was overshadowed by the team’s failure to secure a necessary spot in the final. Inclusion on the Gold Cup roster presents an opportunity to impress the coaching staff and establish a spot on an already crowded depth chart.

“With Sam, we see an attacking fullback who is calm under pressure… able to get forward and puts good crosses into the penalty box,” Gregg Berhalter told Burgundy Wave. “And his processing and play really helps the team in what we are doing with the ball. That is all good things.”

Vines is described as a “gym rat” that constantly puts in the extra effort to get better, usually the first and last player at training. Eduardo Terán of It Is Futbol observed certain appealing on-field behaviors, such as “always turning his head to make sure he is in the right spot” and closely shadowing opposing attackers “to avoid the counter attack.” His distribution is an asset, capable of combining with teammates and hitting accurate long passes behind the back line.

The most noticeable attribute of his game is this link-up play, aided by his constant movement. He brings “a really good natural skill set of athleticism and quickness” as well as being “very, very competent on the ball.” However, Vines’ crossing precision needs to become more of an asset in order to reach the next level. Additionally, recent Olympic qualifying manager Jason Kreis noted one-v-one defending and positioning himself to cover the center backs as areas for improvement, but “there is some room to grow.”

The USMNT left back position is still up for grabs, as the role is often the most difficult to fill for any team at the club or international level. Antonee Robinson has yet to solidify his standing as the first choice, and Sergiño Dest would be more useful on the right side of the field. While Vines is not quite ready to supplant either player, many changes could occur over the next year-and-a-half in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup. He will be receiving several chances to prove himself to Berhalter and become a regular call-up, starting with the Gold Cup.