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Colorado Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett in action against the San Jose Earthquakes earlier this season. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Like many Americans, Cole Bassett grew up with the time-honored Thanksgiving tradition of sitting down to a big family meal, then moving the celebration in front of the big screen and finishing the day watching pro football on television.

But this year, the 20-year-old Littleton native finds himself part of what could be the modest beginnings of a cultural shift. While many Coloradans push away from the holiday table and settle in front of the TV for NFL matchups, he’ll be stepping onto the pitch to celebrate an international-flavored variation on that decades-old ritual.

Are you ready for some fútbol?

Bassett, a rising star midfielder for the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, will play in the first-ever MLS Cup playoff match scheduled on the holiday — and a major sports network will televise it nationwide, tucked amid the traditional offerings of the dominant American sport. 

“You never know who this could touch,” Bassett says. “There could be little kids out there that are just watching with their parents and it might spark an interest. So it’s really cool for us to be a part of history.”

When MLS efforts to secure a Thanksgiving match met a willing TV partner in FOX, the league determined that the winner of its Western Conference would be awarded the historic home match. The Rapids beat Los Angeles Football Club in their final regular season meeting to clinch the top spot in the West and earn a first-round playoff bye.

Now, they will face the Portland Timbers at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. The match will be televised on both FOX and the Spanish-language FOX Deportes, with MLS hoping that viewers of the NFL’s early game on the network between the Lions and Bears might stay tuned.

The high-profile exposure presents both opportunity and reward for a club that was among the founders of MLS 26 years ago. The reward recognizes a season that marked the Rapids’ first conference championship, a feat they didn’t even pull off in their MLS Cup-winning season in 2010. Fifty matches into the tenure of coach Robin Fraser, they have built a playoff contender and a reputation as a strong defensive team that’s particularly tough at home, while also aiming to dial up the offense.

The Colorado Rapids’ Collen Warner, left, who grew up in Denver, escapes a defender in a game against Sporting KC Aug. 7 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The opportunity is a chance to use the holiday match to create more soccer buzz in a market dominated by the major American sports. Although Colorado has an active youth soccer scene, the challenge of marketing the sport to a region more attuned to the Nuggets, Avalanche, Rockies and Broncos remains an uphill battle. And the ongoing local TV dispute between Altitude and Comcast — which also impacts hockey and basketball — hasn’t helped the Rapids’ exposure this season.

Bassett, well familiar with the Denver sports environment, is optimistic that the team’s hard-earned TV slot will make an impact.  

“We always watched American football on Thanksgiving,” he says. “You just ate your food and then you plopped down on the couch and watched. A lot of people maybe don’t even know much about soccer, but they’ll be just tuned in to Fox and they’ll be watching the football game beforehand and then, you know, we’re on next.”

Rapids executive vice president and general manager Pádraig Smith, who migrated from Ireland to join the club in 2015 and rose to GM three years later, calls it “a big occasion for the league.”

“We’re hugely excited to have the opportunity to celebrate this big holiday, and to host the first-ever MLS playoff game in front of our supporters, to create a new tradition,” he says. “We just think it is going to be a celebration of all things soccer. We think it’s going to be a party atmosphere. We think it’s going to be the event to be out in Colorado.”

The Rapids have attacked the challenge of drawing fans on the holiday by planning a day-long event, dubbed Friendsgiving, that kicks off with open-to-the-public tailgating at 10 a.m., featuring the early NFL game on big screens, live music and food prior to the first of what could potentially be three home playoff matches in Colorado. In the spirit of the holiday, the Rapids and Kroenke Sports Charities are aiming to provide 30 meals to the Food Bank of the Rockies for every ticket holder.

Colorado Rapids executive vice president and general manager Padraig Smith shown before a July 17 game against the San Jose Earthquakes at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Match attendance among MLS teams varies greatly, with Atlanta United FC far and away the league leader, averaging more than 43,000 fans over 17 home dates this season in the 71,000 capacity stadium it shares with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons — a figure that the league touts as ranking in the top 10 in the world.

The Rapids attendance this season was impacted by local COVID restrictions that didn’t allow full capacity for much of the year. League figures put their average at 8,481, ranking 23rd in 27-team MLS, but the club discounts that as a fair measure of fan interest and points to a late-season surge that packed as many as 17,000 people into the 18,000-seat stadium.

As of Tuesday afternoon, nearing the end of a 17-day window since the match was announced, the team reported strong ticket sales. 

For 33-year-old Collen Warner, who grew up in Denver but whose pro soccer career took him to six teams in the U.S. and Canada before his return to Colorado, the Thanksgiving match seems like a natural step in the sport’s progression: a chance to showcase his team and the league right alongside the NFL “on a day when you expect most people to be kind of just hanging around the house.”

“For me, it’s been a long journey,” he says. “But I think one thing that I know is that the soccer community in Denver is maybe not so big, but it’s very passionate. And what is great about our team is that there’s a lot of guys from around the area, guys that kind of reflect the community on a local level. It’s a really prideful moment for Denver and Colorado soccer.”

Rising stars still aim for Europe

Although the more popular North American leagues represent the pinnacle of their sports, soccer stars aspiring to play at the highest level aim for European clubs that compete in internationally renowned circuits like the English Premier League or the Champions and Europa leagues. So currently, MLS, while improving, remains a stepping stone.

And it’s built into the business model.

Smith notes that right now, MLS provides a valuable development opportunity as the league, and particularly the Rapids, invest in young local talent, while also starting to attract quality players from overseas. In fact, MLS provides incentives to sign players designated as “Homegrown” by not counting their salaries against the team’s salary cap — one of many complex rules governing league rosters. 

But the eventual goal is to send those American stars to top European clubs in transactions that, ideally, make sense for the young players’ careers but also pay off for the teams. The individual club keeps a larger share of the sale price for Homegrown players, with a percentage going to MLS. 

Part of clubs’ investment in youth development involves running an “academy” that provides high-level coaching for select kids as young as 12. Bassett began his youth career with the Colorado Rush before moving, at 16, to the Rapids Academy as a potential pipeline to the pro ranks. Further development at the MLS level also can be a passport to Europe.

Colorado Rapids Auston Trusty, left, and Cole Bassett celebrate a goal against FC Dallas on May 15 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park The players represent part of an emphasis on youth in the MLS. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I don’t think many people realize how good this league is,” Bassett says. “It’s obviously not yet on par with Europe’s top five leagues, but it’s pretty close. So you don’t always have to go to Europe right away. But what they have, whether it’s the Champions League or just European football in general, is the culture over there. I think that’s something that every player has to strive for if they want to try to push their limits and really test their game.”

Teams overseas already have noticed young Colorado talent. Sam Vines, developed by the Rapids and whom Bassett regards as his best friend, followed a similar career path and in August wound up signing with a team in the top Belgian circuit that will play in the highly regarded Europa League next season. 

And then, in September, a major team in Portugal made an offer to Bassett. He turned it down — a decision that speaks to the rising stature of young American soccer talent as well as the MLS.

“I think it’s an important thing that you no longer see many U.S. players jump over for any club in Europe, and it’s now becoming a very specific thing,” Smith says. “And Sam Vines is a great example of that — somebody who had opportunities to go but he wanted to pick the right club that didn’t just mean he was playing in Europe. He wanted to play at the highest level there.”

Bassett’s Portuguese offer, from a club called Benfica, would have landed him on its B team rather than its top squad, a dealbreaker for him. A guaranteed spot on the top squad would have made it difficult to say no. But by the same token, the young Colorado star doesn’t mind sticking around for a while to try to win a championship for his hometown. 

“Right now, where that offer was and where my (Rapids) team is right now, I think it was just best for me to stay through the end of the season and try to win a Cup,” Bassett says. “And then we’ll see what happens from there.”

As far as further raising soccer’s profile in the United States, Smith sees that local pipeline, from youth players to European transfers, as something that can tie fans to the players who — even if they don’t stay long with the Rapids — offer a hometown connection.

“We want to be the heartbeat of sport here in the state of Colorado,” Smith says. “We want to be connected to the community and represent the community. And I don’t think there’s a better way of doing that than having a team that’s got a bunch of local local heroes, these young players who are growing up in the state. 

“I think what they do is ultimately they create that pathway. They provide a dream for the next generation of players coming through and that’s why we’re incredibly committed and dedicated to driving the youth movement.”

Warner, who played high school and college soccer before making an MLS roster, considers the academy system adopted by the league “a huge step in the right direction” — a step that wasn’t available when he was an up-and-coming player. He also notes that MLS is increasingly becoming a comfortable landing spot for quality talent. 

“Now when players look at the MLS,” he says, “there’s more stability here financially, and the salaries have gone up in a way that is comparable to (some other leagues). And so there’s a certain niche of players that they’re beginning to attract that have brought up the quality and reputation of the league.”

Cole Bassett, a homegrown midfielder from Littleton who plays for the Colorado Rapids, battles against Sporting KC defenders in an Aug. 7 match at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Moneyball:” soccer edition

In 2017 Smith, whose background is in finance, co-wrote an op-ed in The Denver Post that laid out a vision for constructing a Rapids team that could compete by exercising “a healthy degree of financial intelligence” to maximize its investment in players. That commitment to a model of statistical analytics and scouting has prompted comparison to baseball’s Oakland Athletics, whose success in spotting value in players inspired the book — and later, the movie — “Moneyball.”

He doesn’t back away from the comparison. It’s an approach that, like most sports today, leans heavily on analytics, but also relies on scouting and what Smith calls “due diligence work behind the scenes” to zero in on character.

“Yep, there’s no doubt,” says Smith, who prior to the Rapids worked for European soccer’s governing body and now serves on the finance committee for Denver’s effort to land part of the 2026 World Cup. “I’m a numbers person. I believe in processes. I believe in plans. I believe in building something in a systematic fashion.”

This season, the Rapids fielded one of the league’s most successful teams — with the lowest payroll in MLS. But ask players and they’ll talk about another factor: team chemistry.

“Even though the salary budget is low, and everybody wants to talk about that — really, the individual talents of the players is more the story and the chemistry sets it up and makes this all possible,” Warner says. “If you don’t have good players that can execute, it doesn’t mean much. And our players are really good.”

Bassett adds: “It’s hard to find a locker room that is so close and bonded together.” Still, he notes, the Rapids haven’t done anything — yet. 

Three matches stand between them and a MLS Cup championship, but they hope the Thanksgiving Day match could at least begin to make a cultural statement. It may sound like a whisper amid the din of American football, but Smith, the Rapids GM, takes the long view. In 25 to 30 years, he sees MLS becoming a “dominant force” in its sport worldwide — but with significant strides being made more quickly.

“I think this is going to evolve in a much, much smaller time frame to where we become a league that the top talent goes to and also our top talent wants to stay,” he says. “I do see this league growing and growing quickly, though, and becoming ultimately a destination of choice for some top players. I think it’s in a very positive spot right now.”

Auston Trusty, a 23-year-old defender from just outside Philadelphia, points out that all the major sports leagues have had their growing pains. It took them decades to arrive at the success and stature they claim today. 

“And you see how NBA stars are paid and just the impact they have on the culture itself, inside and outside of sports,” he says. “MLS is getting to that point, but they started at a later date. So honestly I think it’s just a matter of time.”

It’s a generational thing, Smith contends. When he recalls the 1994 World Cup played in the U.S., he sees a “foundational piece” that spurred growth and development of MLS. Now, his family back in Ireland can pull in Rapids matches and see the league slowly becoming part of the global soccer community.

What he considers monumental shifts in the American match have caught the attention of the sport’s European epicenter — one of the reasons he decided to cross the Atlantic and join the Rapids. He saw the potential. 

“We’ve now got a critical pathway into the next World Cup,” Smith says. “We’ve got a platform to actually grow so that when that World Cup comes here in 2026, we have the opportunity to really blow this up and show the next generation of American sports stars.” 

Colorado Rapids defender Auston Trusty plays the ball in a May 15 game against FC Dallas at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native...