EDITORIAL – It’s difficult to describe a better MLS success story than Wil Trapp.
Wil Trapp Embracing Challenge of Inter Miami Project
Trapp was born in Columbus and grew up down the road in Gahanna. He played his youth soccer as a member of the nascent Columbus Crew academy and starred at soccer power Akron, where he was an All-American. In 2012, Trapp signed with the Columbus Crew SC as a Homegrown Player and he quickly climbed the ladder from squad player to integral starter and eventually, to MLS All Star and team captain.
As he rose through the club ranks, Trapp quickly became a fan favorite. With his yeoman’s like work ethic, penchant for hard nosed tackles, his frequent embrace of family members after games and Midwestern drawl, it’s hard to think of a player who embodied an MLS club the way Trapp embodied what it meant to play for the Columbus Crew.
In an era where single-club longevity is so rare it’s romanticized, it was hard to imagine Trapp ever wearing a different shirt and playing for anyone but the Crew.
In many ways, Trapp is an object lesson in the way MLS wants its development system to work. There aren’t many better examples of players going from MLS academy prospects to homegrown club signing to captain to national team player than Trapp.
This framing of Trapp from a distance made it borderline stunning when the 27-year-old midfielder moved from the Crew to expansion side Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami, better known as Inter Miami, this winter.
But if you dig a little deeper, or just ask Trapp, you’ll see signs that a change was needed and though bittersweet, welcomed. Things weren’t necessarily stale in Columbus, but the time to move was right.
On the field, Trapp was dealing with a change in manager, back to his collegiate manager Caleb Porter, who made him captain but seemed intent on changing the way the team had played under previous manager Gregg Berhalter, whose system Trapp could recite in his sleep.
Off the field, the club had won a hard-fought battle- with Trapp an active, relentless advocate- to remain in Columbus. In soccer as in life, a situation can get too comfortable. A new challenge and fresh perspective is sometimes needed.
“Columbus was home and is home and will always be home,” Trapp told me via telephone earlier this month.
“The experiences I had there, from the chance to play in the youth academy and then move up was amazing. You hope to be a professional one day as an academy kid and to end up captain by my fifth year, it was in many ways a dream come true. The ascension from one phase to another phase to the leadership phase is incredible. I’ve been painted, I guess, as the poster boy for that process and of longevity at a club and that was very special. But for me, a change was desired and needed and I couldn’t be happier right now.”
Trapp was gracious as ever on the way out, leaving a lengthy advertisement thanking the club and its fans in the Columbus Post-Dispatch on his departure.
— DrPeteEdwards (@DrPeteEdwards1) February 9, 2020
At the time, however, Trapp’s decision to move from one of MLS’s bedrock franchises to an expansion team in a market where MLS had previously failed seemed a curious one. There are new challenges and then there are expansion teams, where there is so much that is unknown and often, more risk.
When Trapp arrived with Inter Miami for the preseason, the entire project was largely an exercise in hope and optimism– a Miami club still waiting on a stadium deal, playing in a pop-up modular stadium with a roster still very much under construction.
For Trapp, though, there was one factor- or figure, as it were- more than any other that sold him on the move and gave him confidence it was the right one, both for his future and his new family (Trapp and his wife had their first child, a son, this past October). That person was Inter Miami general manager Paul McDonough.
One of the chief architects of the expansion build of Atlanta United FC, which saw the expansion club become Major League Soccer’s biggest overnight success story- and a MLS Cup winner– in two short years– McDonough gave Trapp confidence that Inter Miami would be built by someone with a proven track record. Further, McDonough was someone Trapp knew personally, a friend and advisor he and his young family could trust.
“When I left school, Paul was my (first) agent,” Trapp told me.
“He was the first person in the professional soccer world that took me under his wing. So, for me, it was fun to be back with him. It wasn’t just that backstory but of course his success as a builder. You look at what he was able to accomplish in Atlanta as someone in a leadership position in that front office who brought in critical pieces and helped diversify that roster with guys who had been in the league and guys outside the league that they did extremely well with. As I came down, that made me excited because I knew we were in really good hands with the leadership here.”
McDonough’s plan was to build a club much like the one he, Carlos Bocanegra and Darren Eales built in Atlanta. Start with the spine of the defense and midfield, stack the team with young, exciting, attacking talent and blend it with proven MLS veteran winners and then bring in a proven manager to put it all together.
When Trapp saw exciting young talent like Julian Carranza, Matias Pellegrini and an in his prime Rodolfo Pizarro joining forces with proven veterans like Luis Robles, Román Torres and MLS Cup winner A.J. DeLaGarza, he knew there was a blueprint for success.
“When you look at how we want to defend as a team without the ball, with pressing and trying to win the ball back, it’s exciting. I love the idea of not only trying to control the game with the ball, but of imposing your will on the game without the ball. That starts with Luis in goal, and moving up through the back line and my position. The organization has been very impressive and our spine of the group– that ability to play in the middle has been really good.”
Trapp has been a MLS captain, All-Star, and experienced the grind and pressure of the MLS postseason. Undoubtedly, he’s a player McDonough brought in for his veteran experience and leadership. That was Bob Bradley’s view, after Trapp put in an outstanding shift in Inter Miami’s debut, a hard-fought 1-0 defeat at Supporters Shield Winner LAFC in February.
“(Trapp) is certainly a guy you bring in who is going to play smart football, cover space, put in tackles, keep you organized and compact. He’s such a bright player. There’s a reason he becomes a captain or finds his way into the national team,” Bradley said. “There’s always value in tidy defense and smart distribution.”
Trapp offers that to Inter Miami, but he’s also excited for the opportunity to learn. Gyasi Zardes praised his tactical mind and eagerness to constantly improve himself as Trapp’s defining characteristic, and he exudes intellectual curiosity when you talk to him about Inter Miami’s veteran core.
“You can always learn in soccer and life, whether you are in the start of your career, the end of it or the middle, like I am,” Trapp said.
“Every day is something new and a new chance to improve. For me, this is a great moment. Picking up aspects of their game that I can implement into mine. A great example is AJ (De La Garza). That’s a guy who has won multiple MLS Cups as a key piece at Galaxy. He’s done everything you can do in our league. He’s someone who I look at as a wealth of knowledge even though he’s a quiet, understated guy. I can ask him: “What was it like when you were winning championships? What was it like playing with this guy or that guy? And learning from people like him– that’s what is fun about our sport, especially in a new environment.”
The idea of playing for a new manager also excited Trapp. Trapp has already played for two of the more successful managers in MLS in Porter and Berhalter. The chance to learn and grow and immerse himself in a new culture with Diego Alonso, a manager who has won in Liga MX and in the CONCACAF Champions League, is an opportunity Trapp told me he’s embraced.
“Following Diego a little bit and knowing the success he enjoyed in Mexico with Pachuca and Monterrey– I didn’t know a ton about him as an individual, but before the season I spoke to Omar Gonzalez, who had him as a manager at Pachuca. That was a really good conversation and Omar had great things to say about him as not only a manager but about his mind and the tactical aspect of the game. The culture aspect is fascinating. Diego wants to build a familial type of club. At Inter Miami there’s the “La Familia” expression from fans and certainly, we’ve preached that but it’s another thing to put it into practice. What Diego has built with our group very quickly is an understanding that football is a uniting characteristic. Even though we are from so many different places, speak so many languages, we are working together and committed and passionate about building something new.”
Building and helping grow a new soccer culture in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, a place with so many different, preexisting soccer fan bases, is a challenge facing all of Inter Miami’s new faces.
“What’s unique (in Fort Lauderdale and Miami) is when you embrace the look of a community and its diversity and ethos- people buy into that. That’s a way to really engender ourselves to an area that’s diverse and exciting. It is a challenge in a place like this– where there are so many different cultures and where people crave excitement and energy– but it is one we have embraced as a group.”
The chance to be a part of building that culture- La Familia, Inter Miami supporters call it– is part of the reason that as soon as it is safe, Trapp can’t wait to get back on the field.
“We’ve taken La Familia seriously and embraced that phrase as a group. Putting it into practice. Of course, we’re focused on staying safe and healthy, and in truth, this has been an amazing moment for me, because we’re a young family, new parents, in a new city,” Trapp told me.
“We’re trying to establish ourselves so having a little bit of a respite at the moment is really important for us. But it doesn’t change the fact that Groundhog Day is getting a little bit old and I want to be back to doing what I love to do and playing soccer. So it’s important to be patient and keep praying we’ll be back on the field soon.”
When they do get back to playing soccer, there’s no question Trapp will be at the center of the culture and team-building process, leading by example, as he’s always done.
“I can’t wait,” Trapp says with a laugh. “It’s as excited as I’ve been in a long time.”