When the jump ball went up, the routine was pretty simple. If Fairview won the tip, the basketball would find its way to Darragh O’Neill, the senior point guard who led all 5A in scoring. Darragh would then do what he did best, and more times than not, his Knights would begin with a 2-0 lead.

But if Fairview did not come away with the ball, there was still a plan in place. Shane O’Neill, Darragh’s younger brother, would latch onto the opposition’s best scorer. This was his assignment, every game. Though he just a sophomore, he was Fairview’s top defensive player. With the game underway, Shane would watch closely, and when the referee’s eyes gazed elsewhere, he would deliver a stiff blow – right to the gut of the man he was guarding.

It wasn’t legal, but rarely did he get caught. It wasn’t necessarily right, but it was effective; the O’Neill brothers led Fairview all the way to the state championship game that year, losing to Regis Jesuit in an overtime thriller.

This type of gamesmanship, or at least a refusal to lose without putting up a fight, was likely picked up somewhere along the line from the boys’ father, Colm O’Neill, who was a star in Gaelic football back in his home country of Ireland. Or perhaps the boys learned from their mother, Christine, a basketball player who just so happened to be the sister of Maurice Fitzgerald, a Gaelic football star and one of Colm’s fiercest rivals.

“I honestly don’t remember any of us in the family ever being okay with losing anything, not a board game, not anything,” Darragh says. “No matter the competition, it always got competitive and heated.”

Or maybe for Shane, a lasting lesson was learned when Darragh hauled off and punched him – hard – in the shoulder. Little brother was getting the best of big brother while playing a video game; it was the one thing that got under Darragh’s skin worse than any other kind of defeat. So Darragh did what older brothers do – he slugged him, so hard in fact that Shane began to cry.

“He never, ever cried,” says Darragh.

That particular punch, however, did the trick. As the tears began to fall, Darragh actually became frightened.

“It scarred me,” he says more than a dozen years later – and he never did it again.

But perhaps in the long run, that single blow stuck with Shane for the better. Perhaps it made him even tougher. Perhaps he never forgot how much it stung, or how much it surprised him, or how much it threw him off his game on that particular day. And perhaps, just perhaps, when Shane himself experimented with a similar treatment on the opposition’s best scorer for the first time, it worked.


The students standing in the bleachers at Horizon High School’s gymnasium did not like Shane O’Neill. This was made apparent when they booed and jeered him every time he had the ball or went to the free throw line. O’Neill’s defensive tactics were appreciated by his brother, but not by opposing schools. It was a rare night when the O’Neill brothers weren’t enemy No. 1a and 1b inside any gym other than Fairview.

But on this particular night, there was one Horizon Hawk who was “okay” with the younger O’Neill. After the game, Dillon Serna, who didn’t play on Horizon’s basketball team, sauntered out of the stands and onto the court to shake hands with Shane, something that didn’t escape his schoolmates.

“And then nobody at my school liked me, either,” says Serna, now 20.

Serna knew that O’Neill wasn’t exactly popular amongst his sporting piers – at least the ones who played against him. Nobody who ever went head-to-head, hand-to-hand or toe-to-toe with him ever said they “liked” Shane O’Neill – “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who ever said that,” says Serna – but those who truly knew him respected him at the very least. Serna was on that list.

That’s because Serna had played both with and against O’Neill. As a youngster, Serna played for the Colorado Storm, a club soccer team that was always among the best in the state. In fact, Darragh O’Neill played for the Storm, as well, but a few years ahead of Serna. Shane, however, did not. He played here and there – as a youngster with Darragh’s Broomfield Blast teams, several years with Colorado United and one year with Boulder Force. But no matter the jersey Shane wore at the time, the games against the Storm were hotly contested. They seemed to take turns hoisting the State Cup.

“Shane was one of those kids when you played against him, you wanted to crack him,” says Aaron Smith, now the regional manager of Colorado Storm North, then Serna’s club coach. “But you also kind of wondered what it would be like to have someone like that on your team.”

Smith had no need to be overly curious, though, because he already had Serna, who in many ways was an equally talented player. They were different – O’Neill was bigger, faster and stronger, while Serna was quick and precise with the ball – but both were dynamic, skilled and smart. They were both pure “No. 10s,” playmakers and goal scorers who controlled the destiny of their team. And both were as competitive as they come.

“We were definitely rivals,” says Serna.

“Every time there is a 50-50 ball between us, we pretty much try to kill each other,” says O’Neill. “That pushes each other.”

O’Neill speaks in the present tense for good reason. Today, they compete against each other only in practice as teammates, a relationship that was born in 2009 when both players received an invitation to play with the Colorado Rapids Development Academy. Both accepted, and within two years time, they led the Rapids U-18s to a national sixth-place finish (out of 78 developmental teams) in the 2011-12 season. Serna led the team in goals with 12, while O’Neill finished just behind with 10. During various international tournaments, both Serna and O’Neill also earned spots on the U-20 National Team.

O’Neill, who ultimately turned down a full-ride scholarship to Virginia, was signed by the Rapids as a Homegrown Player on June 19, 2012. And Serna, who had spent time in Florida with the U-17 Men’s National Team Residency Program and was widely considered one of the top recruits in the country, opted to attend Akron. In January 2013, just two months after his All-American freshman season, he too signed with the Rapids as a Homegrown Player.


“You know, the Olympics are a huge step. The whole world will be watching.”

Those were the words that Dillon Serna kept playing back in his head. From the moment he stepped out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s office, where the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team – now his coach – gave him a post-camp evaluation to moment when the wheels touched down at Denver International Airport, Serna soaked in those glorious words.

It was February 9 and Serna’s Rapids had been in camp since the 26th of January. But he, along with Shane O’Neill, had yet to work out with the team. It’s not that they weren’t training; they’d been training with Klinsmann’s senior Men’s National Team instead. And it was a great camp. Not only was it an unbelievable opportunity – playing with and against some of the planet’s best players, men who became icons during last summer’s World Cup – but it was also an opportunity seized.

Serna and O’Neill entered the USMNT camp on January 12 and a dozen days later they’d both been named to Klinsmann’s 23-man roster. The nod essentially meant that they’d made a solid impression on the man atop U.S. Soccer throughout the camp, and that they’d be active for the national team’s scheduled friendlies against Chile and Panama. And if one takes a few more steps down the road, it’s quite foreseeable that Klinsmann is considering both young Rapids for his U-23 Olympic team in summer of 2016. Perhaps like no other international sports endeavor, the world’s best soccer programs must have vision that extends further than just the next tournament. It could be deduced that inclusion of O’Neill and Serna was part of a bigger plan for the Olympics and beyond.

For O’Neill, the call up wasn’t necessarily expected, but it was more easily predicted. After all, he’d spent time at Klinsmann’s senior team camp last January. However, following that camp, which was a precursor to the World Cup in Brazil, he wasn’t named to the 23-man roster. So this recent call up was one step further than he’d been before.

This was all new to Serna, though. Yes, he’d had plenty of experience with various levels of U.S. national teams, all the way back to the U-17 level. But he’d never been asked to play on the national team. And to make the final 23-man cut? That was an even bigger, perhaps unexpected, step.

Neither player actually saw the pitch, though. They were ready for action if needed, but Klinsmann never called their number. This was not a negative commentary on their play in camp, nor was it a “sent message” from the coach. Rather, it was simply the flow and management of soccer – with 11 on the field and three legal substitutions, the odds of playing time aren’t high for any reserve.

In their post-camp meeting with Klinsmann, both Serna and O’Neill left with high marks and a handful of things to work on throughout the MLS season. Without question, all was well.

Still, the plane ride back to Denver was not as giddy as one might think. At the respective ages of 21 and 20, O’Neill and Serna were not about to soak in their accomplishments, even though, by most any standards, they were both well ahead of pace. After the match with Panama, once reunited with their cell phones, the text messages came pouring in.

“People are texting you – ‘Congrats on making the national team’ – and obviously you’re like, ‘Hey thanks,’” says O’Neill. “But deep down, you’re like, ‘I want more.’

“That wasn’t good enough. I didn’t even play. I was on the roster – great – but I want to be out there. I want to be one of the better players on the field. As a competitor, I don’t think I ever really need to pinch myself and say, ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing,’ because I always want more. I always want the next thing. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m happy because I’ve played X number of games with the Rapids and I’ve gotten called up to the national team.’ That’s not what it’s about. It’s what’s the next thing and how can I keep improving myself.”

Serna will own up to being nervous at first, but it didn’t take long for the grind of camp to make this experience similar to so many others he’d experienced in the past. It was tougher, better, more physically and mentally demanding, but in sum, it was just the “next step.”

“He definitely does not see the scope of things now,” says Ranae Serna, Dillon’s mother. “He’s not as wowed by it as I am.

“I think he’ll appreciate it much more as he’s older and more mature. Getting invited to the senior camp was a big eye-opener.”


Perhaps Dillon Serna is not as “wowed” as one might expect. After all, he’s been defying the odds since he was just a little kid.

Ranae says he’s always been “on the shy side” and anyone who’s ever watched him compete will tell you the same thing: “He’s always been small.”

At 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, he will never be confused with Zinedine Zidane – even the great Diego Maradona, who many considered “small,” stood at a similar height but tipped the scales at a stocky 172 pounds. But then again, this is nothing new to Serna, whose size has yet to deter him from any next step. It didn’t stop the powers that be inside U.S. Soccer from inviting him into the residency program at the tender age of 16. It didn’t stop the Rapids from inking him to a professional contract before he was 20. It didn’t stop Jurgen Klinsmann from keeping on his 23-man roster to kick off 2015.

At eight years old, Serna was practicing on Smith’s team at the Open Spaces complex in Northglenn. A ball sailed over the goal and Serna went to chase it down. A teammates mother was standing behind the net, holding the family dog. As Serna sprinted for the ball, the dog sprinted after him. It was a take down worthy of a red card, as the dog latched into the little boys leg. In then end, he was fine – “it just scared the hell of out that little kid,” Smith chuckles now – but there were some tense moments following the attack. Every adult in the vicinity noticed one undeniable fact: The dog was bigger than the player.

He was always the smallest of his many cousins, too. It didn’t stop him from succeeding in the backyard tackle football games that took place at family get-togethers.

“He was an old-school athlete in the way he was brought up,” says Smith. “He was doing stuff that we did, but you don’t see kids doing anymore.”

He could have been an excellent baseball player, too. But he opted for soccer at a fairly young age, more than likely because that was the way to become a captain on Smith’s team. As a freshman at Horizon High School, he started on the soccer team even though Smith swears “he needed a youth-sized uniform.”

When he was afforded the opportunity to play with U-17 National Team, he didn’t get playing time immediately. But it was long before he earned that too en route to becoming the 11th-ranked high school recruit in the entire country. And when he went to the Rapids, then-head coach Oscar Pareja didn’t find the same kind of opportunities Serna had discovered in the Rapids Development Academy. Pareja rarely suited him up for the top team’s matches. And in 2013, his rookie season, Serna saw the pitch just once all season.

Even though it was just once that year, Renae recalls the game with great fondness: “I just remember seeing his (picture on the big screen at Dick’s) and taking a picture of it and thinking, ‘Wow, he made it, his dreams have come true.’”

Those dreams. But now, the dreams are even bigger.


Shane O’Neill is not – and has never been – one to be “wowed.”

“I’m not sure either of us has ever been too nervous,” says Darragh. “We kind of take things in stride. He never said once that he’s been nervous about anything.”

Darragh would know; he’s the first one to get calls from Shane when it comes to just about anything. And Shane is the first one to get the call from Darragh, too.

The O’Neill brothers are as cool as they come. At the age of seven, Shane was not intimidated when he played “up” alongside his nine-year-old brother on Colm’s youth soccer team. That first game, Shane scored “seven or eight” of the team’s 14 goals. It didn’t bother Shane in the waning moments of that 5A state championship basketball game when Darragh fouled out. Normally the defensive stopper, Shane picked up his brother’s slack, scoring six points in the final two minutes to force overtime.

After high school, Darragh was not shaken when he ultimately didn’t receive the Division I basketball scholarship he thought he deserved. Instead, he sat down and did the math, deciding that the number of football scholarships offered at any major university was far greater anyway. As such, he decided to become a punter. He did so successfully, despite the fact he’d never punted a football in his life. After four years as the starting punter at the University of Colorado, he’s received inquiries from several NFL teams.

When Shane called Darragh to quietly discuss his concerns about the Rapids’ interest in moving him from center mid, his natural position, to center back, Darragh listened and agreed – “He’s too skilled to be playing back there,” Darragh thought. “He’s just too good at scoring goals for me to think he’d be a center back.” But after a lengthy talk Shane did what he’d always done; he shut his mouth, put his head down and went to work.

Soon, he was the Rapids starting center back. In 2014, he played in 21 games, starting in all of them.

“I’m not sure he’d have gotten the starting job as soon as he did,” says Darragh.

Ironically, the move may have opened the door to his place with the Men’s National Team, as that’s where Klinsmann has him slated.

“Shane is one of the least cocky people I’ve ever met,” says Darragh. “He just goes about his business and does his job.

“In his mind, he’s 100 percent, always been good enough.”

Whether in his mind or in reality, that belief has yet to not be true.


It is good to be Brian Crookham.

As the Rapids senior director of soccer development, Crookham is the man responsible for the growth and quality of the Rapids Developmental Academy. It’s a role he’s had since 2007, so ultimately, he is the man responsible for bringing both Dillon Serna and Shane O’Neill into the fray back in 2009. When Jurgen Klinsmann floats out a pair of text messages that find their way to smartphones belonging to O’Neill and Serna, it is Crookham who deserves at least a portion of the credit.

The Rapids, according to most soccer experts, have one of the most-talented clubs from top to bottom, in MLS. When the World Cup concluded last summer, when soccer was its highest peak in the U.S. multiple publications, web sites and soccer blogs suggested that the Rapids had as many as six players who had the potential to suit up for the USMNT in 2018.

GOAL.com cited both O’Neill and Serna as top prospects for the 2016 U-23 Olympic team. SBNation called them both “prospects a year or two away” for the 2018 World Cup that will play in Russia. The web site also highlighted third-year pros Dillon Powers and Chris Klute as potential candidates. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin has been discussed as a potential replacement for an aging Tim Howard. Throw in the fact that that Deshorn Brown has already earned four caps with the Jamaican National Team and Gabriel Torres has 44 with Panama, and the Rapids are stacked with international talent.

They’ve got so much international talent, in fact, that at a moment’s notice, handfuls could be off and playing elsewhere. That, however, is a good thing.

“That’s the point,” says Crookham. “We’re developing individuals that should be capable of adapting to any environment that they come across, which basically equips them to be successful in the professional game. We hope that’s going to be with us, winning championships for as long as they can. But if it’s not with us, that means that they are such an asset to our club that we’ll get something in return.”

Crookham eludes to the reality that MLS is not necessarily the final stop for the best players in the country. While the league has grown by leaps and bounds, inching its way into the top-10 soccer leagues on the planet, it’s not quite yet on par with the likes of the English Premier League. In some ways, MLS teams can act as a feeder system for some of the world’s elite clubs. If Crookham and the Rapids coaching staff develop a world-class talent, and the world comes calling, they’ll be compensated handsomely for their player.

Exposure on the global stage, like the experience O’Neill and Serna have recently enjoyed, is a good thing.

“You have to expose them to the highest level you can when they’re ready to accept that information,” says Crookham. “These camps have been very good for those two players to understand the environment, get bits and pieces of it, and then they’re better prepared for getting thrown in the deep end when you’re in El Salvador and people are screaming at you or whatever the case is – you’re a lot more acclimated to what’s going to happen to you.”

Padraig Smith, who was recently brought into the Rapids organization after his role with UEFA’s Financial Analysis Group, which assesses the top professional European clubs in the areas of finance, corporate and sporting structures, takes part in the exciting task of managing the comings and goings of the Rapids talents. His job is not only to make sure the cupboard is full, but also have an acute sense as to what the cupboard is worth. When clubs from Europe or elsewhere are interested, it is Smith who will assess the opportunity for both club and player.

“Listen, those calls have started already,” says Smith. “And not just for those two. The core group of young players we have is exceptionally talented. We’re well aware that players of that talent at that level are always going to draw interest from major European Leagues, and again that’s something that we’re happy with because if they’re at that level, it’s good for the club, it’s good for MLS, and everyone wins.

“What you always want is for your players to reach the height of their potential. You want them in this position.”

It is a testimonial for what Crookham and the Rapids have built. Despite the team’s lackluster record during the 2014 season, Smith knows for a fact that experts across the globe have an eye on the Rapids; they’re betting long on the team in Commerce City. Last year’s record aside, the Rapids have built a system, one that producing talent galore.

“(The call up to the USMNT) is even more important for us because (Shane and Dillon) are two young guys who came right through our academy,” Smith says. “So they’ve come through with the Rapids all the way from when they were kids. So it just shows that the path works – you can join this club at a very young age and work your way all the way to the national, international men’s team.”


Still the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil are more than an entire MLS season away. The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is even further on the horizon. And to think, Serna and O’Neill are only 20 and 21.

“As long as I am on that steady trajectory towards being at my peak for the Olympics, I am happy with that,” says O’Neill. “Obviously, I want to make an impact on the first team, as well with the national team. Obviously, I want to get a cap. But it’s not easy, and it’s going to take time.”

Long odds and steep challenges are nothing new to Serna, either.

“For Dillon to get to the next level, his size is always something people cringe on,” his former club coach, Smith, says. “But that hasn’t stopped him yet.”

Crookham has watched the development from up close. The fact that Klinsmann has singled out two of his most-prized prospects ahead of schedule has to be gratifying.

“I probably didn’t see them suiting up for the senior national team at 20 and 21 years old, but on the other hand, they’re on a pathway that should get them there,” he says. “It just comes down to opportunity and all the things – needs – there’s so many factors that come into it. But certainly, you probably wouldn’t have said two years ago you’d see those two dressing for a U.S. National Team game in January this year.

“The fact that our country is banking on these two players to be part of the core of what would be our Olympic team in Brazil in 2016, that talks about where they are in the scale of national prominence. And for them to then be brought in to a full national team camp? I mean, we’re making fun of it, but their two ages don’t add up to my age. You know? When you think about those terms it’s unbelievable how young and how exposed they have been to this sport on a national level and how they are looked at by people who are doing the long-term planning for U.S. Soccer to be a big part of our success going forward.”

Ranae Serna looks forward, too. She has an unofficial family vacation planned during the summer of 2016.

“I told him we’re taking a family trip to Brazil for the Olympics,” she says. “So we’re planning on him playing.”

And why wouldn’t she? As Aaron Smith says: “When you throw a carrot in front of him and tell him Dillon can’t get it, he makes sure he gets it.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Klinsmann’s camp was simply watching USMNT veteran Michael Bradley, who showed both O’Neill and Serna a different level of dedication.

“At this level, it just takes hard work and determination,” O’Neill says, referring to Bradley. “That will out do anything else.”

It would appear that many important believe both O’Neill and Serna have what it takes. They’ve been given a golden an opportunity to prove that’s true.

“It’s really incredible what’s going on right now,” O’Neill says, speaking of soccer’s rise in America. “It’s just building. The national team is really close to just breaking down the floodgates.”

If things go according to plan, O’Neill and Serna will be amidst the flood.