Now in his fifth professional season in Major League Soccer, Marlon Hairston has become a veteran voice in the Colorado Rapids locker room. But at only 23 years old, he’s still considered a young and upcoming talent in MLS and for the U.S. Men’s National Team, earning a nod to the USMNT’s camp in January.
“It was a great feeling,” Hairston said. “I went there and I thought I did well. It was a bunch of great players, and it was good to be back in the mix with players I had been familiar with playing on the youth national teams and guys I have played against in the league.”
In the wake of USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a much younger group of U.S. players was called into the camp as it prepped for a friendly match against Bosnia. The Mississippi native didn’t get game minutes, but it was nonetheless an unparalleled opportunity to get up to speed before joining the Rapids this preseason.
“It’s such a high level and being around those guys for three weeks helped prepare me to be with this team in preseason,” Hairston continued. “It was unfortunate that I couldn’t get my first cap against Bosnia, but it’s definitely somewhere I want to be again in the future. I’ve just got to keep my head down and keep working and hopefully I’ll be there again soon.”
Following in the footsteps of fellow Jackson, Miss. native and recently retired midfielder Justin Mapp, Hairston became the first player from the state in a decade to earn an international call up.
That made it all the more special. For Hairston, it’s not just about representing his club or his country. It’s about representing his family and the community he grew up in.
“Being one of the few players from Mississippi to make it to MLS is a big honor to me,” he reflected. “A lot of people back home get a chance to see me play now and I’m always getting messages and phone calls and there’s a lot of support behind me. That’s just continuing to drive me forward. I know that I’ll have to continue to work hard and not get complacent. I want to continue to make them proud and hopefully that will lead to more people from my hometown playing in MLS.”
It was a way of paying back that support, but it was also a culmination of the work he’d put in during the season prior.
After struggling with injury at times earlier in his professional career, Hairston put together his most complete campaign in 2017, playing in all 34 games (29 starts) matching his career high with three goals while adding four assists. Even more impressive was the fact that the natural midfielder spent the majority of his 2,605 minutes logged in the right back position, one he’d been gradually picking up over the course of the past few seasons in Colorado.
Aided by team captain Tim Howard and former head coach Pablo Mastroeni, Hairston was able to pick up on the defensive nuances of the game and become a more complete player.
“Tim has been huge over the last couple years,” Hairston said. “I’m still trying to develop my game and the defensive side of it and he’s been in my ear, giving me pointers and trying to help me out. I’m just trying to learn things and pick them up as quickly as I can. Each day I’m trying to get better and better at this position and I’m looking forward to this season.”
Howard has high praise for the youngster, but at the same time urges his teammate to keep his head down while maintaining perspective.
“It’s always great for a club when any of your players can get called up to the National Team. It’s a feather in your cap,” Howard said. “It’s exciting for Marlon, but what I tell him all the time is to continue to work. With the National Team, nothing is given. If you’re called in once, that’s all that means. You’ve got to go earn it again until one time becomes two times and then 100 times. Those are important moments.”
Hairston also holds Mastroeni in high regard, often picking the brain of the man who cut his teeth as one of the better defensive midfielders in MLS during his 18-year playing career with the Rapids and the USMNT.
“Pablo worked nonstop with me,” Hairston explained. “He believed in me as a player, whether it was as a winger or a fullback. He worked hard with me at training and spoke with me about the little things, whether it was conditioning or set pieces. To see him leave the group was very tough for me but I have to thank him a lot for what he did for me and my career.”
Despite Hairston’s positive career trajectory, it wasn’t all rosy for Colorado in 2017. Unable to produce results, the club sacked Mastroeni in early August. Hairston and many Rapids players were left devastated in the wake of the firing.
“Once I heard the news, it was tough,” said Hairston. “With the season we had in 2016, I felt he’d done us proud as a family and a club. With how 2017 played out, we didn’t get the results that we needed and a lot of that was on us as a team. But of course, the manager takes responsibility at the end. We let ourselves down and it put the pressure on him. But that’s in the past and I wish Pablo the best for his future.”
With 2017 now behind them, the Rapids enter the new season with a new head coach, new players and a new outlook.
Recently hired manager Anthony Hudson has been relentless this preseason, but has also quickly earned his players’ respect, including Hairston.
“It’s been a tough preseason fitness-wise. He’s pushing us to our limits right now,” Hairston said of Hudson. “I think it’s going to be good for the group because the style that he’s trying to impose on us will definitely take a fit group to play in. I think the guys have put in a lot of work these last few weeks. We’re just grinding; it’s trying to learn a new position for a lot of us, a new formation and just pick it up as quickly as possible.”
Hudson’s emphasis on the teaching and learning process has been vital for his team adapting to the 3-5-2 formation the 36-year-old head coach used in New Zealand. It’s a system in which a player like Hairston has the potential to thrive. Instead of being positioned strictly as a midfielder or fullback, Hairston is likely to slot in as a hybrid of the two positions – a wingback who can contribute on both ends of the field depending on the needs of the game.
“It’s done well for me,” he said of Hudson’s process. “He does a lot of video with the group, coaching the things that he wants from us tactically. I think the more games we play throughout the season, the more confidence we’ll continue to get and the confidence levels will continue to rise as the season continues.”
Having experienced the MLS Cup Playoffs just once in his career thus far, Hairston has experienced as many ups and downs as any young player making his way in MLS. But that small taste of postseason success is something he’s hungry to replicate year in and year out moving forward.
“It’s been a long journey, but these seasons fly by,” said Hairston. “Making the playoffs just once in four seasons is something I’d like to improve on. It’s definitely our goal each season to make the playoffs. I think that’s what we’re all here fighting for and it should be the bare minimum we ask of ourselves.
“Playoffs is the goal right now but an MLS Cup is what we have our sights on.”