If you ask Dillon Serna the moment when his mindset changed, he can’t tell you. There’s no instant when the light bulb turned on, no exact second where things just fell into place.
What the 21-year-old Colorado Rapids midfielder can tell you is he has come to a realization he needed a different, more serious, approach.
After a second straight year missing the playoffs, the Rapids revamped their roster. But will it be enough to break the postseason drought?
“I feel like this offseason was one of the biggest for me mentally — realizing this is what I chose to do for my career,” Serna told Goal USA. “I think the offseason is one of the more important times for players and this offseason I took a lot away from that — doing extra training, doing gym work and staying on top of things I wasn’t really doing my first couple of years. This offseason, I really changed that approach and I had a different mindset.”
While the question of "when" Serna figured out things had to be different is not clear cut, the "why" is. His talent had afforded him opportunities, both with the Rapids and the U.S. Under-23 squad attempting to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Brazil.
But Serna’s body was letting him down.
“He suffered a lot of injuries that set him back last year when he was off with the Olympic team,” Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “When he came back, he was always a step off because of the kind of work and travel he had endured.”
Serna mentioned a hamstring issue upon returning from one of those camps that cost him playing time. Another was a back problem he has been dealing with for a year now — and is still managing, missing the start of this preseason with it. Finally, enough was enough.
“I think that was one of the biggest things for me was saying, ‘I don’t want this to be going on my whole career, I need to sort this out, I need to do the little things,’” Serna said. “I realized at the end of the day this is what I got to do. If I want to have a long career, those little things that I’m doing to take care of myself are going to determine it.
“Going into my fourth preseason, I do feel like I’ve been around a while to know these things, but this offseason definitely opened my eyes to that.”
It may seem strange to hear a 21-year-old talk from years of experience in the professional game, given how many future pros in the United States are still in college at that age. Heck, the much-talked-about Jordan Morris is just six months younger than Serna, yet only played his first professional game Tuesday.
But Serna has already seen parts of three seasons with the Rapids, after a year at the University of Akron. The midfielder got just one game in 2013 before appearing 27 times in his second year. Expectations were raised in year three, but it ended up being a mixed bag instead.
Serna saw action in just 15 league contests last season, which left the youngster having to deal with adversity. But he was able to fight through it, leading to more playing time down the stretch. After not starting a game before June 19, he went on to start seven of the 16 games before the Olympic qualifying tournament in October and was subbed on for two more. Two of his three 2015 MLS goals also came in that span.
“There were some times where I wasn’t in the lineup, and I was frustrated by that,” he said. “Toward the summer and the end of the year, I thought I was playing well. I was creating chances and scored a couple of goals. I think anytime you can score a goal and get three points for your team, that’s definitely leaves a big impact on the coaches.”
The end result was a spot on the Olympic qualifying team that finished third in CONCACAF and will face Colombia in a home-and-home playoff March 25 and 29 for a spot in Brazil. That gave Serna a chance with the national team, but also cost him the end of the season with the Rapids.
That balancing act between the club and country isn’t easy. It was made even more difficult by Serna being asked to play fullback — his natural position is as a wide midfielder. But Serna has been helped along in his adjustments by U.S. U-23 coach Andi Herzog, and says the national team staff likes the attacking qualities he brings to the position. Though the challenge is formidable, the potential reward is worthwhile.
“I would prefer to be playing on the left or the right in the midfield, but if they want me to be playing left back, I’m not going to say no,” he said. “Anytime I get the chance to be on the field and represent my country, I’m going to do whatever I can to do that.”
Having a coach like Mastroeni, who had 65 caps with the U.S. national team, certainly helps.
“He’s a guy who has been with the national team throughout his career, so he knows the same thing I’m going through right now,” Serna said. “He tells me my attitude is what’s going to make my career long or short."
The coaching staff has also had no issue with Serna getting opportunities with the Olympic team, even though it did not have to release him for qualifying or friendlies.
“Going away with the national team is always risky for the clubs to release the players," Serna said. "There’s always the possibility of a player getting hurt and missing time with their club team, which is not something anybody wants. But the Rapids have been really supportive of me going with the national team — they want me to continue to play with the national team.”
Turning toward 2016, Serna’s focus is on getting games and working his way into the starting lineup. Ideally, it would also involve an Olympic trip, which he called a “once in a lifetime” chance that would be “an unbelievable experience.”
The road into the first XI won’t be easy. The Colorado roster underwent plenty of turnover following a last-place finish in the Western Conference in 2015, including the addition of attackers Marco Pappa and Shkëlzen Gashi. But Serna isn’t feeling any extra heat — he knows what he has to do.
“There’s always going to be that pressure to compete with the new guys coming in. At the same time, I’ve been around this long enough — I’m only 21 years old, but this is my fourth season,” he said. “I’ve been around long enough to know it doesn’t matter who they’re bringing in or if you’ve been in the league a long time or not. You have to come in and prove yourself every single day. That’s the mentality that I have. As long as I’m coming in every day and working hard, I think the opportunities will come.”
And his coach is a believer.
“I don’t think it’s a secret Serna gets called into the Olympic team whenever they have a game because he’s a player that every coach would love to have on his team,” Mastroeni said. “I think this year with Pappa, with Gashi, it’s going to be a more competitive environment for him, but one that will bring out the best in Dillon Serna in 2016.”