Dillon Serna, red-faced and aghast, jumped to his feet and barked into the referee’s face.
The constant kicking, clawing, and grabbing had finally forced the talented teenager to lose his composure.
He stood there yelling at the official as the yellow card was pulled out of the pocket and held high for everyone to see.
The reprimand was the culmination of a subpar performance from Serna. His Colorado Rapids U18 team fought to a gritty 1-1 draw with Empire United in the second game of Group 4 play at the Development Academy playoffs.
Serna, the star of the Rapids Academy, was invisible in the blazing Texas heat.
It was a reminder – the midfielder who always seems in control of the game still has moments when he is just a 17-year-old.
It is these moments though that are more meaningful than the handful of accolades already bestowed on Serna’s youth career.
“Dillon and I had a long conversation in the hotel [on Wednesday] because he did not have his best game on Tuesday,” Rapids Academy Director Brian Crookham told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “He wanted to make a difference and we told him he does not have to make a difference himself over 90 minutes, but he has to help everyone else and give us a chance.”
In a true testament to his recent form, Serna responded on Thursday with a masterpiece of a performance against Dallas Texans with a spot at Finals Week on the line.
“We got comfortable and a little too confident,” Serna said about the Empire United game. “It was kind of a wake up call, so we had to take care of work [against the Texans.] And we did.”
Crookham called him the ‘hero’ for grabbing the late goal in a 2-1 win for the Rapids that saw them through to Finals Week, but there was so much more to his game than the goals and assists.
It is the smart touches out of pressure, the persistent defensive effort high up on the field to win the ball back quickly, and his ability to always find the right pass, which make Serna stand out on the Academy fields.
The Akron-bound playmaker chalks it up to his time with the Rapids first team and new head coach Oscar Pareja.
“It’s helped me a lot,” Serna told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “I am in with the first team everyday – getting my touches. I am not that big, so I have to be technical . . . I have to play to fast.”
Listed at only 5-5 and 120 pounds, Serna is one of the smallest players in the U.S. youth national team pool for the U18 and U20 Men’s National Team.
He continues to find ways to overcome bigger opposition with his smarts and determination.
For those who may remember his time with the U17 Men’s National Team, which was brief on the national stage with no appearances during the World Cup in 2011, this is a different player.
Armed with more confidence, Serna has usurped many of his teammates from the U17 World Cup squad and looks to be firmly in the conversation for youth national teams in the future.
“I have been improving,” Serna said. “I hope to keep improving and get more chances with the national team.”
His next opportunity will be with the U20 MNT this month at the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland – his first appearance for Tab Ramos’ squad.
And while the spotlight (and attention from many agents) is firmly on the playmaker, his commitment to the Akron Zips has rarely wavered in the past few months.
Although, with the way he is rapidly improving, it may only be a matter of time before the Rapids make him an offer he will find difficult to turn away.
J.R. Eskilson is a staff reporter at TopDrawerSoccer.com. Send him an email.