Big Picture: Vision and Philosophy
For the Colorado Rapids, after crashing out of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs in the first round was a disappointment. It was also a proud achievment. The same can be said of this year's performance. Nobody exepcted the Rapids to be so successful and actually win the Western Conference. Even the most optimistic fans amongst us couldn't have expected such a positive season. Under the leadership of Head Coach Robin Fraser and Executive VP & GM Padraig Smith, the Rapids have experienced linear progress in the past two seasons.
Padraig Smith penned an article in the Denver Post back in 2017 laying out his vision in which he framed it as, The Rapids Way. Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni was removed from his post. Mastroeni wasn't a fan of analytics and famously said "Stats will lose to the human spirit every day of the week". Meanwhile Smith saw analytics and advanced metrics as a very important tool for a successful soccer club. “First and foremost, I’ll help to introduce a more data analytical approach to our player recruitment, player identification, performance analysis and scouting processes", Smith famously said in response.
During the chaotic time following Mastroeni's departure, players were turned over at a high clip. There was a lot of action, emotion and change. Smith explained, “The club has been built on this blue-collar tradition: this idea of being organized, structured, defensively disciplined, hard to beat, and that it can grind out results. On its own, it’s just not good enough for us anymore. If you look at where the league is going and how the league is evolving, it’s just not going to do the trick anymore”.
Instead, moving forward the goal would be to generate youth development while remaining competitive enough to chase silverware. It was bold, it was new and it ruffled some feathers. Several years later, it's hard to argue that The Rapids Way isn't flourishing. The Burgundy Boys are fun to watch. They don't sit back, play defensive soccer and grind it out anymore. This Rapids team is built different. They have a vision. A philosophy. And they're driven.
Fast forward to the end of 2021. Despite having the 5th lowest payroll in MLS, the Rapids smashed their own club records in 2021. Most wins in a season with17 and most points in a season with 61. 13 shutouts for William Yarbrough was a new club record. Jack Price notched 12 assists, tied for 2nd in MLS this year. This also moved Price up to 3rd all time on the Rapids assist leaderboard with 32 assists (Chris Henderson 53, Terry Cooke 34). Robin Fraser was nominated for MLS Coach of the Year. They won the Western Conference. It was a very successful season overall despite the pain experienced on Thanksgiving.
The club and the fans put on a wonderful show on Thanksgiving. The MLS Cup Playoffs are always a crapshoot and fun for the neutral fan. Watching the ball hit the back of the net in the 90' however, was not fun. It's been crushing for every fan since then. It really can be a cruel game sometimes. However, don't let the pain overshadow the success of the season. The club announced a sold out crowd and asked fans to arrive early for the nationally televised game. Flags awaited fans at their seats which made for quite the spectacle. For many, this may have been the most electric and fun atmosphere at DSG Park.
It's easy in hindsight to look at the game and question the lineup. That would be ignoring the dominant start to the game the Rapids had. The plan was working as the home team exploited the wings, swinging in crosses at a high clip. The age old soccer proverb applies though, you have to take your chances. And the Rapids unfortunately weren't able to bury one of those key chances early in the game.
The flip side of this argument is a valid one, that the lineup wasn't ideal. Kellyn Acosta plays at an above average level when lining up at outside back. His physical presence is missed in midfield however. When your only natural left back on the team is Lucas Esteves, it's hard to fathom why the Brazilian didn't start. Esteves has proven to be a fantastic young player with a bright future. He joins the attack with fluid movement and looks to be a fantastic replacement for Sam Vines. The other key ommission for me was Michael Barrios not starting. He was effectively our DP player this year and was easily the best attacker on the team. Fraser's strategy was to tire out the Timbers, then put the Colombian fire plug in to stir things up and open gaps. Admittedly this isn't a bad strategy and it's worked before. However, the idea that Barrios only started 2 games since August doesn't sit right with many fans.
In the end, the Rapids didn't have quite enough gas in the tank. As some have pointed out, the two teams who won their conference had 18 and 23 days off before MLS Cup. This is a scheduling nightmare and has to be remedied going forward. It's far from ideal to have such long breaks in compeititve play in any sport.
Despite the loss, the atmosphere was amazing. The game made history as it was the second most watched MLS regular season game ever. Behind only Freddy Adu's 2004 debut vs San Jose Clash, the Rapids vs Timbers Thanksgiving Day game reportedly had 1.9 million viewers. The club fought hard for this showcase and should be proud of the beatuiful display created on national tv and for the home fans in Colorado.
Brief Season Recap
The season actually started pretty slow. With a tie at FC Dallas and a home opening loss to newboys Austin FC, questions started to rise. Is this a regression from last season? Is this the same old Rapids team that shows promise only to disappoint? The resounding answer was no, absolutely not. Instead the Burgundy Boys won a game in Utah against Vanouver 1-0, followed by a 3-2 victory over Minnesota. The dramatic 82' header off a set peice from, who else, Jack Price sealed the win in style.
The Rapids would then go on a hot streak lasting throughout the summer. Although they cooled down going into the fall, the Rapids still found ways to grind out wins. As Marcelo Balboa pointed out several times, when a team isn't playing particularly well but finds a way to get results- that's the definition of a good team. That can be a huge difference maker and shows immense character. Something this Rapids team isn't lacking.
The 2-1 victory over RSL at home was major landmark in the season. If you haven't seen it, go back and watch the highlights. In the pivotal moment of the game, Braian Galvan literally put his defender on the ground with a shoulder feint, shuffled the ball onto his favored left foot and crossed in a beaut to a perfectly timed run by Kaye. A towering header that bulged the net, the 71' goal sealed victory against Rocky Mountain archrivals, Real Salt Lake.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
Going into September, the Rapids continued to grind out results including a 3-0 payback win over Austin FC. Amazing adversity was shown in beating Minnesota 3-1 despite being down a man after Danny Wilson's red card. Arguably the very best game of the season was on Decision Day. The last game of the regular season. LAFC had to win to get in to the playoffs but was instead resoundingly beaten 5-2. Not only was it a glorious rout but the atmosphere was a major highlight too.
Overall, the Rapids had an excellent season. Fraser established a solid defense in his new formation. A 532 formation, that showed flexibility, fluidity and down right just worked. The Rapids also played very well on the road with a record of 8-6-3 (3rd best in all of MLS). These are two key foundations to any successful soccer team. Buliding on that foundation, the Rapids were a force to be reckoned with at home with only one loss and a record of 9-1-7.
It is worth mentioning that the 2021 calendar was built with COVID-19 prevention in mind. Most teams only played 1-2 out of conference games. Presumably this changes in 2022, meaning that we would have a "regular" calendar again. This will balance out the power and separate teams better. It also means more travel for some teams. Any advantage of the Western or Eastern Conference being stronger would be mitigated. Something to keep any eye on this off-season.
As the Colorado Rapids navigate their future, it's hard not to be optimistic. The core group of players are remaining in tact. When the roster decisions were announced there weren't many surprises. Here are some key highlights:
1- Younes Namli had his option declined. All three DP slots remain open going in 2022 season. Ultimately this is the right choice as Namli never really found his feet in Colorado.
2- Key players are returning. Michael Barrios was re-signed with a 2023 club option included. Kellyn Acosta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Andre Shinyashiki all had their options exercised as well.
3- The only players confirmed not to be returning are Andre Rawls and Will Vint. Badji, Beitashour, Ford, Kelly, Mezquida and Moor are all in negotiations currently after their options were not exercised by the club.
As we all know, the Rapids are not a high spending team. They aren't going to challenge the Atlanta's, New York's and LA's of the world for the biggest transfer fee's. However, with all three DP slots open the Rapids could pursue some top end talent like never before. The biggest knock against this team all year, especially within the national media spotlight, is the lack of a "game changer". An elite, DP player at striker could change this "very good team that plays well together" to a "dangerous, don't mess with those guys" kind of team. Outisde of bringing in a star player, it's possible the Rapids bring in another squad player or two.
One of the most fun parts of the off-season is dreaming. That's right! It's speculation time! We know that Cole Bassett is very likely to leave for Europe in January after turning down an opportunity at Benfica last summer. His destination is likely more of a mid tier European club that would help further his development. This could include a Portugese team while previous rumors suggested Germany, Switzerland and the English Championship are all possible destinations. When he does depart, the expectation is that the Rapids will bring in a replacement. Unconfirmed rumors have suggested the Rapids have signed Brazilian midfielder Max for $1M. The Rapids haven't announced the transaction yet, which is very common. However, Max's profile would appear to be a straight swap for Bassett or Namli. Max is a very good technical player, with pace, skills and tons of energy. Colorado appears to be paying $750,000 up front and the remainder of the fee at the end of the season. There's a chance the Rapids utilize the young money rule to avoid giving Max a Designed Player role. Although the young Brazilian was out of favor with giants Flamengo, he showed great promise and talent. An official announcement should be coming soon.
There have also been rumours that the Rapids are shopping Jon Lewis around MLS. Lewis had a good season and posssess great pace and skill. However he never really cemented himself as a starter while providing a great spark off the bench. If the Rapids lose Lewis, I don't think it's a huge loss to the team and one that wouldn't have to be replaced immediately. There are youngsters that can step up if needed at winger. Meanwhile, the plans are very likely to include a new striker of which Lewis played quite a bit last season. I would also not be surpirsed if the Rapids didn't protect Diego Rubio, Andre Shinyashiki, Jeremy Kelly and Clint Irwin in the expansion draft thus allowing newboys Charlotte FC to pick one of them up. Irwin being a Charlotte native, I think he finds a way to join their ranks eventually. Jeremy Kelly also went to Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so a return home seems plausible for him as well. I do think Kelly is talented and has a future, but the team can only protect so many players and are deep at right back currently. All four players offer something different and will be something towatch out for at the MLS Expansion Draft. The draft takes place on Dec 14 and you can find more info here: 2021 MLS Expansion Draft Rules & Procedures | MLSSoccer.com
Rapids 2: MLS Next and MLS Next Pro
MLS announced on 12/6/21 a new professional league with an integrated player pathway. This is a major shakeup to the existing system in the US. The heiarchy now starts out at the amateur MLS Next level, then MLS Next Pro and finally MLS.
The formal partnership with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in the USL Championship is now officially over. The former General Manager of the Switchbacks, Brian Crookham, was very successful in his tenure at the club. Crookham will now take over as the Rapids 2 General Manager. Rapids 2 are set to compete in the spring of 2022 in the innagural season of MLS Next Pro. This will effectively be the third division of US soccer, pending the final sanctioning is completed (equivalent to USL League One and NISA).
This is not a reserves league. The intention is to further player development and the pathway to success. Bridging the gap between MLS academies and their first teams is one of the primary objectives. This is also not a U-23 team, as the opportunity for players over 23 to get another look is part of the plans. Every MLS club except for Montreal are invovled while there is one independent club, Rochester New York FC, owned by Leicester City star Jamie Vardy. Vardy is arguably the most famous non-traditional career path pro in the sport.
How exactly this effects the USL and NISA remains to be seen. MLS would like to control the situation, hence the change from USL affiliations to the MLS Next pipeline. Many clubs will play in MLS stadiums but are not required to do so. MLS will also have the chance to experiment more in these development leagues as well. We can also expect to see more players becoming involved in the Rapids development pipeline. Rather than 5-8 players going out on loan to the USL, we'll see a full 2nd team playing regular soccer. This development also means the players outside the regular starting rotation can still get minutes. It will keep the team fresh and full of options. The futures of players that were on loan in USL last season will likely be floating between Rapids and Rapids 2. Mayaka and Larraz for example could start out at Rapids 2 and as the season develops, they can be introduced to the first team as needed. This adds great flexibilty and better control of player development for the club. More information on MLS Next Pro: MLS NEXT Pro
Wrapping it all up
It bears worth repeating. The team with the 5th lowest budget in MLS won the Western Conference this year. The squad is solid from top to bottom. There's competition in every position, pushing players to improve constantly.
Chemistry is often overlooked by some. Not by Fraser. Not by Smith. I expect any changes coming into the club to be positive. To be thought out and meaningful. A player coming in with the wrong type of attitude would seem highly unlikely. The off field intangibles are likely being considered in every possible move as well. Take for example Mark-Athony Kaye, who has a humble nature rather than a flashy appeal. This Rapids front office is intelligent. They'll use advanced metrics and data analytics, along with their human intellect to make smart decisions.
With the news of the Rapids 2 team coming into existence, the youth development strategy changes. This change allows for a broader group of players to choose from, a deeper talent pool. Look for news of the Rapids 2 team schedule and home stadium location to be released soon.
Building on the momentum the Rapids have built over the past two seasons, it's a very exciting time going into 2022. The core group of players are sticking around. If the Rapids are successful in chasing a #9 striker, a #10 playmaker and possibly even another creative midfielder, the team is transformed. The power dynamic totally shifts. If the Rapids were able to do so much damage in 2021 with the resources they were given, imagine what they can do by adding some fresh talent.
Until next time, stay safe out there soccer fans! Happy Holidays!