To say the 2018 MLS Regular Season was a disappointment for the Colorado Rapids would be quite the understatement. Colorado endured two seven-game losing streaks, scored a league-low thirty-six goals, and finished third-to-last in the overall table with a measly thirty-one points. Despite brief glimpses of the “attacking football” pledged by the club’s front office, it was clear from two month into the season that the Rapids did not have the quality to compete on the same level as the top sides in Major League Soccer.
Throughout Colorado’s failure to make the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, General Manager Pádraig Smith has reiterated his promise of making Colorado a perennial postseason contender – an ideal initially manifested in his infamous 2017 editorial in the Denver Post. Now, one full year into the thus-far underwhelming Anthony Hudson project, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the Rapids faithful.
A Reconstructed Roster, Redux
Exactly a year to the day that Colorado cut eight players at the end of the 2017 campaign, the Rapids shed a full third of their roster in advance of 2019. The goal was to leave the club with money to spend and cap space to revitalize the most problematic areas of their first team: striker, attacking midfield, and right back.
Some moves were anticipated: underperforming forwards Yannick Boli, Giles Barnes, and Jack McBean left the club after finding the back of the net only four times collectively; perpetual loanees Sam Hamilton and Ricardo Perez had their options declined; and depth options Mike da Fonte, Andrew Dykstra, and Caleb Calvert were not offered a chance to remain in Burgundy. Other moves were relatively unexpected: left back Kip Colvey retired to pursue a career in medicine and midfield workhorse Enzo Martinez returned to the United Soccer League after only one year of serviceable play in MLS.
But perhaps the most interesting judgment made by the club’s front office was the decision to decline to purchase fan favorite left fullback Edgar Castillo. With two young promising left-sided defensive options in Sam Vines and Deklan Wynne on contract, the Rapids opted to shift Castillo’s rights to New England in exchange for attacking midfielder Kellyn Rowe. Rowe was immediately traded to Sporting Kansas City along with three hundred grand of MLS funny money, leaving the Rapids with formidable striker Diego Rubio.
While Castillo proved to be one of the most exciting additions to the Rapids roster in 2018, a source within the club told Rapids Republic that contract negotiations with the defender broke down, making the trade unavoidable. Unfortunately, at the age of thirty-two, it seemed financially reckless to cough up an expensive fee and contract for a luxury positional player when that money could instead be spent upgrading other areas of the squad (MLS’s salary cap rules also dissuade this type of decision). Instead, the decision to bring Rubio into the fold in Castillo’s absence will result in a fierce competition between Vines and Wynne for the role of starting left back in 2019, while simultaneously providing a better option at striker than any outlet the Rapids had in 2018.
But before that three-way transaction was even official, Colorado had already set the trade market on fire. In the span of three days, Tim Howard’s heir-apparent was dealt to Vancouver in exchange for creative midfielder Nicolas Mezquida and expansion side F.C. Cincinnati traded veteran frontman Kei Kamara to the Rapids for an international roster spot. Then – in advance of the inevitable complaints about goalkeeper depth – Colorado gave up a second round draft pick to welcome Clint Irwin back to the Rocky Mountains. An hour later, the Rapids selected Andrew Rawls in the Re-Entry Draft, effectively replacing Andrew Dykstra on the depth chart.
Shortly after signing Rubio, Colorado filled another hole in the first team. Right fullback Keegan Rosenberry was signed from Philadelphia for a sizable amount of allocation money – a move which brought in a quality domestic defender entering the prime stage of his career.
Finally, while not officially confirmed as of the writing of this piece, it seems certain that veteran MLS attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber will sign with Colorado on a free transfer.
Following year-end contract decisions and trades, the Rapids find themselves with a roster containing only seven players that saw the field in 2017 (with one reportedly still on the trading block). On paper, the Rapids have improved in virtually every position. While the defensive line lost a star in a position of depth, it was shored up in a position of need; five new attacking players are set to provide the goalscoring opportunities that were absent in 2018; and Tim Howard has two new competitors in goal.
And still, it feels like this is only the halfway point for the transformative Colorado Rapids rebuilding project under Smith and Hudson. It is well-known that the exorbitant contracts of Tim Howard and Shkëlzen Gashi will expire following the conclusion of the 2019 season, allowing the Rapids an opportunity to truly spend big for the first time since bringing in the two designated players. Considering Pádraig Smith’s statement of intent to sign a striker and a number ten to occupy those coveted roster spots, it finally seems that the inevitable is on the horizon.
More to Come?
It is worth adding that Colorado only has twenty-three players on their roster out of a possible thirty, with a requirement of loaning four players out to new USL affiliate, Colorado Springs Switchbacks. While one of those players is likely to be newly-signed reserve goalkeeper Andrew Rawls, it is a mystery as to who else will be loaned to Denver’s southern neighbors.
The SuperDraft offers the Rapids an opportunity to sign promising, reserve-level players and the club is rumored to be trading up for a better position in the first round. While many Colorado soccer enthusiasts will be pining for the signing of University of Denver standout Andre Shinyashiki, the international roster spot the striker will require might be too great an obstacle for the club to hurdle.
Another potential newcomer to the side might be homegrown midfielder Matt Hundley, who delivered a multitude of impressive performances in his freshman year at UCLA and is reportedly in advanced contract negotiations with Colorado.
Regardless of who eventually joins the Rapids, Colorado still has plenty of room to work with, but not a lot of time to complete many deals. Preseason begins in less than a month and the club has had difficulty in the past with integrating new signings that join after the first friendlies of the year. Colorado would be wise to make any additional signings sooner rather than later.
High Expectations and Measured Ones
The Rapids are explicitly playoff or bust heading into 2019 and for the first time since 2016, it appears that the former might actually be in the cards. Major League Soccer’s new playoff format drops two-legged games in exchange for another team in each conference getting a shot at MLS Cup – a move more likely to benefit Colorado than the more consistent powerhouses in the league. Yet, despite promising movements across the first team and an easier route to the postseason, execution is not as easy as it seems.
One item to consider is Head Coach Anthony Hudson’s consistent exasperation at the time it took for new players to adapt to his system in 2018. If Colorado is to make a serious run at the playoffs in 2019, it will be paramount for the manager to ensure that the new members of the squad can work well together. Particularly, it will be interesting to see how Kei Kamara and Benny Feilhaber interact with the team and their new manager. The former notably left Columbus in disgust after some petty teammate drama, while the latter was described by one of his coaches as having “the biggest mouth in the league.” Locker room cohesiveness will be essential to Colorado’s chances of success in 2019, lest another Stefan Aigner situation haunt the club.
A crucial part of that team chemistry aspect of management is a squad’s collective response to the inevitable poor match result. 2018 saw awful games snowball into a series of lackluster performances where it appeared that the team lacked any sort of confidence to play competitively. Colorado must be able to rebound and improve after tough losses if they expect to make the postseason.
On paper, the Rapids have a playoff-caliber roster, but perhaps not an MLS Cup-winning one. If the team becomes well-organized and disciplined, they could make an impressive run. However, if the squad fails to produce significant improvements over the past season, serious questions must be asked of the coaching staff. Smith has done his job of bringing in well-valued signings with the quality to compete. It is now Anthony Hudson’s duty to produce a winning side.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts brewing on the Rapids and the direction the club is taking, so thank you for indulging the wall of text above. 2018 was not as excellent as I would have liked in terms of content on Rapids Republic, but I hope for 2019 to be much more robust. Expect some changes in the volume and type of content Rapids Republic produces over the next year. In particular, I’ve decided to do away with game recaps and write more in-depth articles in the form of a weekly column. Last year I got burned out pretty quickly with the torrent of content I wanted to write, so this year I’m limiting myself in the hope that I can produce more consistent, interesting pieces. As always, I will continue to update the Rapids Roster Tracker and remain plugged into all things Colorado Rapids. I sincerely thank each and every one of you that reads my work. Here’s to a wonderful 2019!
Image Credit: Ron Chenoy