The Colorado Rapids traded away a fan favorite, but made some valuable acquisitions to strengthen their squad squad depth during the MLS SuperDraft. The weekend’s moves were the latest in a whirlwind of activity orchestrated by the Rapids front office ahead of the 2019 season.
Colorado Friday by announcing the successful signing of veteran midfielder, Benny Feilhaber. Half an hour later, the Rapids traded up to the fifth overall pick of the SuperDraft to select standout University of Denver striker, Andre Shinyashiki. Colorado finished the afternoon by drafting Marcello Borges (University of Michigan) and Jacob Hauser-Ramsey (University of Connecticut), but not before winger-turned-fullback Marlon Hairston was sent to the Houston Dynamo in exchange for $175,000 General Allocation Money.
Anthony Hudson expressed relief and pleasure after the completion of the second round of the draft, noting that the new additions “complement” the work done by General Manager Pádraig Smith, who has spearheaded Colorado’s activity in the MLS Primary Transfer Window.
“At the end of last season, we had so many scouting meetings, and we went through all the targets that we wanted,” Hudson explained, “Pádraig and our scouts have delivered.”
Colorado followed up Friday’s acquisitions by drafting Robbie Mertz with their seventy-sixth overall selection during the fourth round on Monday’s supplementary, conference-call draft.
In advance of Tuesday’s special announcement, it is necessary to critically evaluate the impact of these moves on Colorado’s ongoing roster rebuild and understand what role each player can serve in the first team.
Colorado’s first signing on friday brought an experienced, versatile, and domestic midfielder to the Rocky Mountains on an incredible contract. Benny Feilhaber is a thirty-three year old, U.S. International who first entered MLS with the New England Revolution in 2011. Feilhaber, however, made a name for himself in the league during his five-year spell with Sporting Kansas City. Thriving as a creative midfielder, Feilhaber racked up seventy-four goal contributions in 180 league matches for SKC and was named to the league’s Best XI in 2015.
Following the 2017 season, the American was traded to expansion side Los Angeles F.C., where he played all but one of the club’s thirty-nine matches across all competitions in 2018. Feilhaber elected not to re-sign with the club, opting for a pay increase to join Colorado on a one-year deal with an option for 2020.
“We want big characters in the locker room,” Coach Hudson said of the signing, “We want people who want to win, and Benny Feilhaber is every bit of that.”
LAFC’s “outfield ironman” has a history of lifting trophies: Feilhaber was part of the U.S. National Team’s Gold Cup-winning squad in 2007, won MLS Cup in 2013 with Sporting Kansas City, and took home the U.S. Open Cup twice (2015, 2017).
Feilhaber’s history as a midfield playmaker, Pádraig Smith explains, was the rationale behind pursuing the veteran. Describing Feilhaber as “an experienced player” that can “dictate the flow of the game,” Smith lauded Feilhaber’s storied career in MLS.
“More than anything else, he’s a winner, he’s proven that,” Smith said, “Domestically he has shown he can be a truly top player in this league.”
Whether or not Feilhaber’s illustrious resume will translate to wins in the Rocky Mountains remains to be seen. His career is described with much praise and in such detail because it is very detailed. It is no secret, at nearly thirty-four years of age, that Feilhaber is particularly advanced in his years as a footballer. Detractors might point to the fact that the midfielder is being paid “just under the maximum budget charge of $530,000 in 2019” as evidence that Feilhaber is looking to cash out as his career reaches its twilight.
However, the deal offers very little risk to Colorado. As a free agent signing, the club did not have to relinquish any allocation funds, international slots, or draft picks. Additionally, the reported one-year-plus-option contract offers the club quite a bit of flexibility for the future (compared to its previous efforts at signing older talent).
In return, the Rapids gain a prominent option to join Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price in the midfield. Feilhaber’s versatility means he could either occupy one of the shuttler roles in Hudson’s midfield diamond or serve as the central creative playmaker – the fabled “No. 10.” Colorado’s other midfield options of Johan Blomberg, Bismarck Adjei-Boateng, and Cole Bassett allows the squad the flexibility to avoid over-relying on the veteran.
While it is unlikely that Feilhaber will replicate his past levels of production with Colorado, the experienced playmaker still brings a valuable option to complement the relatively young signings made Friday afternoon.
Colorado had swapped their natural first round pick with F.C. Dallas as part of the Kellyn Acosta trade, so bringing in Andre Shinyashiki required a draft-day transaction with Chicago Fire S.C. Colorado paid $100,000 in General Allocation to the Fire to move up to the fifth overall selection, which was then used to select the University of Denver’s standout frontman.
During his time at DU, Shinyashiki made sixty-six goal contributions across eighty-three career appearances, set school records in goalscoring, and received a variety of individual awards. The Brazilian also spent time playing for the Colorado Rapids Under-23 side in the Premier Development League (now USL League Two).
That experience with Colorado was a major factor in selecting Shinyashiki – and trading up to do so.
“He’s been in our PDL, Under-23 team for quite some now,” Smith explained, “We know him, we know exactly what he does, what he’s going to bring to the table, [and] what his potential is.”
The plaudits continued with Coach Hudson, who said he “was blown away by [Shinyashiki] as a person, as a character.” The manager praised the signing as “outstanding,” adding, “I think he could do something significant.”
While the SuperDraft is arguably becoming increasingly irrelevant in terms of MLS player acquisition, the Rapids clearly believe that Shinyashiki will be a quality addition to Colorado’s new set of attackers.
Shinyashiki joins Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio as new acquisitions at striker, meaning that the prospect certainly has a difficult road to a starting role. However, the twenty-two year-old’s experience playing in the Mile High City likely means he will need less time to acclimate to the rigorous fitness standard required to play at altitude – something Hudson values very highly.
Rapids fans would be wise to pay attention to the upcoming battle for starting frontmen amongst a suddenly-voluminous attacking roster of Kamara, Rubio, Nicholson, Jackson, and Shinyashiki at the position. If Shinyashiki fails to produce early on, it is entirely possible that the club might attempt to loan him out, especially considering that the striker requires a coveted international roster spot.
Nevertheless, Shinyashiki’s signing is certainly exciting for a Rapids team that was so starved for goals in 2019. A healthy contest for the position will surely lead to better results across the board.
The allocation money spent to draft Shinyashiki came back to Colorado shortly after the first round, when the club announced that Marlon Hairston was traded to Houston Dynamo. Hairston, who originally joined Colorado out of 2014’s SuperDraft, consistently impressed the Rapids faithful with his explosive pace on the wings and provided the club with a versatile piece in the midfield.
However, the arrival of Anthony Hudson to Colorado meant the introduction and utilization of a system without wingers, forcing Hairston to continue the fullback-conversion experiment first initiated by Pablo Mastroeni.
The plan, while initially promising, ultimately failed to pan out. The Mississippi native left a lot to be desired when it came to the defensive duties required by his new role and never seemed to look comfortable in the position. After the Rapids signed natural right back Keegan Rosenberry, Hairston’s departure seemed inevitable.
Unfortunately, Hairston’s recent play did not inspire a particularly exciting bidding war for his services (the Dynamo’s fee of $175,000 in General Allocation seems like incredible value for money considering the rumored transfer of Alberth Elis). Performance, along with a history of injury problems, likely limited the ceiling of Hairston’s value among clubs in MLS.
While the loss of a fan favorite will certainly be felt strongly by club supporters, Hairston’s exit enabled Colorado to welcome new members into the defensive line.
With their three picks in the second and fourth rounds, Colorado brought in a variety of decent talent that had been on the club’s “radar” heading into the draft.
Unlike Shinyashiki – who had already signed a contract with MLS ahead of the SuperDraft – the later-round pickups made by the Rapids are not yet under contract with Colorado. The draftees will join the squad for preseason where they will be on trial until the club decides whether or not to finalize the signings.
The twenty-eighth overall pick saw two-footed fullback Marcello Borges join the Colorado. With experience in playing both fullback positions for the University of Michigan, Borges provides an option behind Vines and Wynne on the left and cover for Rosenberry on the right following Hairston’s departure. A U.S. Youth International and two-time All-Big Ten player, Borges certainly has the potential to provide valuable depth in positions that are notoriously difficult to fill in MLS.
In addition to Borges, Colorado selected a six-foot-three center back from the University of Connecticut, Jacob Hauser-Ramsey. The Huskies co-captain was selected to the ACC All-Conference First Team and received the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018. While later SuperDraft pickups are typically hit-or-miss, there is quite a bit to like about Hauser-Ramsey. Considering how many injuries the Rapids sustained in central defense in 2018, it makes sense to increase the number of personnel available for selection in that role.
Colorado’s final selection brought Robbie Mertz into the fold. Mertz, a box-to-box midfielder and a college teammate of Borges, likely will find himself too far down on the depth chart to find regular playing time in 2018. However, the Rapids new affiliation with Colorado Springs Switchbacks F.C. can surely provide the up-and-coming midfielder the chance to prove his value if he fails to force his way into the first team.
Anthony Hudson asserted that Colorado is “in a much stronger position now than […] a few months ago,” an assessment that is entirely accurate. With preseason training starting in less than a week, now is the time for the Rapids to buckle down and prepare the squad – new signings and all – for the regular season.
Colorado’s draft weekend acquisitions have bolstered depth in all the right places ahead of 2019, but with such a large turnover of talent, questions remain regarding Hudson’s ability to tactically prepare a new group of players for the MLS regular season. With a year under his belt, Hudson now has the chance to start again with a fresher, more robust squad. Whether or not 2019 is successful for the Rapids is now under his control, for better or worse.
Image Credit: Colorado Rapids