“Who are we?”
“What do we stand for?”
“What do we want to achieve?”
These three simple questions introduced the famous (infamous?) Colorado Rapids op-ed, a letter to the fans by Padraig Smith and Wayne Brant published in the Denver Post. Titled “The Rapids Way” Smith and Brant outlined just who they wanted to be, what they wanted to stand for, and what they wanted to achieve. It’s now been two years since “The Rapids Way” was published and the Rapids have failed to make the playoffs since. Currently, Colorado are at a <1% chance after a horrendous, record setting, worst start in Major League Soccer. While it is technically and statistically still possible for the Rapids to make the playoffs (miracles do happen sometimes), I don’t think this is what Padraig Smith or any of the Front Office had in mind when outlining the ambitions for this team. Rapids faithful know the term “perennial playoff team” all too well as that is what was promised to us that August. However, we have yet to see playoff soccer make its return to Commerce City. So, two years to the date, it’s time to revisit “The Rapids Way” op-ed.
Before we delve into the op-ed, it’s important to have some context around the situation and why it was written. In 2016, the Rapids had a very stout and strong defense – only conceding 32 goals throughout the campaign. However, the team had struggled to score goals, with just a mere 39. The moniker “defense wins championships” was not enough as Colorado, heading into the second leg of the conference finals at home, needed to secure a 1-0 win after playing the Sounders to a 2-1 loss in Seattle. This seemed possible: Colorado never lost a game at Dicks Sporting Goods Park in 2016 and were all too familiar with 1-0 wins at home. Unfortunately, the MLS script writers would close the book on Colorado’s fantasy run when Seattle’s Jordan Morris managed to chip one past Zac MacMath in the bottom left corner. When Morris scored that goal, there was a collective agreement in the stadium that the Rapids weren’t going to come away with this one. Everyone just kind of knew that that was the end of the dream. Instead of one, Colorado now had to score two. This was a problem for the team and one that Padraig Smith recognized as well. Smith understood that if the Rapids were to be in this spot again, the attacking prowess and ability to score needs to be there. After 2016’s wonderful run, Colorado headed into 2017 with very little moves in preseason. They signed Kortne Ford and Ricardo Perez to Homegrown Contracts, brought in Alan Gordon from free agency, signed former Manchester City Academy product Adjei “Nana” Boateng, signed rookie Mike Da Fonte from Sacramento, and drafted Sam Hamilton. Apart from Alan Gordon, who was more of a super sub, the Rapids failed to upgrade their attack for 2017. Three games into the season (1-1-1), the Rapids would trade Sam Cronin and Marc Burch, two integral parts of the 2016 season, to Minnesota United for Mohammed Saeid and Joshua Gatt. This trade was an attempt to move away from the “defense wins championships” identity to the identity that Padraig smith would later propose in The Rapids Way. As the season progressed and as the poor results had mounted, Padraig Smith decided to fire head coach Pablo Mastroeni – before Colorado’s marquee summer signing Stefan Aigner had even began training with the team. When the Rapids fired Mastroeni, the team was last in the Western Conference and 10 points out of a playoff spot (Sound familiar?). Steve Cooke would become interim head coach and a day later, “The Rapids Way” was published.
With this context, we can delve deep into the op-ed and see just where Smith and Brant wanted to take the Rapids. At this point, Colorado had sacrificed 2017 in order to make 2018 a standout season. As Rapids fans know all too well, the 2017 season wasn’t even the worst of it.
The op-ed begins with three vital questions: “Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we want to achieve?” These questions are questions that you might usually see in an MLS backroom meeting with executives and team owners, but instead, Smith and Brant decide to go public with who they want to be, what they want to stand for, and what they want to achieve. This was the push for the magic word known as “transparency”. In June of that 2017 campaign, the front office hired Ryan Madden as Senior Director of Communications whose main goal was to make the Colorado Rapids the most transparent club in MLS. This op-ed was a great step towards making that happen and this vulnerability from the club to be open about their plans moving forward was refreshing. The op-ed notes:
“We believe that to earn the fans’ trust, we must be transparent about what our vision is and how we plan to get there. We must also be held accountable when things are not going the way they should. In doing so, it allows fans to see us taking the concrete steps needed to turn that vision in to a reality.”
Since then, there’s been very little in terms of holding Smith and company accountable. Before Smith, Tim Hinchey was in control of the Rapids and during his time, a Rapids fan was crazy enough to fly a banner over Dicks Sporting Goods Park that read “THE CLUB IS STILL A WRECK – KSE AND HINCHEY OUT”. In 2017, before the firing of Pablo Mastroeni, Centennial 38, the Colorado Rapids’ largest supporters group, wrote a message to the front office expressing their anger and frustration over the Marc Burch and Sam Cronin trade and their lack of moves in that off-season. But after the op-ed, there hasn’t been many times that Rapids fans held the front office accountable apart from commenting on social media posts. The club has held Season Ticket Holder Meetings and Q&A’s with fans, which helps with them being transparent, but on the whole there hasn’t been any sort of mass walk-out from fans or widespread movement to cancel season tickets. With the increasing prices of tickets, rock bottom finishes, and failure to make the playoffs, trust between the front office and fans continues to wear thin.
From here, the op-ed goes into explaining how the Rapids Organization in the past have had attributes that are not enough moving forward. Some of those attributes included being well-organized, difficult to break down, and grinding out results:
“Yet the last few seasons have shown that those attributes are no longer enough. It’s simple — we have to improve. And in doing so, we need to become a more attack-minded team. We need to invest our time and resources in becoming bolder, and more creative in how we conduct ourselves.”
It’s not hard to look around the league and find teams that perfectly exemplify what Smith wants to do in Colorado. I think many can point to 2018’s Atlanta United and 2019’s LAFC as playing “attack-minded soccer.” However, those teams have resources that the Rapids simply just prefer not to use. (Thanks, Stan) This isn’t to say the Rapids have had no resources in the past three seasons, it’s just that for the past three seasons they haven’t been getting enough out of the players they currently have. One big factor might be that their DP’s have added very little to the way the team attacks. Tim Howard is the highest paid player for the Rapids and highest paid goalie in the league and Shkelzen Gashi provided 9 goals in 2016 and failed to ever meet that mark afterward. In 2017, the Rapids payroll was roughly 8 million landing them 10th overall in the league out of 22 teams. Despite being 10th in spending, the Rapids had a league-worst 31 goals. They were tied with DC United who only had 5.3 million in payroll landing them in 20th out of 22 teams. In 2018, the Rapids were 10th in payroll again with a whopping 11 million and ended the season with just 36 goals – the worst in the league for two years in a row. For 2019, as of August 16th, the Rapids have scored 41 goals (6th best in MLS) and are 18th in league payroll. They still, however, sit near the bottom of the Western Conference – 10 points out of a playoff spot. It’s been a disaster in terms of “creatively” spending when ownership is cheap. (And most of that blame does fall on the hands of the Kroenkes.) While teams around the league this year were wheeling and dealing – bringing players like Pavon and Bojan into the league – the Colorado Rapids left their fans continuously refreshing their apps, browsing subreddit and other media channels for any update on a summer signing. In 2016, the Sounders signed Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro to a DP contract and that signing was enough to skyrocket them to an MLS Cup. It’s those kind of signings that Rapids fans just want to see and unfortunately, we have to wait for the off-season.
“…going forward we will look to target players who play with boldness and urgency. We will look for players with high soccer IQ and game intelligence. Explosive players with good mobility. Players whose first instinct is to drive forward, to seek out the line-breaking pass, and to take on his opposite number. Players who, at the end of the day, exhibit the same burning desire to win that we do.“
For the purposes of this article, let’s start with all the players Smith brought in after the op-ed was published. We’ll lump in Aigner, Saeid, and Gatt as those signings were telling of the direction Smith wanted to go.
We have: Stefan Aigner, Josh Gatt, Mohammed Saeid, Luis Gil, Niki Jackson, Edgar Castillo, Joe Mason, Yannick Boli, Sam Vines, Enzo Martinez, Andrew Dykstra, Danny Wilson, Tommy Smith, Jack Price, Deklan Wynne, Jack McBean, Kip Colvey, Johan Blomberg, Giles Barnes, Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett, Nicolas Mezquida, Kei Kamara, Andre Rawls, Clint Irwin, Diego Rubio, Keegan Rosenberry, Benny Feilhaber, Andre Shinyashiki, Matt Hundley, Sam Raben, Kofi Opare, Sebastian Anderson, Jonathan Lewis, Abdul Rwatubyaye, and Lalas Abubakar.
That’s a total of 35 players in-and-out of the club within the last three years. And while nowadays it may look like Smith has been wheeling and dealing and making positive moves, this is the same General Manager who signed Yannick Boli to a $900,000 TAM-level contract, a player who only managed to score two goals in 17 games. That is notwhat’s expected of a player with “high soccer IQ” and whose “first instinct is to drive forward”. Tommy Smith and Danny Wilson were the two players that featured most as the center back pairing for 2018. With a combined salary equaling 1.1 Million dollars, the two would go on to concede a total of 63 goals. Among those very expensive players who have yet to live up to their contract (though Smith and Wilson have shown improvement) are players like Giles Barnes, Benny Feilhaber, and Luis Gil, who would only stay for a cup of coffee and make you wonder why the team signed them at all. Finally, who can forget the saga and spectacle that was the signing of Stefan Aigner. A signing that had many Rapids fans excited for the future would end up becoming one of many blights on Smith’s record as General Manager. What would be considered the infamous #AignerGate left fans wondering what happened and why things never worked out. As of today, both Aigner and Hudson are no longer with the club leaving us with another failed season and more importantly wasted time. Padraig Smith wasn’t the one who signed Tim Howard or Shkelzen Gashi to long DP contracts, but you have to look at the players he has given large amounts of money to and think: Can fans trust him to make DP signings?
But, there is some credit due to Smith for the fantastic signings he has made. Kei Kamara has been the best Rapids player in 2019 and certainly will be a player to build around for 2020. A player that has earned the respect and admiration of the fans, Kamara has scored a total of 11 goals. The last time the Rapids had a double digit goal scorer was Deshorn Brown in 2014, so to see a player who has a real nose for goal is tremendous. Through loans, Smith picked up Edgar Castillo from Monterrey and Lalas Abubakar from the Columbus Crew. Castillo was truly the bright spot in a terrible 2018 season who managed to tear the league up and become the best left back that season. Unfortunately, Monterrey weren’t willing to part ways with him at the price the Rapids wanted, so instead they flipped his rights to New England for Kellyn Rowe who was then flipped to Sporting Kansas City for Diego Rubio (Who has been a bright spot as well). Lalas Abubakar has shored up and made the defense better since his arrival in May. Since joining, it seems to be clear and evident that he as a defender makes Tommy Smith and others around him more confident. If Smith can find a way to permanently move Abubakar, another fan favorite loanee, Rapids fans will truly feel a better sense of confidence in the General Manager.
Overall, for player acquisition: it’s a wash. 2019’s signings have proven that Smith can wheel and deal within the cheap organization that is the Rapids and bring in quality talent. On the other side, when he is given the funds to make a big TAM-level signing, they have never played to their worth. A lot of the signings could have also been the result of Hudson bringing in his guys, so that also sort of helps Smith’s case.
“We’re also going to implement a system — or a set of principles — in the coming months that will allow for us to think vertically and allow our attacking players more freedom. We want to be a high-intensity team that is willing to take calculated risks in the right areas of the field — but all the while maintaining the defensive discipline that is part and parcel to who we are, and always have been.“
When you look at how the team has been performing lately, a lot of the performances have been really ugly and a lot of them have been beautiful to see. The 6-3 game against Montreal was a lovely game to watch and experience while the 1-0 game against Minnesota United from June was a sloppy mess to unfold. At times, the team looks to be high intensity and others you can tell easily that they’re defending in a low block to gain a win/draw. Ultimately, should it matter how the team is playing? When you go to see a Rapids game, do you want the team to win or the team to play well? There are times when the Rapids play well and lose, (vs New England) and there are also times when the Rapids play poorly and win (vs Minnesota). This is a much deeper philosophical question when it comes to watching soccer that is important to ask if you’re a sports team and trying to outline what you want the club’s ambition and expectations to be. This is also a deep question when it comes to you as fan: What do you want to see? When Mastroeni was coach in 2016, the main problem was that he didn’t score enough. At the end of the final whistle, however, the Rapids would usually come away with the win. If you look at the Rapids now, the main concern is that the team concedes more than they should, and ever since the firing of Hudson, the Rapids usually win. I think this part of the op-ed has many different nuances to it that will vary greatly depending on who you are. There’s no doubt that this team is much more fun to watch than in 2016, but at the end of the day, do you want to be entertained or do you want to win? (Not saying you can’t have both, but if you were to choose…)
On the subject of player acquisition, the op-ed also has this moment:
“…Continuing the work being done in our Development Academy, getting the absolute most of our sports science and data analytics teams, and moving away from a player acquisition policy that in the past has been agent-driven, to one that is system- or philosophy-driven.“
Overall, this has been an absolute home run for Padraig Smith. Everything in this quick excerpt of the op-ed he has delivered on. The front office of the past would have themselves stuck in a position where multiple players were on the books for years prior due to agent clauses and fees. Nowadays, the contract negotiations have really tightened up for the organization and that is all in part due to Padraig Smith. Smart, off-season, backroom hirings like Fran Taylor have also added a significant pedigree that has gotten the most out of their data analysis. And the big one of course, is the development of the academy. The affiliation switch from the Charlotte Independence to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks has given the Colorado Rapids a well-oiled pipeline to slowly bring players into the first team. Academy graduates like Cole Bassett, Sam Vines, and Kortne Ford have already proven to be excellent signings. The #PlayYourKids movement continues in MLS and while the Rapids aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders like FC Dallas, there is a clear philosophy that Colorado can and does in fact #PlayTheirKids. Kudos to Padraig Smith and Brian Crookham for delivering on this part of the op-ed.
“Ultimately, though, our goal for this club is to be a perennial playoff team who regularly competes for trophies. At the end of the day, everything we do is about putting ourselves in a position to win an MLS Cup. We want to bring another trophy home to Colorado… Above all, though, we want to make our supporters proud. We want them to know that we are evolving and that we stand with them as one club. We want them to know that success is not far away. And that there is a plan in place to achieve it.”
Has the club evolved over the last few years? Yes. Does there seem to be a plan in place to achieve success? Yes. Is everything the Rapids organization putting themselves in a position to win an MLS Cup? I’d argue yes but there are definitely nuances within that argument. These are all things that Smith has delivered on. However, if you look at the other promises and the other things we were told in this op-ed, you have to wonder: is 2019 it? The Rapids have not had a playoff berth since their identity switch, they haven’t put their full effort into competing for trophies outside of the MLS Cup, and ever since the firing of Mastroeni, the team has had little-to-no success. Yes, it’s fun to see Kei Kamara dunking on defenders and scoring goals but if that doesn’t lead to anything, what’s the point? Yes, it’s fun to see 6-3 goal thrillers but if we’re at the bottom of the league again, what’s the point? Every year, we seemingly hit rock bottom only to think, “It can’t get worse from here… can it?” Even if the Rapids do make the playoffs this year it’s not like they’re the “perennial playoff team” that was promised. 2020 is going to be a make or break year for Padraig Smith. He has to absolutely hit the nail on the head in terms of player acquisition (two new DP’s he promised) as well as a new head coach. We have reached the end of “trust the process” phrase that fans have heard for three seasons now: It all culminates to 2020.
Image Credit: John A. Babiak – @Photog_JohnB