Colorado’s offseason began at an astronomical pace: the club finalized terms with Columbus bring on Lalas Abubakar permanently, spent a tidy sum to secure up-and-coming defender Auston Trusty, and brought in veteran leader Drew Moor out of free agency. However, since Moor joined on November 27, the Rapids camp has been notably silent. Thursday’s SuperDraft acquisitions notwithstanding, Colorado’s offseason has been primarily marked with hype and anticipation regarding the club’s promised signings.
But now, at least two attacking acquisitions are likely to be announced by the Rapids in the coming week.
One certainly appears to be French winger Nicolas Benezet, who most recently featured for Toronto F.C. (scoring this exceptional goal in the playoffs to help the Reds knock off Atlanta United). Benezet, 28, addressed French media to confirm that he spoke with Robin Fraser and plans to sign a TAM contract with the Rapids on Tuesday.
Colorado also appears to be closing in on acquiring Younes Namli on a Designated Player contract. The 25-year old featured regularly as an attacking midfielder for Heerenveen and PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie before signing a four year contract with Krasnodar last May.
Both players fit squarely into the mold of what the Colorado Rapids have been trying to build under General Manager Pádraig Smith and provide significant improvement over existing options in the team’s attack. Let’s take an in-depth look at what they’ll offer the first team.
Analyzing the circumstances immediately surrounding acquisitions is a prerequisite for discussing the club’s roster additions in the Smith era. Management has made it abundantly clear that they don’t intend on spending large transfer sums to acquire talent and wish to avoid enormous salary differences among the first team. Specifically, this means the Rapids are bargain-bin-hunting for Distressed Assets™ – players currently undervalued or underutilized by their current clubs.
Springing for Benezet and Namli exemplify this philosophy in a nutshell. The former arrived to Toronto on loan from Ligue 2’s EA Guingamp in the midst of the Canadian side’s 2019 campaign. Despite impressing in the regular season and the playoffs, Benezet couldn’t convince the Reds to trigger his purchase clause. Ultimately, Toronto decided to re-sign longstanding central midfielder Michael Bradley on a TAM contract, which precluded bringing Benezet aboard permanently.
Once Toronto’s intentions regarding Benezet were clear, the Reds shopped his rights around the league and Colorado came calling. The transfer was secured in part due to Benezet’s familiarity with Colorado’s new Head Coach Robin Fraser, who was an assistant for Toronto during a portion of the winger’s time in Canada.
Thankfully, bringing Benezet aboard won’t break the beak. The Rapids will need to pay $500,000 to Guingamp in accordance with his loan agreement, along with an additional $50,000-$100,000 in General Allocation Money to Toronto for the player’s rights. That’s a tiny sum for a proven attacking talent in MLS with an impressive résumé in big matches.
While Benezet fits the Smith archetype of an undervalued player, Namli fits the mold as an underutilized asset.
After spending the first six seasons of his professional career in the Netherlands, the Danish creative midfielder secured a move to Krasnodar. While the move gave Namli an opportunity to play in the Europa League, Krasnodar manager Sergey Matveyev has refused to play the central creator in his natural position. Instead, Matveyev has opted to deploy Namli out wide, resulting in paltry production.
The situation for Namli at Krasnodar was untenable, which leads us to his search abroad and Colorado’s interest.
Unfortunately, the details on Namli’s agreement haven’t yet surfaced. The Rapids were initially hesitant on a deal because the price wasn’t right, but the club has since begun to close-in on an agreement that could be announced as soon as Monday.
Namli and Benezet share similar backstories with recent acquisitions like Lalas Abubakar, Jonathan Lewis, and Kellyn Acosta. All are approaching (or are in) their prime, but weren’t being utilized at their best by their current sides. In theory, this allows the Rapids to secure promising talent on the cheap. It might buck the trend with the rest of MLS, but there’s a good chance it’ll pay off.
New Challenger on the Wings
Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio have been deadly up front for the Colorado Rapids, but the club hasn’t seen a strong level of consistency from its current corps of wingers. Lewis and Sam Nicholson have proven to be talented options out wide, but have been somewhat hot and cold since Hudson’s departure. Bringing in Benezet gives the club another deadly outlet in the attack and could serve to bring the best out of his intra-squad competition.
Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of Benezet’s arrival and Colorado’s coming preseason is who ends up winning the starting roles out wide. Head Coach Robin Fraser has been explicit in his plan to continue using wingers in a 4-3-3 and with Shinyashiki, Lewis, Nicholson, and Benezet as options, Colorado is likely to rotate quite a bit. I’ll give early odds in Benezet’s favor for winning the left-sided gig on day one, but things could change after an eventful preseason.
Securing Benezet’s services could prove to be a coup for the Colorado Rapids. After whiffing more often than not on Targeted Allocation Money signings (c.f. Danny Wilson and Tommy Smith), Benezet seems like a prime candidate to reverse the trend.
The Promised No. 10
Namli’s arrival isn’t definitive yet, but I’ve heard enough to feel confident in taking the time to analyze his potential under Robin Fraser’s system.
The attacking midfielder’s primary talent is in chance creation. In his final season as Zwolle’s starting attacking midfielder, Namli completed 2.9 key passes per 90, tallied seven assists, and scored four goals. As you can anticipate, Zwolle benefited largely from his efforts – the Bluefingers were expected to score 1.52 more goals per 90 when Namli was on the pitch.
There’s no hiding that these figures dropped when he moved to Russia, but there’s ample reason to believe his current lack of production was due to being forced out wide. It’s definitely a red flag, but putting up above-average numbers in a league like the Eredivisie definitely bodes well for the Colorado Rapids.
If signed, Namli can be expected to play in the at the top of the midfield ahead of probable starters Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price. There, the 25-year-old could generate ample scoring opportunities for Colorado’s front three. With Kamara, Rubio, Shinyashiki, Lewis, and Benezet as potential outlets, there’s no doubt in my mind that Namli can put the Rapids in dangerous positions.
Still Not Done?
Pádraig Smith hinted that there’s more to come from the Rapids in the transfer market this year and there’s a lot of smoke surrounding Club Atlético Colón’s Braian Galván out of Argentina. While nothing definitive has surfaced yet, the rumor fits with what’s expected from the club’s intentions to acquire a Young Designated Player.
Regardless of who else is added to the Colorado Rapids, management has already sent the signal that they are taking this offseason very seriously. Considering the club has been absent from the playoffs since 2016, it’s about time.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @jspsam