CENTENNIAL, Co. – There are season openers, and then there are franchise-changing moments.
For the Colorado Rapids, Saturday’s match against FC Dallas (8:30 ET, watch on MLS Live) will mark not only the start of a new season, but also the beginning of a new era for the Rapids: This is now Oscar Pareja’s team. The second-year manager has hand-picked many of the players with the skills for his preferred possession-based attack and his overall philosophy.
“I feel more set,” Pareja told reporters this week. “I feel that the group I have here, they’re buying into what the club wants. That’s important. And the eagerness from the players to belong and say ‘this is what we want to do,’ that matters.”
After being hired as the Rapids’ head coach in early January 2012, Pareja was left with only a few weeks to transform his new team from the leftover defense-first system that predecessor Gary Smith left behind. The Rapids stumbled through 2012, suffering from a horrific midseason slide that saw them quickly fade from playoff contention. Many of the struggles came as a result of poor finishing, injuries and difficulties adapting to Pareja’s tactics.
But now, Pareja feels that he’s closer to the squad that he wants: a high-octane, eye-catching side that possesses the ball and can, he hopes, light up the scoreboard. The trade for Edson Buddle brought proven production to the striking corps, and the recent move for Danny Mwanga added another weapon. Midfielders Atiba Harris, Kevin Harbottle and Homegrown signing Dillon Serna bring the speed and passing ability needed to make the offense flow.
“The players that I found last year were players that were very established here and then sometimes that’s a level of comfort,” Pareja said. “And in soccer, it doesn’t give you anything. You got to put in 100 percent. This year, we have guys here that are new, but they came to a club that they want to flourish in. “
Saturday night presents the first test for Pareja in Dallas, his old stomping grounds, where he played from 1998-2005 and coached from 2005-11. And for Pareja, the team that for the first time can be truly called his and his alone, it’s the first challenge of many for the new-look squad.
“It’s not the way you start, it’s the way you finish,” Pareja said. “We’re going to go fight for our results. But, it’s a long season.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.