The Colorado Rapids have not spent all that much time atop the Western Conference table. Not this season, nor in their quarter-century of history dating back to MLS’ dawn.
But as the dust settles on Decision Day 2021, the Mile High Club sit atop the West, having outlasted the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City – the conference’s dominant sides for most of the year – to first place and the home-field advantage and Round One bye it bestows for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Another bonus? A 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot.
“It's a special night,” said 20-year-old Rapids homegrown Cole Bassett after Sunday’s 5-2 thumping of LAFC in front of a large, loud crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “I don't recall the last time when it was, what year it was when we won the West, but for me growing up, since I've been able to physically watch and understand soccer, it hasn't happened.”
(Quick interjection: It has indeed never happened. The closest Colorado came before Sunday was a second-place finish in 2016, the season Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones paced a ferocious Supporters’ Shield run that fell just two points short.)
“So being a hometown kid,” continued Bassett, “and helping this team get first place throughout a long season, it's not easy to do but we're super happy to get it. And in the game, it's not always the prettiest: We defend really well and then we've got so many dangerous attackers that score goals. So I think we showed that tonight. It's not always going to be pretty soccer. I think we can still improve on that. But we find ways to win games and we score a lot of goals when needed.”
Bassett bagged a goal and an assist in 34 minutes off the bench, one contributor among many on a team without a double-digit goalscorer, with just one Designated Player on the roster and a defiantly collective identity in a league often preoccupied with stars.
Rapids coach Robin Fraser called Sunday’s win a microcosm of their season.
“We’re a group that plays really, really hard for each other,” said the Jamaican-American. “And some games everything goes right, it looks great, and some games we have to fight and grind, and we do that. And sometimes both things occur within one game. But the fact is, the team never really quits – not ‘really,’ the team never quits. And it's one thing that I know that I'll get out of them will be effort. Tonight was no different.”
It also represented a poetic changing of the guard, considering that when he took over in Colorado some 805 days ago, LAFC were the class of MLS: Runaway Shield winners that season, purveyors of the league’s most stylish soccer. On Sunday the Rapids created that lopsided final scoreline via twice as many shots on goal as their visitors despite just 38.4% of possession, a model of efficiency, organization and opportunism – not to mention value, considering that recent MLS Players Association salary documents indicate that LAFC carry the fifth-largest wage bill in the league, and Colorado the smallest.
The Rapids’ joy is the Angelinos’ anguish, as this result killed off LAFC’s hopes of playoff qualification and amplified the questions about their future, Bob Bradley’s and Carlos Vela’s in particular. For Fraser, there is also rich symbolism since his previous head coaching gig before Colorado was with Chivas USA, LAFC’s star-crossed forbears, who fired him almost exactly nine years ago, leading him on a seven-year journey as an assistant with the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC before finally landing another top job.
“It took a while to get back to being a head coach,” he said. “But to land here with this group of players, I feel really fortunate. And I keep pushing them and they just keep working. I keep demanding of them and they just keep meeting expectations. And to have won the West, I’m incredibly, incredibly proud of the team. We have more to do, but we're going to take a minute to really appreciate and enjoy this.”
An understated personality who even at this euphoric moment took care to thank his former RBNY and TFC colleagues, Fraser was undoubtedly overlooked as a head coaching candidate for far too long. His current players are similarly conscious of how much of the spotlight Seattle and Sporting enjoyed while they hunted them doggedly down the stretch.
“They're extremely proud of what they've done. They're very aware that no one thought that they could,” said Fraser of his squad, declaring that he holds “literally not one tiny bit of concern about keeping their focus” as the international break pauses MLS before the playoffs commence.
“And they understand that they are where they are because of how hard they work together. Going into the next round of games, they know it's going to be difficult, they know it's going to be a challenge, but this is a group that I know is always up for the preparation and up for the work. And they'll be ready come the next game.”