Shkëlzen Gashi holds Colorado Rapids scarf

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Mountains are nothing new to Colorado Rapids designated player Shkëlzen Gashi. In fact, the Rapids forward was named after the “Shkëlzen” range close to Albania’s border with Kosovo.

But the Colorado’s newest Designated Player signing will have a tough hill to climb, so to speak, as he seeks to boost an offense that ranked dead last in MLS in scoring last season. Nevertheless, Gashi expressed great enthusiasm when meeting with the media during a press conference Tuesday, his first since signing with the Rapids a month ago.

“I’m very happy to be here,” he said in German via translator. “The city and the people have been fantastic so far and I’m very happy to get started on Sunday.”

The signing of the reigning two-time Swiss Super League golden boot winner from UEFA Champions League side FC Basel shocked many as the surprise move of the MLS offseason. But how did Colorado land this international star?

It all started with a phone conversation with Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni.

“To be honest, our conversation was just about my vision and the culture that we want,” said Mastroeni. “I talked to him about wanting to be great, just not good. I talked to him about how important it is to leave it all on the field. It wasn’t about propaganda. It was about being authentic.”

The Rapids manager also praised Gashi’s professionalism, which started during the recruitment process.

“He did all of his homework,” Mastroeni added. “He knew exactly what he was getting into. He knew the position I played as a player. I mean, talk about taking your job seriously. This is the type of mentality I keep preaching to the younger kids coming into the league.”

Rapids sporting director Padraig Smith, a former financial analysis manager at UEFA, also played a pivotal role in recruiting Gashi to Colorado.

“They were pretty adamant about bringing me in and pretty persistent as well, it felt good from my end to feel wanted,” Gashi said of the interaction. “The fact that I was wanted brought me here.”

It was as much the Rapids’ recruitment as it was perhaps fate, as Gashi explained.

“One of my friends visited Colorado for the Alpine World Ski Championships last year,” Gashi said. “When he came back, he brought me a Denver Broncos hat that said Gashi with the No. 11 on it. I looked at it recently and thought that it’s funny how life works out.”

Colorado Rapids hail Shkelzen Gashi's professionalism, talent ahead of season -

At first glance, he’s a perfect fit for what the Rapids front office has been searching for offensively this offseason. From a tactical perspective, Gashi adds some fluidity to an attack that was deemed one-dimensional by Rapids vice president of soccer operations Paul Bravo at the end of last year. 

Gashi is comfortable in any of the three forward positions in the Rapids’ base 4-2-3-1, or the 4-3-3 they showed at times last season. Additionally, he has the ability to play as No. 9 or as a second forward in the 4-4-2.

“[Gashi] is willing and able,” explained Mastroeni. “What we want to be this year is a bit more mobile; not so static and easy to defend. I think he’ll bring that element.”

It’s easier said than done. An influx of European internationals making their way to MLS has revealed the challenges of the North American league, which includes travel, climate and altitude. 

“I see it more as an opportunity,” Gashi said of the challenges. “As long as I prepare myself well enough, I’m actually excited for the travel.”

Gashi will have a mentor in Kevin Doyle to aid him with the transition. The Irishman dealt with his own transitional phase upon arriving in MLS midseason, but went on to lead Colorado in goals scored last season.

“He looks to be a really good player,” said Doyle. “I’m looking forward to him helping us and us helping him.”

Thus far, the pair have linked up nicely, combining for a goal and assist apiece in the Rapids’ 3-0 victory over USL side Arizona United to close out the preseason.

“I’ve studied the way Kevin plays and that game was the first sign of what’s to come,” added Gashi.

Ultimately, time will be the determining factor in whether the Rapids’ investment in Gashi proves be fruitful, but the organization believes he already possesses the quality to pay dividends in the near future.

“That’s why talent is so important,” Mastroeni explained. “A guy like Gashi finds a way to score goals. That, you can’t teach.”