By this time last season, without yet playing a game, the Colorado Rapids were already behind most other MLS clubs.
Anthony Hudson was going through his first preseason in charge of the club, meaning the emphasis was on culture change rather than entirely on 2018 preparations. He instituted a dress code and other small changes he believed would vastly improve the professionalism in the squad and raise the club's standards.
Meanwhile, his own coaching staff were all arriving at different times and key signings were being completed late. Before they knew it, the Rapids dug themselves a hole that they never climbed out of. The club finished second-bottom in the Western Conference.
“This preseason has been really good for me," Hudson told MLSsoccer.com. "There were some areas we all felt we needed to improve in the team. … Last season we were in desperate need of strong characters in the locker room. I’ve really enjoyed seeing some of the personalities we have now being very vocal, asking questions that weren’t getting asked last year, helping others, instructing others—all things that have been taken to a higher level than last year."
After international signings like Stefan Aigner, Yannick Boli and Joe Mason didn't exactly work out last season, the club shifted the pendulum the other way, focused on adding players with MLS experience.
“Yeah, it was on purpose," Hudson admitted about the offseason recruitment. "I probably learned a very big lesson last year halfway thru the season... There’s a real high risk with players who aren’t going to adjust or take a long time to adjust. Really knowing the character of players, knowing if they can really deal with MLS and the travel, I just felt throughout the season some of the MLS experienced players dealt with those situations better.
"I just felt that we needed to bring in more players that know the league, know how to win in the league, know what it’s like to go to Toronto needing to get a result after two or three days of flying somewhere else," Hudson added. "That was definitely the focus for this year.”
The front office followed through on the vision.
After being an integral member of LAFC's inaugural team, appearing in every MLS match and starting all but two, Benny Feilhaber was still on the market in January.
Benny Feilhaber lays on the ground | USA Today Sports
“I was desperate to bring him in," Hudson admitted. "During that period, I’ve got to be honest, I was hopeful at best. We keep pushing every day, then eventually it happened. I’ve got to give credit to the club, they’ve done an amazing job to bring in some key players we wanted, he’s a real key signing for us.”
Hudson already sees Feilhaber as one of the club's leaders.
“There’s probably nothing I can say that is any different from what everyone knows about Benny," Hudson said. "Whatever I say, everyone will read it and say ‘yeah, that’s what he brings.’ Straight away, I see him and use him as a key leader in the team. ... In the locker room, in the meal rooms, Benny is probably the one voice you can hear all of the time. I love it, it’s brilliant.”
Feilhaber isn't the only strong character Hudson has been eminently impressed with. Fellow fresh face Kamara, who has recently returned to training after rehabbing an injury, is already putting his stamp on the squad.
“We’ve just had Kei’s presence around the camp… Kei’s a good man, an experienced man, he’s come in straight away and been so respectful and helpful," Hudson said. "He’s completely embraced the team, helping the younger players — I haven’t seen one bit of arrogance from him. He’s given everyone a lift just by his presence."
While Kamara's off-field presence is a bonus for Hudson, his goals will be most important. Last season the Rapids scored the league's fewest goals by no small margin, but have sought to rectify that with Kamara and Rubio.
Kei Kamara celebrates | USA Today Sports
“We just need to find the right way to get the best out of both of them," Hudson said. "Everyone in the country knows Kei needs crosses and Diego’s a different type of player, but both suit how we want to play. Time will tell, but we’re confident they’ll be able to play together."
While not technically a new addition, Kellyn Acosta is enjoying his first preseason with the Rapids after being acquired from FC Dallas in July. Hudson has high hopes for the 23-year-old.
“We’ve set our team to play a certain way and I truly believe the role he’s playing for us is a role that’s absolutely made for him," Hudson said. "He’s a special talent. … The target for him has to be that he’s the best player in his position in the league. He has every possibility to do that, we need to help him and he has to make it happen.”
Hudson isn't Acosta's only admirer. In January, MLSsoccer.com's Sam Stejskal reported that the Rapids turned down a $3 million bid from the English Championship for his services. Around the same time, Acosta was among the US men's national team's roster cuts at the January camp.
With all that swirling, Hudson would have understood if Acosta returned to the Rapids a bit disappointed.
“Obviously he had interest overseas, and the national team situation, I can tell you he’s been a great lad in camp," Hudson said. "He could have came in and be disappointed, but he’s come in and been superb. He’s a real pleasure to work with."