When Robin Fraser walked off the training pitch his first day in charge of the Colorado Rapids in August 2019, he was blown away.
They had failed to win any of their first 11 games of the year, nine of which were losses, and by the time he took charge, they had only 27 points after 27 games. Yet Fraser knew there was much more to come from the group, even after one training session. There was a good foundation to work with. He turned to executive vice president and GM Pádraig Smith and said as much.
Two full seasons later, Smith, Fraser and the Rapids have evolved that foundation further than perhaps anyone outside Colorado thought they could – finishing first place in the Western Conference.
“If I tell you the first day, you’re going to think I’m crazy,” Fraser told MLSsoccer.com when asked when he knew this team had the potential to top the West, “but literally the first day I led training with the team. There’s just no way that was a last-place team. The way they interacted with each other, the way they approached training – there was a lot there.”
Smith wasn’t exactly surprised.
“Yeah, yeah, I remember Robin saying that to me,” Smith said proudly, “and I remember telling him I agreed. We felt we could build something, we really did.”
While it may have surprised many, finishing top of the West this year didn't come out of nowhere. The Rapids have had a fairly linear arc of improvement since that coaching change in 2019. They finished that season strong – and Fraser was also quick to note that the transformation began under interim head coach Conor Casey, who took charge for three months before Fraser was named the full-time head coach. Then in 2020 they made the playoffs, even though the end of their season was derailed by a COVID-19 outbreak.
Then on Decision Day two weeks ago, the Rapids vaulted over the far more expensively assembled rosters of the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City to finish on 61 points via a scintillating 5-2 drubbing of LAFC. With the No. 1 seed comes home-field advantage through at least the Western Conference Final, if they get there, as well as a 2022 Concacaf Champions League berth.
Their first playoff game includes league history: Colorado host the Portland Timbers on Thursday afternoon (4:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes), the first-ever MLS game on Thanksgiving Day.
They have earned the spotlight.
“Anytime you have something on this magnitude, a historic moment like this, the first Thanksgiving playoff game for the league, it’s a privilege to be a part of it,” Smith said. “We’re looking forward to it, we think we’re going to create an incredible atmosphere here. We know our supporters will get behind it, we think it’s going to be an incredible day.”
This day has been three years in the making.
Fraser was named a Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year finalist this year and for good reason. The Rapids’ year-over-year improvement and tactical fluidity led to them finishing with the second-best record in the league, behind only Supporters' Shield winners New England.
“There are so many qualities Robin brings to the table, but he brings a level of calmness and assuredness that I think breeds confidence throughout the entire group,” Smith said. “He has a very clear plan and philosophy in how to play the game and built one of the best coaching staffs in the league. They are meticulous in their preparation and it breeds confidence in the group. He has that air of confidence that never crosses the line into arrogance, that’s so important.”
Tactically, Colorado have seamlessly moved in and out of different formations and game plans. Generally, they adhere to the same core principles of unselfish, pass-first, team-oriented play no matter the personnel, formation or tactical tweaks, but the Rapids' chameleonic nature has made them difficult for opponents to prepare for. They’ve successfully played a traditional back four, a back three (or back five, depending on their line of confrontation).
Colorado have picked up points by controlling possession and looking to play more in transition. These tactical nuances are all the more impressive during a season where training is at a premium due to the condensed calendar.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we are able to change, adapt, adjust and be pretty successful,” Fraser said. “That has a lot to do with the IQ of the players. While we do change a bit, we have our core principles. And our players are in tune with our core principles. We’re able to slip in and out of different formations and tactics, it’s something I’ve always taken pride in. If we can enforce our principles enough, we should be able to change a bit and not lose too much.”
It’s a point of satisfaction for Fraser and the coaching staff.
“You can either be foolhardy and idealistic, or you can be pragmatic and find ways to win games,” Fraser said. “I’d like to think we’re somewhere in the middle of being idealistic with some pragmatism.”
On the roster-building side of the operation, much has been written and explained about the club’s penchant for finding value and talent within the league. Trades to acquire Auston Trusty, Lalas Abubakar, Keegan Rosenberry, Jonathan Lewis, Diego Rubio, Kellyn Acosta, Michael Barrios and Mark-Anthony Kaye have coalesced to form a strong part of the roster’s core.
To look at it from another angle: Acquiring versatile players with strong soccer IQ was a deliberate aim to be comfortable across different formations and tactics as they worked to build a deep roster.
“For me, it starts with the culture,” Smith said. “The character and the right mentality. On top of those intangible qualities, it’s a group of talented players. It’s a strong group. That’s a potent mix.”
Twenty players have played 500 minutes or more for the Rapids this season.
“I think Padraig has done a fantastic job, he really has,” Fraser said. “When we look at players, we look at ability, how they fit in how we play, but one of the biggest things is character. … Looking at the character of the player when we bring them in is almost as important as their ability. We want to have people who are unselfish and want to work for the team. That’s a big component of what we’re looking for.”
In a salary-capped league, particularly for a team with one Designated Player (Younes Namli), maximizing every dollar and market inefficiency is one way to climb the table.
The Rapids absolutely dominated set pieces. That was one inefficiency they exploited, with plaudits being directed to assistant and goalkeeping coach Chris Sharpe, as well as the deliverer of the deadliest of dead balls: midfielder and captain Jack Price.
“Chris Sharpe is the best that I’ve ever seen at coaching set pieces,” Fraser said. “I’ve never seen someone approach it with such great detail. His analysis of what our opponents do, of what we do, are so well thought out. That’s one component. The second component is the service and the third is, hey, guys scoring goals. Jack’s service has been so consistent.”
Price had eight assists off set pieces this year, best in MLS. He led MLS in that category last year, too. And he led that category in 2019, the year he broke David Beckham’s MLS record for assists on set pieces in a single season. Over these three years, Price has 22 assists from dead balls.
“In Jack Price, we’ve got in my opinion the best set-piece deliverer in this league,” Smith said.
Defensively, too. The Rapids conceded a league-low four goals on set pieces in 2021, second-best was eight. The club scored 14 goals on set pieces this year, giving them a +10 goal difference in that phase of the game alone.
“I think every single year when the season starts, someone writes about the fact that the set piece tear we had the year before was unsustainable and we can’t really count on it,” Fraser said. “Well, it’s been three years in a row that’s been said.”
Set-piece dominance is a handy tool to lean on in the chaotic, unforgiving nature of a one-off playoff game. They hope Thursday against Portland is just the start.
“We’re delighted with the achievement over the season and we’re very proud, but we’re not done yet," Smith said. "We want to bring a Cup back. That has been our goal. Those were the first words out of the players, the coaches as we celebrated. We’re not done yet, we have three games left to fulfill our goals.”