National Writer: Charles Boehm

Colorado Rapids reload for 2024: Mihailovic, Steffen & renewed "commitment"


Dramatic turnarounds are eminently possible in MLS: Witness FC Cincinnati’s resurrection from back-to-back-to-back Wooden Spoon shambles to Supporters’ Shield winners in less than 24 months.

The inverse is also true, however, as the Colorado Rapids discovered last season. In two years the Mile High Club nosedived from first place in the Western Conference in 2021 to bottom dwellers, finishing last in the West with a 0.79 points-per-game average that safely ranks as the worst in their three decades of existence.

Hence the sweeping changes at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this winter. So far, the Rapids have shuffled 12 players through the exit door and welcomed seven arrivals, most prominent among them US international goalkeeper Zack Steffen and playmaker Djordje Mihailovic, the latter arriving via a club-record transfer purchase from AZ Alkmaar. They also added a new head coach, and a markedly different on-field identity, in Chris Armas.

“The playing style revolves around intensity,” Armas told reporters at his introductory press conference. “In possession, it's proactive with an emphasis on verticality. So when we have the ball we want players that can play forward, players that can play between the lines, in a structure, but we want to attack when we have the ball.

"So we’ll have to recalibrate what good passes are. It’s not necessarily just a connected pass. We want players looking forward, players that can sprint into attack. The same intensity when we don’t have the ball; it’s proactive defending, the emphasis on pressing and counter-pressing.

“We want to put teams in tough games, faster games than they want to be in.”

Between trades, transfers, academy signings, a contract extension for homegrown midfielder Cole Bassett and their busy SuperDraft activity, Colorado are trending younger, guided by a favored phrase of club president Pádraig Smith: a desired mindset of “pace, power and personality.”

Built to run

He and Armas push back a bit against the idea that they’re simply becoming a Rocky Mountain Red Bulls – notably, experienced MLS watchers may recall how Armas tweaked the full-throttle game model during his time in charge of RBNY. Yet there’s a clear desire to get quicker, fitter and more direct on the spacious pitch at DSGP.

“We're a club that's going to push the young players. The young players don't let you down. You've just got to give them a chance,” said Armas. “Philosophically, we’re going to push young guys.”

Over the years, the lung-searing shortness of breath Colorado’s mile-high elevation inflicts on visitors has often been cited as a potent ingredient in cultivating home-field advantage. The best Rapids sides have indeed been hard to beat at DSGP; the 2021 side that finished second in the Shield race under Robin Fraser was 9W-1L-7D at home.

Armas and Smith do believe high-tempo pressing can make away teams suffer in Commerce City. It’s a further extension of that concept that bears watching. The Rapids brought in Steve Tashjian, the former head of performance for the US men’s national team, to consult on their rebuild. He emphasized the area of greatest advantage for high-altitude training, which has been shown to increase the body’s red blood cell counts and oxygen delivery capacity, is unlocked when the athlete in question competes closer to sea level.

In other words, the Rapids plan to run opponents ragged in their respective buildings, not just when they fly up to Denver.

Thus they’ve signed Mihailovic not just for his interpretation of space and ability to deliver the final pass, but also his capacity to harry defenders against the ball and make them chase with his distribution. Free-agent recruit Omir Fernandez, a Red Bulls academy product who’s demonstrated he can create in the final third while still maintaining high-intensity pressing, and Generation adidas striker Kimani Stewart-Baynes, probably the fastest player in this year’s SuperDraft, both fit the bill too.

Conversely, it’s not hard to extend that rationale to several of the players Colorado elected to part ways with.

Pressing with a twist

Smith also applies this to the intent to play a more progressive, ball-dominant version of the high press, wherein opponents are forced to spend long periods in a defensive posture rather than bailed out by imprecise hoof-and-run tactics. 

“What I would call it is a variant on ‘energy drink football,’” the Irishman told this week. “There is that aggressiveness. There's that pressing, counter-pressing, the importance of transition moments, being on the front foot. But we're not looking to just dump balls down into the channel.

“We're looking to lure the opponent onto us and then to strike when the opportunity presents itself. So at altitude here, that's even more important for us. We need to actually move the opponent around. We need them running constantly, and having a good, high ball-in-play time.”

That latter metric, which measures how much time the ball is on the pitch in open play rather than out of bounds or stopped and restarted, tends to be lower for very direct teams like RBNY, Philadelphia Union and St. Louis CITY. Smith’s citing of it is one small example of the number-crunching that informs the Rapids’ decisions, driven by respected director of analytics Matt Pfeffer, sporting director Fran Taylor and the powerful data systems Colorado share with Arsenal, their sibling club under owners Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. 

Last season’s numbers confirmed, for instance, the Rapids’ efforts to methodically build possession out of the back were directly correlating to the prevalence of clear scoring chances for their adversaries, particularly in transition situations. So their Armas reboot will focus on reducing risk in their own end and creating greater efficiency in how they guide play into the attacking third.

Redemption arcs

Something perhaps less tangible but still apparent in their winter business, starting with the head coach himself, is collecting personalities who’ve suffered adversity in their careers and arrive in Colorado motivated to gain redemption.

After establishing himself as one of MLS’s top goalkeepers with the Columbus Crew, Steffen experienced more downs than ups over his tenure with Manchester City, where he lost the backup job behind Ederson, spent two seasons out on loan, first at Fortuna Düsseldorf and later at Middlesbrough, and was a stunning late cut from the USMNT’s 2022 World Cup squad.

Mihailovic is fresh off a difficult stint in the Netherlands, where AZ deployed him in a significantly different role than the one he rode to a career 2022 season with CF Montréal, and family matters back home further complicated his outlook.

Armas was pilloried for his brief and unsuccessful stint in charge of Toronto FC, then weathered an even more brutal strafing when he crossed the Atlantic to work in England, first as an assistant under Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United and then under Jesse Marsch at Leeds United. Tabloid media even cited unattributed locker-room sources to claim he’d been labeled “Ted Lasso” by players at MUFC thanks to his American accent and mannerisms.

It was the latest in a long tradition of English provincialism directed at imports from other cultures, which clashes with the high praise Armas draws from colleagues who’ve worked with him over the years. Smith recalls a Zoom call he and Armas held with Fernandez as part of their recruiting pitch, in which the RBNY alum’s big grin and warm greeting towards his former and future head coach underlined his respect for Armas.

Armas addressed those perceptions at his unveiling when asked about Rapids supporters being underwhelmed by his appointment.

“I understand that they might not be the happiest right now, for lots of reasons – maybe myself, maybe the team, where they are in the table,” he said. “We can talk about certain experiences that I’ve had in the league; in New York, I think was really successful. But I think the key thing about all my different stops on the football journey is that I’ve learned along the way. I’m ready more now than I’ve ever been.

“I promise the fan base: Look, I know how to coach. My super power – listen, I know football, of course I'm learning all the time, but I know people and I know competition. Just give us some time. I understand their frustration and I think we’re going to make them proud.”

New year, new Rapids?

Along comparable lines, Colorado’s leadership is fully aware of the negative perceptions tied to their club in certain MLS circles. Smith remains fundamentally philosophically committed to finding value and leveraging the inefficiencies he sees across the league; he points out that MLS Players Association salary data shows MLS’s highest-spending teams have recently been less likely to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs than those who spend the least on their rosters.

Yet when he became aware that Mihailovic, a player he’d long admired, might be returning to MLS, he went to the lengths necessary to make him a cornerstone of this rebuild, including a Rapids-record transfer fee of more than $3 million and a package of allocation money sent to FC Cincinnati to acquire Mihailovic’s Discovery Priority.

“I would just reiterate that the most important thing is how we spend our money.” said Smith, “And making sure that we're all aligned, we're all clear in terms of the type of player we're looking to bring in to fit the style of play that our coaches are looking to play, and to make sure that we can build a successful roster. And I think what we've done in this offseason shows the club's commitment to putting a winning and a competitive team on the field.”

With renewed clarity on who they want to be, how they go about getting there and who is leading that process, the Rapids’ brain trust believes this dramatic overhaul will go a long way towards vanquishing the haze around the Mile High Club.

“We've shown that we can generate success when we have good alignment right the way across the organization,” Smith said at the Armas press conference. “We’ve talked a long time about the need … in soccer in general and in this league in particular, to be dominant in two key areas: dominant in transitions and dominant in set pieces. And I don’t think there’s a better proponent of transition football than Chris, domestically.”