Colorado's Marco Pappa eager for fresh start after "dark" offseason

COMMERCE CITY, Colorado – For 94 blustery minutes, it appeared the Colorado Rapids would send their fans home from the club’s opening match at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park without something to celebrate, yet another exasperating chapter in the club’s recent history of home struggles.

But then, not unlike manna from heaven for a fanbase hopeful for an uptick in fortunes, a poor clearance fell from the sky and Marco Pappa made those immediate frustrations evaporate in a split second.

Pappa swung his left foot through the ball, sending a rocket off the underside of the bar for his first goal in burgundy and a 1-0 win against the LA Galaxy. In the stands, 17,474 fans erupted. On the field, Pappa’s teammates mobbed him. On the bench, Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni spiked his jacket in jubilation.

It was a moment of redemption, not just for the Rapids, who know home wins represent the clearest path to the playoffs, but for Pappa, who arrived in Colorado looking for a fresh start after spending the winter recovering from a scary situation that put his life and career in perspective.

“You guys are probably sick and tired of hearing this, but this is a human endeavor,” Mastroeni said after the win. “These are human beings.”

Part of that human endeavor has been standing by Pappa’s side following a tumultuous offseason that saw the midfield’s life flash before his eyes.

On Dec. 17, two days after being traded to the Rapids and two days before Pappa was scheduled to leave for Guatemala, police were called to an apartment in Seattle where the former Sounders attacker and Miss Washington, Stormy Keffeler, were both present in the early hours. Pappa suffered a stab wound in his left side.

The Guatemalan international had been making preparations to wrap up his affairs in Seattle before a trip home to visit family and friends. Instead, he was rushed into emergency surgery with his “life in danger” after what he described as “a big blow and an attack on my health.”

“There are things that happen to you in life that you can’t imagine,” Pappa said in an interview with podcast Tiro Libre this week. “In life you never think about what could happen and we take it as it comes, but I think what it served for me was a chance to open my eyes [and see that] what I love most is definitely God and my family, because after this I didn’t know if it would finish my career.”

The Rapids are the latest stop in the 28-year-old’s soccer journey, which began at the age of 16 with Municipal in his home country of Guatemala before the Chicago Fire brought him to MLS, where he scored 26 goals and added 16 assists from 2008-2012.

Looking to take the next step in his career, Pappa landed with Dutch club SC Heerenveen in August 2012. But he never settled in the Eredivisie, logging fewer than 400 minutes over two seasons without scoring a single goal.

That prompted a move back to MLS, this time with the Seattle Sounders. In Seattle, Pappa found his scoring touch with nine goals over the past two seasons, but was again often reduced to a bench role and out of his preferred playmaking position.

He needed a fresh start and a change of scenery, and Colorado were happy to provide that following a 2015 campaign in which the Rapids ranked dead last in MLS in goals scored and sought a proven playmaker to help unlock defenses.

“One of the things I liked about coming here [to Colorado] was being given the freedom to play my game,” Pappa said. ”For me, one of my qualities is playing in the attacking area so I want to score goals and help my teammates to score goals. [The freedom] is what makes the difference.

“[Pablo] gave me confidence from the beginning. It was important to have a lot of confidence and trust, especially after the situation I was coming from,” he added.

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

Mastroeni was patient while Pappa recovered from surgery and slowly made his way back to the field, a delay that limited his ability to build game fitness and relationships with his new teammates.

And even though he’s not yet ready to start, Mastroeni has used Pappa off the bench in both of the Rapids’ games this season, with the midfielder nearly scoring via a free kick and a glancing header off the post in the opener against San Jose before repaying Colorado for their faith in him against the Galaxy.

And that’s just the start, said Pappa, who was also called up for Guatemala’s World Cup Qualifiers against the United States on March 25 and 29.

“I want to have my best season. When I talk about that, it means scoring more goals. I think I can score 10 or more this season,” he said. “You always have to take changes in a positive way. At the end of the day, you have to be happy with your decisions, and I’m really happy with the Rapids right now. We know it’s going to be a long season, but hopefully we can make it happen this year.”

Perhaps more importantly, Pappa said he’s put December’s events in the past. He’s made a home in Colorado. He’s prioritized his life, both personally and professionally.

He’s ready to move on.

“It was a strong and dark event, and I’m careful with my life. But I’m over it. In life, struggles are learning experiences, not events to dwell on but to leave them behind and continue to enjoy what God gives you every day,” Pappa said. “God has given me a second chance, and I’m enjoying it as much as I can.

“Sharing it with my daughter, who is two years old, and with soccer and my family, is what helped me get through this. … It’s most important to have family and soccer to return my focus in continuing my life and to enjoy it every day.”