Did the Colorado Rapids just make the signing of the offseason?
Coming off a year in which they finished last in the Western Conference and had the league’s lowest goal total, it looks like the Rapids made one hell of a move on Monday when they signed Shkëlzen Gashi to a Designated Player contract.
A 27-year-old Albanian international, Gashi spent the last two seasons tearing up the Swiss Super League, most recently for FC Basel. Colorado likely sent a serious amount of cash to Basel (who sold Mohamed Elneny in January to Arsenal, also owned by Rapids owner Stan Kroenke) in the transfer, and they were rightly excited about the move on Monday.
“Shkëlzen was our top attacking target this offseason,” Rapids technical director and VP of soccer operations Paul Bravo said in team statement. “He has proven to be a prolific goalscorer in his club’s domestic and European successes. In addition he has been instrumental in his national team’s qualification for Euro 2016. We are delighted to sign him on a permanent transfer and look forward to seeing him in burgundy.”
Gashi comes to Colorado after leading the Swiss league in scoring in each of the last two seasons. He bagged 22 goals in 31 league games to help Basel to the Swiss Super League title in 2014-15, his first year with the club. That was only a slight improvement on his 2013-14 season, when he scored 19 times in 32 league appearances for Grasshopper Club Zurich and earned Axpo Player of the Year honors, given to the best player in the Swiss top flight.
A two-time Swiss Super League champion, Gashi also has a decent amount of experience in European competitions, appearing a total of 19 times in UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches. He was a big part of the Basel team that shockingly advanced to the Knockout Round of the 2014-15 Champions League, scoring one goal in five games to help the club to a second-place finish in Group B, behind group winners Real Madrid but ahead of third-place Liverpool.
Born in Zurich to Albanian parents, Gashi represented Switzerland on the youth stage before switching allegiance to Albania in 2013. He’s tallied three goals in 11 caps for the country and helped them qualify for Euro 2016, their first major tournament.
More significant than any line on his CV, however, is the fact that Colorado are getting a player just entering his prime who plays a position of tremendous need. The Rapids were dismal in the attack in 2015, scoring just 33 times, worst in the league by five goals. Their leading scorer, midseason DP addition Kevin Doyle, finished the season with five tallies. The last Rapid to score more than 10 regular season goals was Omar Cummings, who finished with 14 strikes in Colorado’s MLS Cup season of 2010.
Gashi’s record looks a little bit different: He’s scored 66 goals in 127 league games since the 2011-12 season, a stretch that includes one year with FC Aurau in the Swiss second division. He's been good for a little more than a goal every two games over the last five seasons, a rate that would put him third in MLS in that same time span behind only Robbie Keane and Chris Wondolowski.
The Rapids think Gashi can play on the left or in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 formation, and he should provide some much-needed attacking support for Doyle and fellow offseason addition Marco Pappa. Colorado, who acquired plenty of allocation money in a series of trades last month, also assuredly have more signings on the way before the season opens in March.
LA have made some major defensive additions and look set for a big midfield move and Real Salt Lake have a huge attacking get in Yura Movsisyan, but Gashi’s signing (one of two DP arrivals from the Swiss league on Monday) looks to be on par, if not better, than any other move made this offseason.
Colorado has been attached to some big names this winter – Tim Howard, Alejandro Bedoya and Alan Pulido – and still have work to do before being labeled a playoff contender, but bringing in Gashi looks like a huge step forward.