An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Since the day Robin Fraser arrived as head coach of the Colorado Rapids, the club has steadily improved.
They were immediately pretty good in 2019 under interim manager Conor Casey, then Fraser from day one. But 2020 brought the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and 2021 brought the top seed in the Western Conference as well as qualification to the 2022 Concacaf Champions League.
The Rapids were fun. Chameleonic in both tactics, starting XIs and goal scorers, Colorado won a lot of games in a lot of different ways. The front office and coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for the team they put together and maximized, and they're set up to challenge yet again in 2022.
Their playoff run didn't last, though. Their undoing was a tight 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers on a set-piece goal that included a deflection and a few bounces. Such is the nature of the playoffs, one cruel moment ends a season full of wonderful work.
Colorado won't sneak up on anyone next season and, truth be told, they shouldn't have been this year.
The Rapids have maximized their talent and spend, with GM Padraig Smith and the front office finding undervalued talent and Coach of the Year runner-up Fraser getting the most out of the roster in front of him. Truly a masterclass. They are deliberately a very deep, balanced and amorphous team. The Rapids not only topped the West, but did so in numerous different tactics and game plans. It was awesome to watch.
Soccer is a weak-link sport. That means it's more important for your 11th-best starting player to be good than it is for your best player to be a superstar. That makes it different than, say, basketball, which is a star-dominant sport. The Rapids mastered that this year, accomplishing what they did essentially without any Designated Players. Younes Namli was the club's only DP, but he didn't play much due to a long-term injury. Six players scored four goals or more; 18 (!!!) different players scored at least one goal. Every single field player who spent more than 500 minutes on the field had a goal contribution.
But regular-season success and playoff success require different ingredients. Namely, top-end stars typically set the stage in the playoffs. Sebastian Blanco dominated a few games for MLS Cup finalists Portland Timbers, while Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos scored in all three playoff games he was available for as NYCFC lifted the trophy.
Where's the next step for improvement with this group?
Spending big on a DP isn't the only way to get better, it should be pointed out. The Rapids' trade for Mark-Anthony Kaye lifted the needle, as he's among the league's best central midfielders. Auston Trusty boosted the defense after being acquired from the Philadelphia Union. I voted him on my Best XI ballot. There are other avenues to take another step that don't require a $10 million transfer fee and big DP contract (though that obviously doesn't hurt).
We'll see if the Rapids utilize any of their three open DP spots. Colorado signed Namli to a DP deal and it didn't quite work out. The right DP – even just one if they don't intend on using multiple slots – can lift the entire group up another tier. Think Ryan Gauld's impact on Vancouver this year or Hany Mukhtar with Nashville.
As first reported by MLSsoccer.com, Cole Bassett rejected a potential club-record transfer to Benfica in the summer window in no small part to stick around and see out the season with his hometown team (and that Benfica were going to start him with their B team). Anderlecht, Vitesse and several German clubs were also among those hoping to sign Bassett last summer.
Bassett will be the subject of more interest and offers this offseason. The player himself said he'll reassess in the winter. The Rapids have already shown with Sam Vines (and Bassett) that if the right offer and opportunity comes, they won't stand in the way. One would expect the right offer and opportunity to come this winter, but we'll see.
The rising US men's national team talent (who scored the game-winning goal against Bosnia on his senior national team debut!) isn't the only Rapids player turning heads in Europe. Trusty has suitors, as do Kellyn Acosta and Jonathan Lewis. The Philadelphia Union retain a 30% sell-on fee for Trusty, it should be noted. Dallas previously had 50% in Acosta as part of their trade agreement, but that expired.
That trio was integral to the Rapids' success in 2021. Trusty started all but one game, tied for the team lead in minutes played. Acosta boosted his USMNT profile both at the Nations League and Gold Cup.
As with everything else in this silly game of ours, the offseason is about context. If a handful of regulars depart, maybe it's more important to bring in a DP (or another key intra-league addition like Kaye or Trusty). Plus, if the transfer fees accumulate, that could change the math on acquisition budgets.
The title was originally "homegrown" instead of "young player", but that would limit the pool.
Colorado developed Sam Vines and Bassett into key roles over the last few years. Vines was transferred to Royal Antwerp this summer and Bassett was previously discussed. They used a U22 Initiative slot to acquire left back Lucas Esteves after Vines left and he seamlessly jumped into the first team following his arrival.
The Rapids have more than a few candidates to break into the first-team rotation, but there are three I'm particularly keeping an eye on in preseason:
Center forward Darren Yapi is a big prospect. Will 2022 be when he breaks into the first team? Colorado have a number of options at striker, including playing Lewis/Michael Barrios through the center a few times. Yapi only managed 182 minutes last season with the USL Championship's Colorado Switchbacks and turned 17 in November. He just went on a training stint with Arsenal and Club Brugge, per sources.
Winger Dantouma "Yaya" Toure might have an easier path to minutes just by the nature of his position, though Colorado are deep on either flank as well. The 17-year-old had a bit more seasoning than Yapi with the Switchbacks, playing 632 minutes spread across 22 appearances, and even making his MLS debut with a three-minute cameo off the bench. He, too, was training with Arsenal as well as Rangers this offseason.
Another shout is Philip Mayaka. The 21-year-old central midfielder was selected by Colorado with the No. 3 selection at last year's MLS SuperDraft, after consensus pre-draft analysis was that he'd be the clear No. 1 pick. He made 19 appearances with the Switchbacks, including 13 starts as it wasn't easy to find minutes behind the likes of Jack Price, Kaye, Acosta and Bassett in central midfield.
More young players will be acquired this winter in Colorado; it's their model. What's most impressive is the club has excelled across an eclectic range of acquisition methods.
- Vines, Bassett and others are produced by the Rapids academy
- Andre Shinyashiki and Mayaka came via the SuperDraft
- Braian Galvan and Lucas Esteves (and reportedly Brazilian midfielder Max Alves) have been identified and acquired in the international market
- They have looked around at other clubs' academies as well, trading Toure's homegrown rights from the Red Bulls.
- Even if Bassett goes, their central midfield group is as strong as any in the league
- "Max?" is Brazilian midfielder Max Alves, a 20-year-old from Flamengo widely reported to have signed for Colorado, though nothing is officially announced yet
- Yapi and Toure have a ton of competition for playing time, but it'd be cool to see them earn some minutes this year