The Colorado Rapids came just short of making the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs after starting the season winless in their first 11 games, and they are expecting big things in 2020.
That starts with the defense, with the club announcing on Wednesday they've acquired Lalas Abubakar and Auston Trusty, two young center backs that Rapids sporting director Padraig Smith expects to be vital members of the lineup for years to come.
"We're thrilled to have Lalas back and with us from the very start next year," Smith told MLSsoccer.com on a call on Thursday.
Abubakar spent most of the 2019 season on loan with Colorado from Columbus Crew SC, a move that Smith noted came from timing, since the Rapids wanted to pick the Ghanaian up permanently all along.
"The initial discussions to acquire Lalas were last year to acquire him on a permanent basis," Smith explained." At the time Columbus were also finalizing a deal for David Accam, so as things came down to the wire it just made a little bit more sense at that time to get it done as a loan deal. I spoke to Columbus on a couple of occasions during the course of the loan and we tried to get it wrapped up then, it didn't quite work out. We were very clear about we wanted to bring him back.
"I think Lalas himself was pretty open about the fact that he enjoyed his time here, he felt like he integrated into the group very well, this was somewhere he wanted to be and I think that's very important."
Smith said Abubakar has three years left on his current contract, while they hope they can secure Trusty, acquired in a trade from the Philadelphia Union, on a long-term deal as well.
"We've been following Auston for quite a long time, he's someone we've admired from afar, high-level upside. He's very much the type of player we look to acquire, young Americans with real upside and the potential to go all the way and play for the US men's national team. Obviously he was in the January camp last year. We approached Philadelphia a little after that, they didn't want to move him at that point in time but we said, 'Look, if you do change your mind let us know. He would certainly be someone we would be interested in.'"
Smith is pleased, with Trusty's addition, to have a cadre of three young center backs with a similar profile.
"His profile is high-level – 6-foot-3, athletic, left-footed center back, on the cusp of the national team. We thought that would be an ideal partner to put in there with Lalas and with Kortne Ford coming back that gives us three really top-end athletic center backs, all at a good age."
With the central defensive position addressed, Smith said the team's wishlist includes some experience in defense to bolster the youth and a midfielder he characterized as possessing "high-level MLS experience."
The big priority, however, is to get an attacking midfielder.
"We want to add an attacking midfielder, for two years we've been building toward this, when our DPs came off the salary cap. Bringing in an attacking midfielder to add to the attack is certainly a priority for us," he explained. "We'd also like to add another winger as well. We're quite far along in negotiations to bring back Nico Mezquida, so he'll fit into that group as well."
Smith admitted he and the club were confident going into the 2019 season, before starting 0-9-2, leading to the departure of head coach Anthony Hudson. Although the Rapids had a chance of reaching the playoffs on Decision Day presented by AT&T and fell short of that goal, the turnaround was something that proved heartening over the course of a rocky season.
"Obviously we were hugely disappointed with the start, ultimately 0-9-2 proved to be too big of a hole to dig ourselves out of. I give huge credit to the group, the coaching staff, Conor [Casey] and Robin [Fraser]. They almost did it. That was a real boost for everybody in the organization, because I think we're much closer to that group than the 0-9-2 group to start the season... For us going into this offseason a lot of it was about continuity and then being very focused and specific in terms of adding key components to add to that group and to make that group stronger."
Ben Baer contributed to this report.