Kei Kamara  Clint Irwin - Colorado Rapids - 02/29/20
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Inside the Colorado Rapids' dramatic rebuild to compete with MLS's best: "We needed to tear it down"

WASHINGTON – If you’re looking for reasons to hype the Colorado Rapids as dark-horse MLS contenders this season, you may need to ask someone other than the Colorado Rapids.

“I'm absolutely fine with all of our team flying under the radar,” GM and executive VP Padraig Smith told MLSsoccer.com last week. “That's no problem as far as we're concerned.”

“The good thing about being overlooked is that you're being overlooked,” said head coach Robin Fraser. “So I think I would probably try to use that to our advantage for a little while.”

“It's a long season. That's just the first game,” said Kei Kamara, a striker who's seen it all during 14 seasons in MLS, after the Rapids’s well-earned 2-1 road win over D.C. United on Saturday. “I don't really want to say what's going to happen, [but] obviously at the end of the day, you want to lift up MLS Cup.”

The Rapids haven’t splashed out any eight-figure transfer fees this winter. They haven’t particularly wowed the pundits, with only one of the seven members of MLSsoccer.com’s season preview panel tipping them to make the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs (and to be fair, the one was Colorado TV commentator and former player Marcelo Balboa). And qualifying for the postseason just once in the past six years doesn’t exactly push you into the center of the conversation.

“Probably no one's really paying much attention to us, because we didn't make the playoffs [last year], and no one's really talking about any of the teams that didn't make the playoffs,” said Fraser, who compiled a 5-2 record in league play after taking over last August.

“People talk about the haves vs. the have-nots. They talk about the teams that spend $10 million, $20 million on players. I think naturally, those are teams that people are curious about. We're not one of those teams.”

But the Mile High Club have dramatically — if quietly — reshaped their roster over the past year or so. Even as former coach Anthony Hudson stumbled to an 8-26-9 record in MLS play over his 18 months in charge, Colorado stuck with a philosophical shift toward youth and attacking dynamism implemented at the start of 2018, and are now seeing returns.

“MLS is changing, and it's changing quickly,” said Smith. “And what we were as a club wasn't good enough to not just stay in touch, but to properly compete, and to be a sustainable and perennial playoff contender in this new MLS that we find ourselves in. So changes were needed.

“When we were given this opportunity to become the custodians of the club about two years ago, we were very clear we needed to tear it down on the soccer side. Just tear it down. And that was going to take time to rebuild.”

The Rapids have ramped up their academy pipeline, signing waves of Homegrowns highlighted by rising US internationals Sam Vines and Cole Bassett. They reeled in a litany of talented but undervalued players like Kellyn Acosta, Jonathan Lewis and new Designated Player Younes Namli, a tack that led Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle to dub them “Distressed Assets SC.”

“I want players who are here to prove that first and foremost they belong in the Rapids, prove that they can actually help the Rapids succeed and be very competitive in MLS, and then go on and have successful careers, potentially in Europe,” said Smith.

“This needs to become a more consistent trend [in MLS] where top young players can come in, be it from South America, be it from our own academies internally — which is obviously our main goal,” he added. “They can develop here, they can produce here and contribute here at the MLS level, and then they can be sold on and go on to Europe and produce at the very highest level.”

The average age of their roster has dropped from 26.48 to 25.1 in the past year, while veterans like Kamara, Drew Moor and Clint Irwin are sprinkled in to provide leadership. All that helped soften the blow of not-so-successful acquisitions, like Yannick Boli and Bismark Boateng, and put the club on track to show some tangible progress this year.

“Any of the kind of major trades we put in place or any of the major contracts we gave out were all for younger players that we thought were going to be a big part of our future,” noted Smith, who’s also ramped up Colorado’s international scouting network and put analytics at the heart of their decision-making. “Most senior players we brought in were usually on very short-term deals, so it wasn't going to limit our flexibility as we moved into this period.”

They’ve bolstered their spine, stockpiled speed and flair on the flanks and backline depth. After emphasizing a sturdy defense last season and blossoming into a very effective counterattacking team, they’ve since installed proactive possession principles that they believe give them multiple ways to compete.

“A concentration on how to defend, on how we stop teams, that's a priority for us because I think it’s a good platform from which to build how you play,” explained Fraser, who has carried over several concepts from his long stint as an assistant to Greg Vanney at Toronto FC.

“There are good athletes on this team, and good decision-makers on the move. If you looked at how they counterattacked last year, it's pretty impressive for most of the year, certainly the second half of the year, before I got there, even,” he added. “And part of that then is to add more facets to our game, so that we like to be able to be a team that can possess and control and dominate.”

The Rapids were MLS’s most dangerous set-piece team last season, a reflection of Fraser and his staff’s methodical approach to the craft. Patterns of play and collective understanding represent the next level of construction.

“You want to get the entire group looking at a scenario, and all thinking ‘this is the solution,’” explained Fraser. “I think the way to do that is to get them all going through scenarios where coordinated thought is going to lead you to doing this, which is then going to lead you to the next good thing … it's important to kind of shape the group mindset.”

Smith maintains that owners Kroenke Sports & Entertainment have backed the technical staff to the hilt, investing from the academy up. Still, Fraser says “pragmatism flows throughout the organization,” and the Rapids recognize that outspending and outgunning Western Conference elites like Seattle, Portland and the Los Angeles teams is a tall order.

That’s why they’ve sought to build options for winning both with and against the ball. They also believe their talent-spotting mechanisms, combined with the ferocious intellect of Fraser, long one of the league’s most respected assistants, can reap both team results and outbound player sales.

The locker room and front office are on board with the plan; the Rapids hope their fans are following suit. The rest of the world can decide for itself.

“The players bought into it immediately,” said Smith, recalling the euphoria after a road win over the New York Red Bulls in Fraser’s first game in charge.

“I was walking back into the locker room after playing Red Bulls, and Diego Rubio's walking out,” he said. “We had just beaten them two-nil in Red Bull [Arena], which not many teams do, and Robin had only been there for three days. Diego literally grabbed my suit, he's like, ‘three days and this is what we're like! Imagine what we're going to be like next year.’”

Now next year is here.

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