Editorial (August 19, 2017) – It’s been a busy few for the Colorado Rapids. They finally got new TAM midfielder Stefan Aigner settled in this week. They made a move at the transfer deadline last week, trading Dillon Powers for Luis Gil. Then of course, they made the difficult decision of dismissing Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni earlier this week. Steve Cooke was appointed as Interim Head Coach. In all this movement, they appear to have a new vision: the Rapids Way.
The Rapids Way: Pàdraig Smith on 2017, the coaching search, and the future of the club
Sporting Director and Interim General Manager Pádraig Smith has been a busy man this week. He hosted a Q&A session via Youtube earlier this week (see the video below) and wrote an Op-Ed in the Denver Post to help explain Mastroeni’s dismissal. He also articulated the vision for the Colorado Rapids, what he calls ‘The Rapids Way.’
This appears to be a new era for the MLS club with transparency, vision, and a commitment to being a contender. Smith sat down with Last Word on Soccer to discuss The Rapids Way among other topics in conjunction with a media session with new signing, Stefan Aigner.
The quotes in this article come from a combination of the Op-Ed, the Q&A, and discussions with Last Word on Soccer.
Defining ‘The Rapids Way’:
“The club has been built on this blue-collar tradition: this idea of being organized, structured, defensively disciplined, hard to beat, and that it can grind out results. On its own, it’s just not good enough for us anymore. If you look at where the league is going and how the league is evolving, it’s just not going to do the trick anymore.” Smith explained.
Current leadership acknowledges what the Rapids have been historically good at. Denver has never been a flashy market from a sports standpoint. The Denver Broncos have three Super Bowls off wholesome quarterbacks and the Orange Crush. The Colorado Avalanche won Stanley Cups off good goaltending and being physical on the forecheck. No divas necessary.
The Rapids are no different. Defense, organization, and teamwork have always been a hallmark of this team. Still, it’s somewhat of an MLS 1.0 mentality. When well executed, it won the 2010 MLS Cup. When running to perfection, it nearly wins a Supporter’s Shield in MLS 3.0. When not run well in MLS 3.0, you finish bottom of the table.
“The Rapids Way is our identity, our philosophy. It’s who we are. On the field, the club’s successes have arisen over a solid foundation, a good structure and defending really well. Right now that’s not good enough. We want to be a perennial playoff team that challenges for championships year in and year out. To do that, we’re going to make clear targets. High Soccer IQ. We want to bring in players who are explosive in their movement. We want to give them the freedom to take risks. We want to do all this while maintaining the structure and the structure and the defensive discipline that has been a core structure of what we’ve done for 21 years,” Smith said in the Q&A.
Smith has articulated the philosophical and tactical plan. Defense first, but the offense needs to evolve and catch up with the rest of the league (and the world really). Last season was all about #KeepFighting. The front office plans to make #TheRapidsWay the son of #KeepFighting who stands on the shoulders of giants to reach new heights.
Failures Of 2017 And Mastroeni’s Dismissal:
I’ve had a long-brewing theory that I wrote about recently. MLS has a recent history of teams overachieving one season, then being found out the next year. Everyone figures out how to play them. That team also regresses to mean. Those factors combined result in a team being a contender one year then missing the playoffs the next. Examples: 2012 San Jose Earthquakes, 2013 Portland Timbers, and 2015 Columbus Crew SC.
The Rapids front office and coaching staff saw this coming. They knew they couldn’t just repeat what they did well in 2016 and hope to win. The league had a full year of game film on them. Everyone was expecting them to zig. They needed to zag. Smith elaborated on this:
“That’s the evolution of the Rapids Way. With 2016, we took a more pragmatic approach. We need to show this is a club that can achieve things. We made certain decisions that were a little more short-term in nature but provided a platform to move on from.
We wanted to get back into the playoffs. But even during that year, we realized that we were a little bit further ahead than we thought we would be.”
They tried to do this by becoming a more dynamic team. And they made several moves to make this happen. They brought in Conor Casey as an Assistant Coach to exclusively work with the forwards. Bismark Nana Boateng came in. They made a trade early in the year that allowed them to add Aigner as an attacking piece.
“Even during 2016, we were thinking how can we be more attacking. How can we build that platform?”
For a number of reasons (injuries, poor performances, poor coaching), those moves haven’t worked out. Boateng got hurt two games after Sam Cronin got traded. No left back has locked down that side of the field with Marc Burch gone. Aigner wasn’t signed till the end of the window and it’s going to take him awhile to get fit.
The results haven’t been there. All of these things combined produced a team that wasn’t as defensively solid. The attack was still a work in progress. They had detracted from their strengths without making their weakness improve to counteract that. They didn’t zag well enough.
Most importantly, the gradual improvement of the offense wasn’t there:
“Ultimately when we got into 2017, that’s what we wanted to see. We wanted to see progress in that area. And that’s where we’re disappointed. We didn’t see the progress in that area. That’s what brought us to the decision [to fire Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni].”
Smith clarified a few things about the decision to part ways with Mastroeni: “Ultimately it was my decision with the full support of ownership,” adding “this shows the commitment from ownership to winning.”
This shows us a few things. Smith is not taking his position as Sporting Director or Interim GM lightly. It also shows that the club (front office and above) have expectations. There are consequences for not meeting them.
The Goal For The Rest Of 2017:
It’s always tough when a well-liked coach is fired. It’s even harder when that coach was a former player of the team he coaches, and a legend at that. Mastroeni lost games, but he never lost the locker room or the respect of his superiors.
“[Mastroeni] had to bit the bullet here for the failures of the team and the club over this season. Ultimately, we all have to take a hard look at ourselves in terms of our responsibility for this. What I would hope to see is a reaction.”
Fairly or unfairly, Mastroeni’s departure should be a wakeup call to everyone in the organization. It’s their job now to find some positive in 2017 and have a successful off-season. Fortunately, the players and coaching staff seemed to have moved on:
“I’ve been pretty impressed with the players and the coaches. Everyone’s just moved on and dealt with it,” said Smith, pointing out that the team has already had a few good training sessions and are already focused on their weekend match.
Management has been clear this week that they don’t think the season is a total loss yet. They have five home games remaining. That’s 15 points up for grabs. While their playoff hopes are probably dead, crazier things have happened in MLS and World Football.
Interim Head Coach Steve Cooke will have the club focused on trying to make the playoffs until it becomes mathematically impossible. They’re taking it one game at a time right now.
Even if they miss the playoffs, there’s still plenty they can do. It’d be nice to see Shkelzen Gashi, Aigner, and Boateng get 90 minutes fit by November. The club has plenty of young players who could use some MLS minutes to be evaluated going into next year.
The Coaching Search:
Smith has been adamant that the next Rapids head coach needs to fit the mold of the Rapids Way. They will do “global search,” but are not ruling out a possible internal appointment:
“[Interim Head Coach Steve Cooke]’s got a wonderful opportunity here along with Chris Sharpe and Conor Casey and that starts on Saturday. Steve is for sure a candidate for the role. But we do want to make sure we conduct this global and extensive search and do it right.”
They key will be finding the person who fits the mold for the Rapids Way. The next coach needs to believe in a defense first and bring some fresh ideas and tactics when it comes to the attack.
They might not necessarily look for someone who fully understands unique and bizarre aspects of MLS. MLS 3.0 has shown with the right front office, foreign coaches can be huge assets. Smith has been with the Rapids since 2015 now. He knows how the league works. If he can show ownership that can maneuver MLS, he could become the full-time GM. They could appoint some MLS-savvy assistants and afford to bring in a coach who does not necessarily know MLS.
New Found Transparency And Accountability:
This week is probably the most public week Smith and the Rapids have had since the week he was hired. The club has historically been a quiet one compared with others in the league. There’s no annual Season Ticket Holder Town Hall. The media presence isn’t as big and in your face as an LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders FC.
The Rapids have made a clear shift. Club leadership has come out and articulated a vision. They’ve outlined a plan with some key (albeit general) bullet point views and objectives. They’ve talked about going forward and where things have gone wrong previously. Those are some big steps in the right direction for engaging and energizing the fanbase.
The club has been shy about accepting some accountability for the results on the field. While Mastroeni deserves a good share of the blame pie, this season isn’t his entire fault. Firing him was a step in the right direction. But now that shield is gone for everyone else. Now the players, assistant coaches, and front office staff will be held accountable.
The Plan For 2018 And Beyond:
With the coaching shakeup, the front office is already evaluating the current roster situation. With Mastroeni gone, every player is now going to be under the microscope.
“We need to go out and get our guys, who fit our system. We need to get the right coach for that. Ultimately it’s about being more attack-minded while being true to who we are as a club. To do that, you need to evolve. Both the style and the players,” Smith told Last Word on Soccer.
They’ve outlined the plan for the style of play. They’ll find a coach who can execute that vision. Part of the rest of 2017 will be seeing what current Rapids players fit into that plan. Where there are gaps, there need to be signings.
Smith didn’t shy away from the expectation for 2018:
“I believe we should have a playoff team next year. Certainly next year I see no reason why we can’t be a playoff team,” adding “we certainly need to attack more, but we also need to be more intelligent about how we attack. We have to have a structure there.”
The goal has now been set. Now they need to go find the coach and roster that can make it happen. The 2018 campaign will have some early challenges though, as the Rapids will be partaking in the new look CONCACAF Champions League:
“We’re really looking forward to the Champions League. We want to go in with the intention of winning it. We want to put ourselves in the best position to challenge.”
This will provide a good test and measuring stick for the new coach. It will also provide more games early in the year to help players get fit. Aigner could use that since he’ll have a short 2017 season. So could potential new international signings.
Smith did add one new idea to the plan as well:
“We also want to make sure that on sports science, data analytics, we need to be on the forefront of those areas.”
Publically, Mastroeni was never a big fan of analytics. The club could use an infusion of analytics and big data to improve their roster and gameplay. While we’ve seen sweeping changes and manifestos this week, we haven’t seen anyone from the club say the Rapids will be spending big (ala the Chicago Fire last January). For a club that could still be on a budget, embracing analytics will do a world of good.
Still A Legend: Pablo Mastroeni was a class act and a good human being as both a player and coach for the Colorado Rapids. He was a legend on the field, captaining the club to a 2010 MLS Cup Championship. He played in a World Cup. He was appointed head coach weeks before the start of the 2014 season just months after retiring as a player. He learned on the job and often did a lot with a little. He’s a club legend no matter what. The next time he visits Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, he deserves a standing ovation from every fan.
Interim GM No More: The fact that Smith made the decision to fire Mastroeni and got the approval from ownership makes me think the Interim title is coming off soon. With his comments on the coaching search and embracing analytics, this could be his ship to captain soon.
Coaching Hire: I’d expect the Rapids to start their coaching search as early as the end of the month. Don’t expect any decisions anytime soon. They’ll probably wait and see what Cooke can do while they dip their toes into the external market. Smith learned his lesson from 2014 when they appointed Mastroeni just weeks before the season started. They have to have their new head coach in-house and involved in the key off-season decisions. We haven’t heard anything about a potential Expansion Draft with Los Angeles FC joining the league next year. They can probably get by that without a coach. I’d expect them to appoint a coach in December, late November at the latest. They absolutely need that person hired for the MLS SuperDraft and the January transfer window.
January Transfer Moves: We could see a busy January in Commerce City. The Rapids are getting close to resolving the Juan Ramirez situation. They’ve got more cap space thanks to the Dillon Powers trade. They should have some GAM and TAM to spend, maybe even an open DP slot or two. Aigner is a significant addition to this club. We could see another Aigner-level signing or two. I doubt they’ll be making as many moves as Chicago or Orlando City SC. But we could see an exciting and uplifting transfer window given the moves this season, the news from this week, and a new coach on the way.