[MLS SPOTLIGHT] The Colorado Rapids have hired Oscar Pareja as their new head coach to imbue a different style. The former FC Dallas defender and assistant coach was unveiled Thursday at a press conference at Dick's Sporting Goods Park amid proclamations by team management that a dramatic change is imminent.
Colorado won its first MLS Cup title in 2010 under Englishman Gary Smith, but by the end of the 2011 season a rift with technical director Paul Bravo had widened so far one of them had to leave, and it wasn’t going to be Bravo.
“We talked long and hard about this, about changing the identity of the club forever,” said Bravo, who traveled with Pareja to Florida immediately after the press conference to attend the MLS Combine. “It’s a big project, so we took our time trying to find the right fit for us. At the end of the day, Oscar was the guy that rose above everybody else.”
In the wake of Smith’s departure Nov. 7, about a dozen candidates were contacted and whittled down to a final four to be extensively interviewed: former D.C. United head coach and Vancouver director of soccer Tom Soehn; former Rapids player and ex-Fire head coach Denis Hamlett; former New York assistant coach and U.S. under-18 coach Richie Williams; and Pareja.
From his first contact with the team, Pareja, 43, reiterated one theme. “I asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’ said the veteran of eight MLS seasons (1998-2005) who played all but 13 of his 206 regular-season and playoff games for Dallas. “I said I was going to be very honest because I had a very solid situation in Dallas. Their answers caught my attention and from then on we had a different conversation.
“I think MLS is changing dramatically now, in a good way. I can remember when I first started here, many, many players were invited to come. And when you mentioned the possibility of coming to MLS they said the sport is not developed there and it is not even a good league and one that does not have attention from anyone.
“Now everything is changing. The players who are coming are younger and younger with more talent and quality, and many more want to be part of MLS. With that in mind, it is exciting for the coaches.”
With Pareja – a crafty midfielder who racked up 57 assists in his MLS career -- on its coaching staff FCD has been transformed into probably the most skillful and attractive team in the league. Playmaker David Ferreira earned MVP honors in 2010, Jair Benitez is the league’s best attacking left back, and midfielders Juan Toja and Marvin Chavez – both no longer with the team -- lit up games with their moves.
As an FCD assistant Pareja also revamped its player development programs as academy director and reserve team coach. While not every graduate from the youth ranks panned out, young American Brek Shea has blossomed into a Best XI midfielder, which is a considerable achievement considering teams can stock their rosters with twice as many international players than in Pareja’s playing days.
“The things he’s brought to this league as an international player, and then as an assistant coach helping to build perhaps one of the best youth academies in North America speaks volumes about his ability to change things, and move them forward in a positive way,” said Bravo, who during his own playing career dueled with Pareja numerous times. “We feel that we’ve found the right fit for us, and we’re in a market that has a lot of competition for people’s dollars and our job is to put a product on the field that is entertaining and with a style.”
During the process of finding a replacement, managing director Jeff Plush – who had hired Smith as an assistant to former head coach Fernando Clavijo – left the organization in another shakeup. Plush’s replacement, president Tim Hinchley, spearheaded the search along with Bravo, who keeps fans abreast of developments through his Twitter account.
The roster hasn’t undergone many changes. Most of the players who beat FCD in MLS Cup 2010 are still on hand: Midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, forwards Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, goalkeeper Matt Pickens, and defenders Marvell Wynne, Ugo Ihemelu, Kosuke Kimura, and Drew Moor.
“My first year in the league  was his last year in the league as a player,” said Moor on the team Web site. “He’s just such a professional and a competitive guy. When I think of Oscar, one word that comes straight to the front of my mind is he’s a winner. That was at training, that was in games, that was both on and off the field.
“I can’t think of somebody who’s going to bring more energy and more of a positive nature, and somebody who’s really, really hungry to be successful at this sport. That something that I know for sure is going to translate down to the rest of this organization.”
In their 16 MLS seasons, the Rapids have only one other MLS Cup appearance – a 2-1 loss to D.C. United in 1997 – to go along with the 2010 title. Hiring Pareja is an attempt to establish a winning legacy as well as alter the team’s persona.
“It is a big challenge,” said Pareja Thursday as he awaited his flight to Florida, “but I think I am ready and capable to it, and that this is the right moment. So I’m hoping for the best.”