Colorado Rapids search for relevance in tough conference

By Ridge Mahoney

“I think we’re more relevant now than we were a few hours ago.”

So spoke former Colorado managing director Jeff Plush in the Rapids’ locker room at BMO Field after they had downed FC Dallas, 2-1, in MLS Cup 2010. The margin of victory had been as narrow as Colorado’s postseason existence; a shot/cross by Macoumba Kandji had ricocheted off FCD defender George John and bounced over the goal line to cap a remarkable run that earned the Rapids their first league title.

To reach the final, Colorado had eliminated Columbus on penalty kicks after the teams had tied on goals, 2-2, in a two-game series, and downed San Jose, 1-0, on a goal by right back Kosuke Kimura -- the only playoff goal of his eight-year MLS career. The Rapids hosted the Quakes because they won a head-to-head tiebreaker that edged them into seventh place in the overall standings and dropped San Jose to eighth.

Colorado Playoff Picture:
Record: 6-9-9. Position: 10th in Western Conference.
Home (5 games): 8/26 HOU, 8/29 SKC, 9/12 DC, 10/4 RSL, 10/10 MTL.
Away (5 games): 9//9 VAN, 9/19 TOR, 9/26 HOU, 10/21 SKC, 10/25 POR.
Key match: 8/26 HOU.

Nearly five years later, the Rapids have not built on that accomplishment. They’ve qualified for the playoffs twice without coming close to a repeat MLS Cup appearance, and this season they are last in the Western Conference at 6-9-9. Home games this week against Houston and Sporting Kansas City are virtual must-wins if they hope to close the eight-point gap between them and the playoff line. The allotment per conference has been increased from five to six teams but still Colorado is a longshot to make the cut. Since winning the title Colorado has lost its way.

Plush departed in December 2011, a month after he’d dismissed the coach who’d won that championship, Gary Smith. Colorado hired former New England and Dallas midfielder Oscar Pareja to revamp the team, and after he got Colorado into the 2013 playoffs as a wild-card team with a 14-11-9 record, he departed for Dallas. In exchange, Colorado received a 2015 SuperDraft pick and allocation money and took its sweet time to chart a new course.

Not until a week before the start of its 2014 season did the Rapids officially hire former U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni, captain of the 2010 championship team, as head coach. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Rapids have been playing catch-up ever since, and as the conference has grown tougher with the improvement of several teams and moves of Houston and SKC from the Eastern Conference, the Rapids have lost ground.

“We are thrilled to name Pablo Mastroeni our head coach, and everyone at the club is excited for his tenure to begin,” team president Tim Hinchey had said when the hire was made. “We underwent a deliberate search, and Pablo’s experience, approach, and the work he did throughout preseason proved to us that he is the right man for this role.” Mastroeni may be the right man but the team has taken one wrong turn after another.

In Mastroeni’s first season, the Rapids finished at 8-18-8 and were an incredible 18 points out of a playoff spot. Even Chivas USA, which the league folded shortly after the season ended, placed higher in the standings. In 2015, the Rapids are living proof that defense doesn’t necessarily win anything, much less championships.

The second-best defensive record in the league (25 goals allowed in 24 games) is offset by the worst attack in MLS: just 21 goals, including a measly nine in the first half of its games. Only Portland has scored fewer (seven) in the first 45 minutes. Colorado is also last in second-half goals with 12. Yet during the summer transfer window, rather than bolstering its attack, the Rapids added two defenders; Sean St. Ledger, who’d been waived by Orlando City for a breach of team rules, and Honduran international Maynor Figueroa.

Both newcomers played well in a 1-0 defeat of Chicago, and Dillon Serna, who has been limited to just 12 games (five starts), scored a spectacular goal -- his third of the season. Irish international Kevin Doyle, who arrived in May after being released from his contract with Wolverhampton, has scored two goals in 13 games. Forward Gabriel Torres, signed two years ago as the team’s first Designated Player, has scored four goals in 21 games this season and has netted just 10 goals in 51 MLS appearances.

Mastroeni has juggled personnel and formations and tactics but aside from a three-game winning streak in July, there’s been little momentum long-term. Prior to that trio of victories, the Rapids had won just two of their 17 games in the first half of the season. They had tied nine and were on pace to equal the league record of 18 set last year by the Fire.

These signings, and others, call into question the future of the team under Mastroeni and technical director Paul Bravo, who was hired in January, 2009, and hasn’t been able to replicate the success attained by him and Smith. The limited funds provided by owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the NHL Colorado Avalanche and English Premier League club Arsenal, makes the job of staying competitive in the Western Conference tougher, but teams such as Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas have hung tough without shelling out big bucks a la the Galaxy, Seattle, and to at a lesser level, Portland and Vancouver. Fans hoped Colorado would be able to pluck a few promising Arsenal youngsters on loan but no such benefits have been provided. 

Hinchey and Bravo did their utmost to keep Pareja, but his long history with FCD as a player and director of its academy programs was going to pull him back to Texas sooner or later. There is no such savior on the horizon for the Rapids, which despite establishing a stronger and louder presence among the fan base are facing tough decisions about what to change in the front office and on the field. Otherwise, their relevance in the Denver market and across MLS will remain obscure.

1 comment about "Colorado Rapids search for relevance in tough conference".
  1. Dave Schultz, August 26, 2015 at 2:49 p.m.

    Enjoyed your analysis on several points. I'm a local who attended many Rapid matches over the past 10 years and have seen the franchises peak and demise. However, you missed the key points... Many others Rapid fans share the opinion that Bravo must leave. But since the Kroenke family refuses to spend on players while others do, Pablo is stuck holding a weak hand in conference that spends more and has better upper management. We see the same results in all teams Silent Stan owns... Nuggets, avs, cardinals, arsenal. He's a businessman not a sports enthusiast.

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