As the Colorado Rapids proceeded to drink from bottles of champagne rather than spray liquid onto each other in the BMO Field locker room, managing director Jeff Plush pondered a question:
Did beating FC Dallas, 2-1, in the 2010 MLS Cup final to claim its first league championship significantly boost the team’s presence in its market?
“I think we were more relevant than we were eight hours ago,” was his response. He went on to explain how a title can change perceptions and stature even in Denver, where the NFL Broncos rule the landscape, the Rockies are successful, and the NHL Avalanche holds title to a pair of Stanley Cups.
The Rapids’ quest for increased relevance has foundered. Less than a year later, Plush dismissed the head coach of that championship team, Gary Smith, and departed himself the following month. Two seasons of rebuilding under Oscar Pareja that produced a playoff appearance in 2013 ended when he took over at FC Dallas, and the tenure of former U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni – team captain in 2010 -- has yielded finishes of eighth (of nine teams) in 2014 and last of 10 last year.By drastic measures the Rapids are addressing that futility. Midfielder Jermaine Jones, acquired two weeks ago from the Revs, is a huge move, and so is the transfer by which Tim Howardwill arrive from Everton this summer. In a teleconference call with reporters, Howard provided some background as to how negotiations proceeded and why this move makes a lot of sense to him as well as the team.
Along with a major jolt of publicity for the team and MLS, Howard’s transfer signifies a renewed commitment to success on the field. “If they put my face on a billboard, that doesn’t take care of a lot,” he said during the conference call. “Winning takes care of everything.”
Winning the 2010 title didn’t take care of anything except earning that first MLS Cup, and Howard comes aboard after two seasons that left fans frustrated not only by results but also the departure of younger players supposedly being groomed into long-term contributors. By signing Jones (34) and Howard (37), there’s a charge of urgency coursing through this franchise that seldom materialized in the past two seasons.
“I think it’s safe to assume that this could be the biggest signing in the history of the club,” technical director Paul Bravo told the team’s Web site. “Tim is an American icon. He’s a guy that has been playing at the highest levels for ten years. English Premier League, Manchester United, Everton, U.S. men’s national team, World Cups; he is a global name. For us, this is our stepping into the new age of what MLS is, and Tim gives us instant credibility from the standpoint of name recognition.”
What Jones and Howard will be expected to deliver goes beyond savvy and experience and respect. They are zealots when it comes to accountability, and both have more than a decade of experience in a top European league. Jones helped drive the Revs to an MLS Cup appearance after his post-2014 World Cup move, and Howard will bring the lessons learned from a long stint with Everton as well as the national team.
“I’ve played in a lot of big games, I’ve played in a lot of games, period,” said of a career that includes nearly 500 first-team club appearances and 106 U.S. caps. “Part of having experience is being able to use it, to help other players, particularly when it comes to the team dynamic.
“That is what I take away from being in the UK. I’ve seen it where I’ve had really strong leadership, both at Manchester United and at Everton, and I know what that looks like: to be a powerful leader, to have guys who can captain the ship when things aren’t going well.”
Howard will be replacing a pretty good keeper in his own right, Clint Irwin, who has joined former teammate Drew Moor – formerly the Rapids’ team captain -- in Toronto. Howard has signed a Designated Player contract -- reported by different outlets as worth between $2 million and $2.8 million per season -- and some observers have questioned if paying so much money for a goalkeeper in MLS will be worth it when upgrades in other positions are needed.
“If teams are reluctant to sign goalkeepers, I’m not 100 percent sure why,” said Howard. “Across Europe and European football, you name all the top teams, they’ve got top goalkeepers. I think it’s an important position, clearly, and I think that’s why I’ve been brought in.
“For me, the timing was that when I spoke to all the people at Colorado, spoke to Pablo, we discussed the challenges that lie ahead and the project that’s in place trying to push this franchise forward, and I’m excited about the challenge. It’s a huge challenge for everyone involved.”
Bravo is adamant that this move is a critical piece in transforming the team’s image through perceptions as well as performance. Howard moves the needle.
“Tim is a name that will resonate not only throughout our country," he said, "but throughout the global game as well. We believe that it is multi-faceted. It’s not just what he can do for us on the field but it’s what Tim Howard provides us off the field from a scouting standpoint from a free-agent recruitment standpoint.
“This puts us in a conversation with the Toronto FC’s of the world and the Seattle Sounders of the world who have brought back their own high profile men’s national team players. It puts us on par with the biggest clubs in this country.”
Actually, the Rapids’ one title is one more than those two big-market, big-spending teams have earned combined. If nothing else, the acquisitions of Jones and Howard are statements of commitment to improvement. More MLS teams are spending more money on players than ever before, and though Portland is regarded as a smaller team, it paid $5 million last August on Lucas Melano and won the championship though his immediate impact was slight.
Jones is serving a six-game suspension and won't be available for MLS duty until April. Transfer restrictions will prevent Colorado from adding Howard to its roster until the secondary window opens July 4. After the Premier League season ends in mid-May he will, presumably, start training with the U.S. for the Copa Centenario and then join his new MLS team, which acquired the top spot in the league’s allocation order in mid-January and negotiated with him a three-and-a-half-year contract.
“My immediate focus is to finish the season with Everton, playing in the Copa America [Centenario], and hopefully getting myself out to Denver and start putting some pieces in place to be successful,” he said.