FRISCO, TX - OCTOBER 9: Head coach Gary Smith of the Colorado Rapids gives instructions to his players during a soccer match agains FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on October 9, 2010 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images)
Let's be clear about what this is: This isn't a professional recommendation as to what the Rapids Soccer Club ought to do about the conflict between Gary Smith and Paul Bravo that has been highlighted in a recent story in the Denver Post. This is not meant to be any kind of reference to the wisdom of allowing Gary Smith to talk to the press about the issue, and certainly not meant to be any kind of judgment on Smith for speaking his mind on an issue that, quite frankly, he has every right to speak about and bring to light. This is meant to be a fan perspective as to the situation, and my perspective specifically. As to how this all will play out, I simply don't know. That's not something that I can know. However, I can say how I'd like things to play out.
If given the choice between Gary Smith, our manager, and Paul Bravo, our Technical Director, I would every time choose Gary Smith. Now, this isn't because I like Gary Smith more as a person than Paul Bravo. I've had interactions with both of them, and I've found both of them (like every member of the Club) to be very good people who have the best interests of the Club firmly in mind. However, I believe that Gary Smith has a kind of experience and wisdom that he brings to the Club that Paul Bravo simply cannot.
Put bluntly from my limited fan perspective: Gary Smith is a football guy. Paul Bravo is an MLS guy. And at the end of the day, I would rather have a football guy than an MLS guy.
It's hard to say whom we Rapids fans ought to thank for our MLS Cup. Was it Jeff Plush, our President? Stan Kroenke our owner? Was it the partnership with Arsenal (I'd argue this probably more than anything is what has set up the Rapids to do a lot with very little)? Is it Gary Smith, our head coach and first team manager? Or is it Paul Bravo, our technical director? Both of them came into the organization at about the same time: Gary took over midseason 2008 and Paul Bravo came in early 2009 (to the Front Office, anyway, many of you know that he's been with Colorado before). And both of them had to take over a struggling club beset with troubles: a locker room torn apart, a captain who was on track to leave for greener pastures abroad, and a team trying to establish their identity.
Within two short years, Smith and Bravo were able (even though they may have been rivals the entire time) to pull together a dream MLS Cup run, and the first MLS Cup in Club history. It's hard to say who is more responsible for this, but let's say that the two of them share credit in that. In fact, let's make the whole MLS Cup a non-issue, since I'm not trying to take anything away from either of them.
Let's simply look at this from the perspective of a fan whose goal it is to see the Rapids be better than just another MLS Club. Let's face it, for a very long time (arguably our whole existence), the Colorado Rapids have gotten by as just another MLS Club. Yes, we are a good MLS Club, but there are lots of good MLS Clubs. If Real Salt Lake's meteoric rise in 2010 (and the Seattle Sounders in 2011) was any indication: a Club's ambitions ought to exceed MLS.
I hate mentioning two of our rival clubs in this (I would be remiss to mention Dallas, but I think they are having much the same problems as the Rapids) but it's simply fact: I, as a fan, want the Rapids to do better than just being a good MLS Club. To do that, we need partnerships like our partnership with Arsenal Football Club to bring in international perspective. That is the key, to me. And it's the key to what makes me choose Gary Smith and his staff over Paul Bravo: the importance of International perspective and experience.
Knowing how to do well in MLS is, while by no means easy, an insular and self-defeating kind of knowledge. In many ways, today's Rapids are built like the good MLS teams of the past: the 2007-2008 Columbus Crew and the 2005-2006 Houston Dynamo come readily to mind: teams managed by good MLS coaches like Sigi Schmid and Dom Kinnear. These are good MLS coaches who are backed by their MLS owners, and they build teams to win the MLS Cup.
But what about greater ambitions? The Champion's League, the Club World Cup, the Open Cup, and the Supporter's Shield (a race that is harder to win than ever before)? If you want to build a team to win the MLS Cup, that's one thing, but if you want to build a team to win these other competitions, you have to think differently than other clubs in the league, and that's where International perspective comes in.
MLS guys will prioritize the MLS Cup. It's natural. The MLS Post-Season is an American tradition, and if your team doesn't make it, then the season is considered a wash. It doesn't matter how you get there, just get there and have a good run; otherwise, whatever you did in the regular season, no matter how awesome, is unimportant. But from the perspective of someone coming from, say, a background in English football, the game changes. Priorities and expectations (regardless of what you tell the press) are going to be different. And that kind of difference is a very , very good thing in terms of figuring out ways to do better in MLS.
Let's face some very hard but somewhat very encouraging facts here: The Rapids are one of the teams in MLS which receives some of the least financial investment from its ownership. This is typical of all KSE owned teams, so we ought not to think that somehow the Rapids get to be a special exception. However, the Rapids won the MLS Cup, and they did so with one of the lowest salary budgets in the league. Gary Smith compared it to Blackpool winning the EPL, and he's by no means exaggerating in terms of how big of a shock it is money-wise. The Rapids in 2010 were third from bottom in terms of salary (just barely behind Salt Lake, who won 2009 with even LESS money, if you can believe it).
But it takes someone like Gary Smith to be able to see those kinds of possibilities, and who can push for greater things even with a limited budget. The system is built to reward cagey ownership and limited investment. Not to give Ted Westervelt TOO much of a back scratch here, but he's right in that regard (hey, he's from Colorado). That's just how it is. Living inside that system and just accepting it is not the way that we move forward as a Club. The way to move forward is to gain more international perspective, not get rid of what we already have.
Not much has been made of the partnership between Arsenal Football Club and the Colorado Rapids, but it's important to mention this now. Some fans think the whole thing is hogwash because Arsenal isn't giving up some of their players to play here, or letting us have pickings of their Academy. A bit ridiculous, if you ask me. But let's look at something we can thank Arsenal Football Club for: we can thank them for Gary Smith.
Gary Smith, if you recall, came to the United States as a representative of Arsenal, and eventually took charge of the first team after the fallout from Fernando Clavijo. He righted the ship. He did this not because he knew the first thing about MLS, but because he knew football. He brought a brand new technical staff including his old friend Steve Guppy. He and Bravo together built the 2010 Rapids, who eventually took the title. This is all because of the partnership the Rapids have with Arsenal. And if you ask me, the Rapids need to tap that line again to bring in more outsiders.
Bringing in managers and technical staff from other leagues and other countries is a great boon to MLS, even though the system itself may balk at it. Gary Smith has been viewed as an outsider by many within the MLS. And this is a good thing. This is a very good thing. Bravo, on the other hand, is an MLS insider. If a partnership between the two of them works and works well, then we're all the better for it. But if the partnership breaks down, I am with the outsiders.