Casey, Leader, Legend. - Justin Edmonds
Conor Casey was the most talented, most iconic player to wear the shirt in recent memory, possibly ever. What is his legacy? Who can take his place as the talisman of the club?
You know that most recent Bourne movie? "The Bourne Legacy"? The one without Jason Bourne, but a new character called Aaron Cross who takes over the franchise. Jeremy Renner took the place of the iconic Matt Damon in the role of the "guy who is really awesome at pretty much everything but has no clue what's going on." You know that one?
Feels a lot like that around Colorado these days. Only it's not the "Bourne" Legacy, it's the "Casey" Legacy.
Conor Casey was a transformative presence in Colorado, and will without doubt go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the club. Carlos Valderama arguably was more talented, though a different player, than Casey, but back in those early days of MLS when players would trade teams and be in a new town frequently, there were few players that could be considered to "belong" to a particular club. Marcelo Balboa, arguably, was the first player that Coloradans got to call their own. Players that are associated with "Colorado Rapids". Chris Henderson is another. Paul Bravo is another. And John Spencer is another. There's a reason their shirts hang in the Gallery of Honor that goes beyond what the consensus in the dressing room was, or their statistics. For whatever reason, these are players that are forever associated with Colorado and are part of the club's identity. Not just parts of the history, but a defining part of who the Rapids are in context of the league. With the league basically based on a franchise system, solidifying club identity is hard to come by. Especially when you don't have a long NASL history to stand on (Sounders, Whitecaps, Portland, Montreal...).
There is no question that Casey will have his number in the Gallery of Honor. No player in the history of the Rapids has been able to do as much as he has been able to do for this club during his tenure here. He has the kind of footballing pedigree that would make any USMNT coach stand up and pay attention: came up through the American youth system and from there got spotted by German scouts who brought him over to the Bundesliga to play for Borussia Dortmund where he cut his teeth in much the same manner as Terence Boyd is cutting his right now. Say what you will about zee Germans, there are few better leagues in this world that can take a player and mold him into exactly the kind of player he needs to become. Such was Conor Casey, who remains the last of the great true Target Forwards in the United States.
While the Kyle Beckerman trade may have been Fernando Clavijo's worst decision, there is no doubt that his move for Conor Casey will stand as his best. While Pablo Mastroeni is the glue that has kept the Rapids together through good times and bad for many years, with his constant work both on the pitch and off to "right the ship" and lead by example, Conor Casey defined the Rapids in a way that no player has ever done before or since.
To many fans around the league, when they think of the Rapids, they see the Big Bald Monster. Commentators cannot help but mention him. Posters. Commercials. Promotional materials. Who is the most common figure that is associated with the Colorado Rapids? The Monster. Conor Casey.
How do you move on from that? On the pitch, certainly adjustments can be made, systems can be tweaked, and strikers come and go. "We will survive even this" is and should be the motto of any team who loses a truly great player. Teams move on. But what interests me even more is how the club will move on from Conor Casey the image. The man who defined the team for years and whose influence will be felt for years to come.
Because Casey, for everything else he was, was "our" player. He was a kid who grew up in Denver. People knew him or his family. He wasn't just one of the most talented pure target men of his generation, but he freaking came from Denver. It takes years to build the kind of credibility that Casey simply had by virtue of his being a Colorado boy. And not only was he from Colorado, but he was good. Damn good. The only other guy who can be talked about with any kind of similar tone is Brian Mullan, but he's not at Casey's level. No one is at Casey's level.
In Colorado, Casey is King.
But who can dare stand in those shoes? Who can step up to become the face of the club? Who is going to be the player (or set of players) on whose shoulders the club rests?
This, to me, is the most interesting and somewhat troubling question: because there aren't any fast-and-easy answers. Would it be Pablo? Would it be Omar? Drew? Jeff? Brian? Jamie? Jaime? What about the youngsters? Martin? Davy? Shane? Could it be that this Designated Player search is really a search for a new face of the club? The list goes on, but who can really say who is going to be the one to step up, or come in to take over.
When a movie franchise refreshes, like Bond, or Bourne, or Batman, or Star Trek... or on TV with Doctor Who, and when there's a change in cast there is always a kind of anticipation and an apprehension. When a beloved character is re-done, and a new actor steps into the role, we wonder if it will all work out. How could this actor possibly top the performance of the previous one?
So many questions, so few answers. But here's the important question that I want to leave open in the comments section:
Who will be next player to define the Rapids?