It's been a tough couple of weeks. Heck, tough couple of weeks doesn't even come close to describing how frustrating being a Colorado Rapids fan has been recently. Two straight losses to Western Conference competition despite being in the drivers seat for both games. A pathetic drop out of the Open Cup, which looked at the time to be the closest the Rapids would come to a winnable trophy this year. A 2-7-1 record this season in games where the opposition has scored a goal, even just one.
And of course, an offense that sputters at times and defensively acts like a sieve at others, along with a batch of injuries and a separate batch of frustrating performances from guys who were brought in to be stars by the latest regime. (Jaime Castrillon, looking at you.) There has been some questionable management in close games, some unfortunate performance issues across the board... it's pretty at best, but messy at worst. Sadly, worst seems to be the only option on the menu in recent weeks.
It's all too much, we're still reeling from the shattered hopes that the team would turn into something special after 2010 and Gary Smith's firing. Unfortunately, this slow start to the new regime seems to have started a few minor murmurs from some of the more knee-jerk fans and analysts out there about Oscar Pareja perhaps being a mistake. Some people have said that this whole 'new regime' thing was a terrible idea, or that we shouldn't bother thinking it will turn itself around at any point. I've even heard subtle jabs about his job perhaps being in jeopardy, not even half a season into his debut!
Strangely, some of it seems to stem from a bizarre, overly optimistic mis-remembrance about the regime that came before.
I, like many Rapids fans, spent 2011 and the off-season of this year looking through Burgundy colored glasses at Gary Smith's time as manager. Now that Pareja's Rapids team has gotten off to a slow start, there have been some calls for a return to 'what worked' with Smith. Looking back at it with an open eye and less of a dreamy happy remembrance based on the Cup win and nothing else, it honestly looks like not much did work with Smith.
Namely, there are fundamental differences that can be seen between what I feel was ultimately a supremely flawed team building plan from the Smith regime and what I also feel to be a promising future for the Pareja regime. I'll explain, but we need to go through each year of Smith's tenure in order to see what I mean when I call his system flawed in the end.
I will never take anything away from Gary Smith's work at the very end of 2010. He put together the perfect starting XI at the end of the year to make a late playoff push and was able to luck his way to the easiest path through the playoffs possible that year, of which he took wonderful advantage. Adequate-to-solid management in each game and a heaping helping of luck eventually led to the first and only cup victory in team history. I know most Rapids fans look back at that season as something of a beautiful flower among a sea of rot that has been the history of the team.
Consequently, Gary Smith is still given a cult-hero sort of status among fans of the team, and there was almost an outrage by some after he was sacked at the end of 2011. However, it is a mistake to look at Smith's overall tenure, cup win aside, and say 'wow, what a great job he did!'.
I think that if he were still with the team right now, the record would be pretty similar to the current 6-8-1 status, except probably with more draws. Similar to Pareja, Smith came into the team's managerial position in 2009 looking to change the play-style of the team after a disastrous finish to the previous manager's tenure. In his case, he was looking to make the team into one that could master his favored rigid, clogged up defensive style. He made several moves in order to make that possible at the start, picking up guys like Drew Moor, Scott Palguta (heh) and Julien Baudet to bolster the team's defensive ability.
2009 - The Mediocre Start
Gary was looking to 'win now', and the number of moves he made every off-season for established, older players showed it. In a league that was increasingly focusing more on academy and youth development, Gary decided to take the old school MLS route -- the route that teams like DC United and Chicago took in the early years to pile up trophies -- and try to pick up above average starting players who could get the job done as quickly as possible, without focusing much on any depth.
He was fortunate to have the most in-form Conor Casey that there ever has been to score 16 goals for the team, it hid the fact that the 2009 Rapids were actually pretty awful all around. (This wasn't the first time that Smith would need Casey to save his goose, by the way.)
In fact, the 2009 season reminds me quite a bit of this season so far. It was probably the most up and down season in team history, to the point where they ended with a perfectly even 10-10-10 record. Miserable results were aplenty that year, specifically the failure at the end of the year against Real Salt Lake, a loss that essentially handed RSL their MLS Cup while knocking the Rapids out of the playoffs.
Of course, we blamed it all on injuries at the time because he hadn't finished building his team yet. Turns out injuries would continue to be a theme, though with a year's break...
2010 - The Lucky Finish
For all the hype that 2010 gets, it was really not that special a season for the first 80% of the year. After making a lot more moves for defensive starters and weaker, cheap backups like Jeff Larentowicz, Wells Thompson, Danny Earls and later Anthony Wallace (while getting rid of plenty of other players including Terry Cooke) the team stagnated after a decent start. Gary's system was so bad at producing offense after Omar Cummings stopped an early streak and Conor Casey cooled off that he was actively forced to change the team's formation just so he would have two men forward rather than one.
Smith, similar to the year before, chose to ignore any real developmental prospects save for what he could get in the draft -- there being no reserves league in place helped him out with that as there was no punishment for having no depth -- but unlike the previous year had very few injury issues to worry about. When I've called the 2010 season 'lucky', I've meant it in more than one fashion, it had to have been one of the most healthy seasons by the Rapids of all time.
It really wasn't all sunshine and roses for most of it. Hell, as late as early October we were afraid that the team was going to miss the playoffs altogether even with the wonderful health the team was enjoying. That's not exactly the sign of a contender. Fortunately for the Rapids offense, Casey and Omar Cummings chose the final month of the season to suddenly go on one of the best runs of form I've ever seen, possibly in the history of the league. The defense had been solid all year -- as was always the case under Smith teams when the first choice back four were out -- and the offense putting up two to four goals a game led them straight into the playoffs.
2011 - The Revealing Finale
The honeymoon ended quickly.
Gary's 2010/2011 off-season featured another batch of moves getting either guys he wanted to start right away or mediocre backups, though with a slight offensive flair this time as he picked up Caleb Folan and Sanna Nyassi along with Eddie Ababio in the SuperDraft. Of course, he couldn't go without more mediocre defensive prospects as Tyrone Marshall and Joseph Nane were also was brought in. Hilariously, Nyassi and Ababio joining the team meant that it was the most youth and depth oriented off-season of the entire Smith tenure.
When bringing in two guys in their early 20's is the big youth movement of your regime, you're probably in trouble. And when your masterpiece move of the off-season was supposed to be Steven Lenhart, you're in even worse trouble. (Funny how he was very willing to trade his only decent pick in the draft for a guy who was at the time a mediocre backup striker, that's probably the most Gary Smith thing ever to do.)
After a three game start to the 2011 campaign that mirrored the hot ending to 2010, disaster struck. And by disaster, I mean an injury or two. Before that season, the big key to me had been depth, or rather the complete lack thereof. As injuries started to slowly scatter around the line-up, we started to see why Gary's system of picking up seemingly nothing but starters, swapped for other starters in the off-seasons, was flawed.
There was no good depth in the midfield. There was no good depth in the defense. The offense had some strong candidates but Andre Akpan had been stashed away from actual games for so long that he seemed unready for prime time. Caleb Folan was mostly a wash as well, with Gary's usually half-decent scouting eye failing him when he needed it most. When Quincy Amarikwa is your big key man off the bench, you're probably in trouble.
With no Conor Casey to lean on and Omar Cummings regressing after a hot 2010, the offense was pitiful for Smith. His remarkable run of luck had run out and the team was outed as nothing but a really well put together Starting XI with just a bunch of cheap guys there to fill roster spots behind them.
Nothing proved how awful Smith's team building was more than the nightmare inducing CCL campaign the Rapids cobbled together. Playing the backups led to embarrassment against Real Espana and Santos Laguna twice along with two of the most embarrassing games in the history of team against Sporting KC in the playoffs. Even worse, Smith didn't even bother to go to the second game against Metapan, and his replacement manager for that game coached the best game of the entire campaign in a 3-1 win.
Smith claimed he wanted to win in the CCL, but didn't have the tools to do it. Sadly, he had nowhere to look but in the mirror. Looking back on it, I regrettably have to say that the sacking of Smith because someone else in the organization didn't agree with his philosophy on running the club... was absolutely correct.
That leads us to now, and a more future thinking regime under Oscar Pareja. His management skills are still in question and his overkill approach to scouting and picking up new players this off-season might have been a bit too much, but when it comes to building a Rapids team I have no doubts that his philosophy is head and shoulders above what Smith brought to the table.
In that regard, there is absolutely no reason to take the results this season and say that Pareja needs to be shuffled off, especially with the desert landscape of a team that he was left with in the wake of Smith's disastrous 2011 campaign.
We said before the season that speed bumps should be expected along the road in the 2012 season with Pareja at the helm. Certainly, these speed bumps are tougher than any we've seen in quite a while but still, expected. For a regime that was looking to build a team on youth and flair with a system of beautiful attacking football to be handed the cards that they were, it was a regime that was set up for failure at the very start of it all.
The signs are certainly there that this regime will end far differently than the previous. As soon as they can rebuild the empty well of defensive depth, there won't be a reason to fret over every single injury any more. The midfield and forward positions already look worlds better than before.
Already, the system has started to fill up with some fine young players who can grow into MLS stars. Martin Rivero has already looked like a world-beater in his first year. Young Harrison Henao will likely be groomed into a helpful backup holding man for Jeff Larentowicz and didn't look bad in his few appearances so far. Tony Cascio has already looked like a brilliant draft pick in his first year of play with Colorado at times. The academy system is already starting to produce good young talent, with Shane O'Neill in the squad and Dillon Serna on the way, and it will likely get much better with Pareja, who built the best youth system in America over with FC Dallas, at the helm.
Whether it is going to be two months or two years before this team starts to see the fruits of the labor, I don't know. Whether the team will ever even reach that point and Pareja's system will flourish, I don't know either. I don't know if Pareja's managerial abilities will ever get the kinks worked out, or if he'll make the academy system here as flourishing as the one in Dallas is. What I do know is that I would rather see this new system of team creation in place any day of the week over Gary Smith's. Patience is a virtue and it's one that the fans of the Colorado Rapids will need to adopt through the tough times of 2012.
Eventually, I know that the chances of trophies coming to Colorado through skill, not luck, is so much greater this way.