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A Conversation with Paul Bravo, Rapids Technical Director and VP of Soccer Ops

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Most Rapids fans don't need an explanation as to who Paul Bravo is. You either hate him, or you mildly dislike him, or you're in the minority that is either ambivalent or somewhat OK with the guy. There are few people in the Front Office who has had more of an impact on who the Rapids are than the guy who has been the Technical Director for the past five years. We had a long conversation with Paul, covering a wide range of topics. Settle in for this one.

Paul Bravo and Marcello Balboa unveil the MLS Cup Champions plaque in 2011.
Paul Bravo and Marcello Balboa unveil the MLS Cup Champions plaque in 2011.
Bart Young

Paul Bravo. Few names in the Rapids Front Office inspire as many feelings as those three syllables. For those who don't know, Bravo was a Rapids player who played from 1997 till 2001, but most folks don't remember him primarily in that capacity (though I'm sure some Rapids fans don't know he's a Technical Director and still remember him from commercials like this). Most people think of Paul Bravo as being "the man behind the curtain" as Technical Director and now additionally the Vice President of Soccer Operations.

I ripped Bravo in the wake of the Gary Smith firing, back in 2011. I remember then that I had only recently peeled back some of the veil between being a fan and being someone who had additional access to the Rapids and thus a responsibility to convey a story about the Rapids, a true story, through writing. Then in 2012-2013 the Rapids were dismantled and rebuilt with a new vision.

Rather that get into the past with Paul to find out what happened with that (I think most of us have moved past it now), I wanted to talk about things that had implications for the future. Namely, I wanted to ask Paul about the identity of the Colorado Rapids.

Before I begin, and I know you guys are eager to read this and tear into it, I just want to go into very briefly what Paul's job is and perhaps explain a little why he's so easy to despise. Paul Bravo's job is, in essence, to bring in players and coaches to the club. That's what a Technical Director does. It's a job that where, if everything goes right, barely anyone knows you're there. But when things go wrong, the easiest person to hate is the person you never see. You don't see Paul Bravo sweating out there like the players. You don't see Paul Bravo screaming from the sidelines or twisting under the post-match questions like the coach. You don't see him, and yet he has a job that influences all those other jobs. He signed those players. He found us that coach. That's what makes him so easy to despise, even before we talk about any disagreements we have with him. It's basic human nature.

With that in mind, let's start talking with Paul.

First, let's talk about the foundations of this movement. What was the experience that made him want to define a Colorado style?

One of the things that we discussed long and hard between 2011 and 2012 was the brand of football that we wanted to represent when it comes to people talking about the Colorado Rapids Soccer Club. I think this wasn't any one individual philosophy, it was born out of trying to find the right identity for our club to help maximize the business side of our club.

We were coming off a season in 2011 where we had been to the playoffs for the second straight year, coming off an MLS championship, we had champions league football, there was a lot of excitement around the club. We played 17 home games that year. Five of those home games we scored zero goals. Four of those games ended in zero-zero ties. One of them ended in a 1-nothing loss. When you really dig a bit deeper, you notice that of those 5 games where we scored zero goals, four of them were our biggest crowds of the year.

From my seat, that was a red flag. Tim felt the same way. Ownership felt the same way. We felt there was a need to come up with an identity for our club that is more of an aggressive style. Something more entertaining. Something that inspires our fan base to get excited about our club, but also inspires them to come out to our stadium week in and week out because they know what they are going to come out and watch.

That was the impetus for us to create this "One Club" philosophy that Tim talks about: marrying the soccer side with the business side and coming up with a clear message as to what we are about. That started us down the road of identifying key characteristics of what we wanted to do from a stylistic standpoint.

What were the elements of that style?

There are very few clubs that have success who aren't well balanced, offensively and defensively. We wanted to be a team, especially at altitude, where we are making our home a fortress. The key elements for us that give us an advantage at altitude, regardless if they are RBNY, Seattle, or Houston, our system our style won't change. We wanted to be a possession oriented team that has the ability to control the rhythm and the tempo of the game and run teams into the ground. It's not just possession, it's possession with a purpose, it's possession with penetration, with an eye on keeping the ball from the other team but also creating and scoring goals. That was what we wanted.

Especailly at home, we need to press the game. We need to push the tempo of the game onto our terms, our level, and be a team that is on the front foot always. So when we lose possession of the ball, how quickly can we win it back and get ourselves back for the attack.

We want to be an attack minded team. Where the players have the ability to take risks: a no fear mentality when we go forward. These are our key components for our club. Not taking a page out of any one club.

What clubs did you look at? What clubs would you say "get it right"?

Everyone around the world is enthralled with the Barcelona way, or previously the Manchester United way. You see now: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich. Those are all easy teams to study and come up with an effective plan, but we did a lot of deeper research and found some clubs in smaller markets that have not only had success but done it on their own terms: Swansea City, Athletico Bilbao, Athletico Madrid.

The key is that they found their own way, and refined that year over year to maximize the results.

My job is to be the custodian of that, to make sure that we are hiring people whether that be staff members or players that have the ability to fit inside of that box. It takes time to do that. We had between 11-12 we had 15 or 16 of the same players that helped us win the MLS cup in 2010 and we were the 2nd oldest team in the league with very few young players able to step in on a "conveyer belt" who understand what we were trying to do.

From an on-field standpoint, how far away would you say the Colorado Rapids are from achieving those stylistic points?

I don't believe we are too far away from where we want to be. I know given our results over the past 8 games and say "this guy doesn't know what he's talking about." You need to look at the players we've decided to build around. The foundation of our club, the influx of the type of player that we're looking for.

What you're seeing is more and more of those players throughout our roster. Look at players that are coming from our academy. Dillon Serna, for example, an exciting young player who is different. He's not your traditional MLS player that you saw in the old days where they were big, strong, more athletic, faster than anyone else but lacked in the important nuances of the game like the technique side of the game. Shane O'Neill is another one. We trained him as a number 8 in the Academy and that's put him ahead of the class when it comes to his age group when playing a position like Center Back who can play with compose and play short passes as well as long passes and is not afraid to try to develop play from his position.

You look at what we've done in the college draft. You go back to 2013 and you look at guys like Dillon Powers, another player that brings technique, insight, has personality, has a competitive spirit. A guy that can grow into being a difference maker like Graham Zusi has in Kansas City. Deshorn Brown. Carlos Alavarez, another player who is technically gifted, who has that different approach we look for. Building this roster full of players to fit the system, the style, that we want to implement.  Look at this year with the addition of Jared Watts and Marlon Hairston. Guys with a tremendous upside who also have that consistency we're looking for.

Look at Vicente Sanchez and Gaby Torres and Jose Mari. These are important building blocks for me. Keys for us as we continue to build. People need to look at how our roster has evolved and you'll see the different kinds of players that will help us develop that style.

You use the term "difference maker" a lot. What is a "difference maker"?

You look around the league and we've been undone by guys that are real difference makers: Diego Valieri, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan. Robbie Kean. RSL have a few in Beckerman, Morales, Saborio. These players are highly technical players. These players are highly experienced players with great insight into the game with strong personalities and leadership qualities. They've proven the ability to be consistent performers and have the ability to raise the level around them and inspire players to be great. That, in a nutshell, is what I would consider a difference maker.

Our club has done a good job of adding a couple of these. But w haven't seen enough of Vicente Sanchez this year. We haven't seen enough of Gaby Torres this year. Dillon continues to impress us with his maturity, his level headedness. I think where he can continue to grow is in that leadership role. We're seeing that guys like Deshorn and Dillon, as opposed to having a dip in form from their rookie year, are having impactful minutes for us. We need to continue to add players around them that will elevate their play and inspire them as well as our fans.

So then how do you know? How do you say someone isn't just any good player, but that this player is a "Rapids player"?

For us, the process is not just a quick look "oh this player might fit for us" this is a long drawn out process. We watched Dillon Powers for a number of years. We watched Marlon Hairston for two years at Louisville. We obviously got to watch Shane and Dillon Serna. From an international standpoint, you have an ability to evaluate these guys on film, you have the ability to evaluate these guys in person. And we have a certain criteria that we have go through our due diligence to get to the decision as to whether or not this player fits us. That includes the evaluation process on video, in person, live.It may, moving forward, will continue to include having deep conversations with those players to determine if they have the right personality characteristics that we are looking for.

Our fans and our club deserve that evaluation. It's tedious. It's time consuming. But it's all very important because at the end of the day you're looking at those key elements: technique, insight, ability and personality of the player and the ability to raise the level around them. All of that is very important but it's not as important as the actual mentality of the player.
Because what we're trying to do is not just bring a bunch of good players into this club, we have the bring the right players into this club. Players who play for the badge on the front and not the name on the back.

Our club is a union. It's a union of our players, our supporters, our Front Office and we owe it to everybody that we're doing our due diligence to make sure that we bring the right players into this club. That's where I think the development of the Rapids way, at least in my role, that's my job: to put together that blueprint, and that plan, so that Pablo and his staff can now go about implementing the style through their ability to teach and influence our players.

Ok then, who would you say fulfilled that criteria for the Colorado Rapids? Who are the guys, when you think of your career here as a player, when you think of your time here as a Technical Director, who are those players? Who is the prototype for what a Rapids player should be?

I've been around this club for a long time: Marcelo Balboa, certainly. Steve Trittschuh. Carlos Valderama. I played with Peter Vermes for a few years.

In 2010 perhaps the most important player in our club didn't play a whole lot but he was the epitome of what I would call, and what I would like to see as, a Rapids player and that would be Claudio Lopez.

Here's a guy who came in, he was the hardest working player in training every day whether he was with the first team or the reserves. It's a guy that could have come in and had a chip on his shoulder, you know "I played at Lazio, I played at Valencia, I played at Club America, I played in World Cups" be he didn't have that mentality. He was here playing for the good of the club and trying to help in any way he could, to inspire whoever whether it be Pablo, Conor, Jeff Larentowicz. Even some our young players like Quincy and Andre Akpan.

He went out there and he was the example, and to be fair to him he didn't get a whole lot of playing time that year, but he did all of that work and that lead up to that game against Columbus, where we down 2-0 and Gary threw him on the field. Here's his moment to shine, a true professional, helps us get back into the game 2-1 and then knocks his penalty kick home. Again, it goes back to being behind the scenes and inspiring his teammates through stuff like that.

That, for me, is the epitome of a Colorado Rapids player. Someone who has experience, technique, ability to play at the highest level

Pablo would be another one. You don't have to look much further than his passion for this club, his passion for our city, for our state and his passion for our fans. And I know it's tough for people to... It's tough for Pablo to transition from being that player to being coach. And it may be tough for our fans to see how his playing days with translate into the coaching side of it. But I truly believe and we as a club truly believe that we have the right person in place steering that ship at that level and we will look to add more people around him that share in our philosophy and share in our identity.

It's a hard choice, isn't it? To find a coach who not only will execute the plan now, but also will stick around after a job well done and won't regard the Rapids as merely a stepping stone in their careers and take the bigger job when it comes calling?

It is a dilemma. It's tough to figure out (the right coach). We felt that the best decision for the club was to find someone who we could grow with long-term. We felt that it was Oscar, but the circumstances led us down a path that we didn't want at the end of the day. Maybe it set us back a little bit. But I think we're in a better position now. We're talking about this idea of building an identity for our club, and I don't just at the soccer piece of it. We don't have that identity like the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL do. You know what you go when you go to Pittburgh and you play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're not only trying to develop an identity, a style, but we're also trying to develop coaches within our system that will be able to have a consistent message all the way through our club. Whether that's with the first team, with our Development Academey where you see a guy like Jamie Smith now growing into a great role there, to our USL affiliate all the way down to how we train our U5's to play the style.

It's trying to find that consistent message that gives us that flow through our whole club. That's what we're trying to build. Do we still have holes in that? Yes. But we're fixing them.

Then what will it look like when we are actually executing the style the club has outlined? What does a successful Colorado Rapids team look like on the field?

Simply put, when we score more goals than the other team. We want to get to a point where we are consistently getting results and  we're not sacrificing how we go about getting those results. Meaning we want to stick to our core. Meaning we want to be well balanced. Meaning we want to be possession oriented.

Ideally, what I would like us to look like is a little bit tighter than we did the other night against Portland, a team that has the ability to suffocate an opponent through possession. Creating chances, finishing chances and putting teams away in a more consistent manner. We want to have more possession. We want more possession in the final third. Penetrating possession that allows us to get into the attacking third. Final third entries. We've got key performance indicators that we use here at the club that help guide us as to wether or not we are hitting what we say on a consistent basis. Creating more goalscoring chances a better on goal percentage. Better defensively all the way around.

But how do you measure defending? What are the key metrics for that?

How quickly do we win the ball back. Best form of defense is keeping the ball. Possession is key. What you do with possession, are you pressing? Are you making it difficult for the opponent to get a rhythm and tempo? Are you disrupting that as quickly as possible? If you can't do that, how well do we recover and get ourselves into a position where we can defend as a team and set traps for teams? Ultimately, you try keep a team from out possessing you, ultimately you're trying to keep a teams goal scoring chances to a minimum. How many final third entries are we giving teams? How many touches do they have in our final third? Where are those touches? Are we able to control where they have the possession that excetuates our defensive qualities in being able to keep the other team from scoring goals. A lot of it is just being well drilled, consistent, having good concentration and being able to limit your opponents ability to create chances.

Thanks to Paul Bravo for taking the time out of his schedule, and for Richard Fleming for putting the interview together. I think this conversation is going to generate its own commentary, so let's have that discussion in the comments.