Running a professional sports team is hard work. I think there are some people out there who think that all sports teams are like the Lakers (when they were good) with a lot of glitz and glamour to it. You plunk down a few million, buy yourself a championship, and celebrate like it's going out of style. Maybe that is reality for the New England Patriots or San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Kings. But in the real world, things are far more difficult and the decisions on how to build your franchise are much more complex.
Being the leader of a Major League Soccer team has to be tough. Although soccer is building in the United States it is still, and please pardon the phrase here, the red headed step child of the American sporting landscape. Certainly it has come leaps and bounds in the last 20 years, but it is still not as popular as the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL. But the passion and support for soccer is growing and there is no doubt that it will eventually find itself being called a "major" sport.
But how many of those teams in those "bigger" leagues would have their President invite me to sit down and talk for the better part of an hour about all things related to the Colorado Rapids? The answer is not many. A conversation with Tim Hinchey, the Rapids President, gives you a glimpse as to what his motivations are, where his passions lie and just how important the Rapids are to him.
Now please don't take this article as a fluff piece saying that Mr Hinchey is the greatest thing since sliced bread. He readily admits his failures and mistakes. He knows last year was a difficult year and makes zero excuses for it. Mr Hinchey flat out said that "we were just not good enough in 2014. No excuses. No blame. It was not good enough for our club or our supporters."
I touched on the topic of 2014 mostly in general terms and one of the first things that Mr Hinchey brought up was fitness. We had settled into some outdoor seating over looking the artificial practice fields of Dick's Sporting Goods Park and began to watch the team stretch and warm up.
"Fitness, injuries and depth were an issue last year for us. When Drew Moor and Shane O'Neill went down we relied on players like Jared Watts, who is not a natural center back, to fill the void. It was not good enough and so we knew we had to improve our depth in key areas. But we also had to improve our fitness. Look out there. Look at Burch (Marc Burch) look at Dillon Powers and how much more fit he is. These guys took their off-season seriously and came back in terrific shape. Burch is a great example. Here is a guy who has a chance to be our starting left back and he made sure to return to Denver in the best shape possible. That fitness is going to make us a better team."
I thought about his response and there is a great deal of truth to it. Players who are fit and in great shape are less likely to be injured. But what about depth? Now for me, I am thinking directly of the 4-3 loss to LA Galaxy in August at home. Let's be honest here, Grant Van De Casteele was literally thrown to the wolves in that match. Mr Hinchey touched on the depth issue:
"We knew we had to get better depth in key areas and defense was number one on that list. So we brought in Bobby Burling, Michael Harrington and drafted Axel Sjoberg. In addition to that we brought in some defensive midfield help in the form of Sam Cronin and Marcelo Sarvas. This will help us get better and allow us to withstand injuries as they come throughout the year."
Now, when I think about that defense it makes me think about the Chris Klute trade on draft day. I know Klute was a popular figure in Burgundy and in 2013 was in consideration for MLS Best XI and made an appearance at the USMNT camp in January 2014. Things were looking up for Klute, but 2014 was a step back for the versatile defender. I know that people get attached to players and when they leave the club everyone gets pissed. (see the threats of burning season tickets when Kosuke Kimura was traded). But it makes a lot of sense as to why Klute was sent to Columbus Crew SC when explained by Mr Hinchey:
"Chris was a great kid and we really liked him but you have to realize, and this is what some supporters forget, is that it is asset in, asset out. To get something of value you have to give something of value. Trading a good young player is always tough but you have to look at it like this: we traded Klute to Columbus and in return we got the #2 player on our draft board in Sjoberg, (Marcelo) Sarvas, and (Sam) Cronin with the allocation money in the trade. That is a good bit of business for us, but more importantly it gives us depth and options that we did not have before the trade."
His explanation made a great deal of sense to me, and it made me think of how the club builds talent. Should the Rapids go with the Homegrown Player model which has yielded O'Neill, Dillon Serna, and the now departed Davy Armstrong? Or should they build through the draft? I also wanted to ask Mr Hinchey his thoughts on the MLS Superdraft and whether or not he sees changes in the Superdraft system.
"That is a tough one. On one hand you have the Homegrown Players that are making a bigger and bigger impact on the club and league, but on the other hand look at the success we have had in the draft. In 2013 we draft the Rookie of the Year (Powers) and the runner up (Deshorn Brown). Last year we pick up Marlon Hairston, (Jared) Watts and John Berner, all of which saw significant time this past year. I think the Superdraft will change in importance as more players go the Homegrown route, but it will still be a part of overall strategy in building a team. And when you look at the United States Olympic team in 2016 there is a good chance that Shane, Dillon (Serna) and Marlon will be there. Two Home Grown players and a draftee from the MLS Superdraft."
The building a team comment struck me as I looked out over practice. New boys Lucas Pittinari and Caleb Calvert were out there showing a bit of the skill that made the Rapids take them on loan for Pittinari and dispersal draft for Calvert. Both were very active and eager to impress their new teams. It made me think about those players and getting enough playing time for everyone. And that brought me to our affiliate in Charlotte. I asked Mr Hinchey about the Independence and its impact on building a team.
"Look at it this way. We spoke a bit ago about the 4-3 loss to the Galaxy. Jared goes out with an injury in the second half and Grant has to come in. Against a team like the Galaxy. He had not played a minute of time all year and suddenly he has Keane, Donovan and Gonzalez coming at him. Imagine if he had gotten 25 games in at Charlotte. How much more prepared would he have been?"
It is a good point. The greatest benefit that our relationship with the Independence has to be players who are not getting much time here will potentially get that time in Charlotte. This is a massive win for the Rapids and a stroke of genius by MLS to build the partnership with USL Pro.
In addition to the off-season player moves that were made, there were also some additions to the front office and technical staff. Padraig Smith was brought in as Sporting Director and Claudio Lopez was signed as Director of Soccer. The Lopez hire has already begun to pay dividends. Mr Hinchey:
"Bringing Claudio back to the Rapids, a place he only played a handful games at, shows how much he loves the Rapids and the area and demonstrates his commitment to this program that we have going on. And it has paid dividends already with Lucas coming on loan and some other possible signings in the future."
At this point in our conversation we were joined by Brian Crookham, Paul Bravo, and Smith and we talked a little bit about the future of the club. It was impressive to see how much the group was on the same page about the direction of the club and all had the very strong feeling that this is a completely new team and a new year. Both Mr Bravo and Mr Hinchey were very pleased with the pace of pre-season and how the team just feels better. Will this translate into more wins in a very difficult Western Conference? We shall see.
So new players, new technical staff and a new outlook going into 2015, but there was another pretty major announcement and that was the 2015 All-Star game coming to Colorado this July. I asked Mr Hinchey about that and about Arsenal not coming to the game.
"First off, we would love to have Arsenal here. But as it has been reported they have their own plans this summer which will preclude them from coming for this match. It would have been great, but it is going to be an outstanding event regardless. As for getting the game, well, we went through a bidding process to bring the game to Commerce City and the City of Denver. We have a history of putting on great events and the All-Star game is no different. But to get the game really starts with our ownership behind us. Josh (Kroenke) has been very, very supportive of what we are doing here and bringing the All-Star game to Colorado is evidence of that. Coupled with the Homegrown game and this is going to be a great showcase for soccer in Colorado and this wonderful facility we have here in Commerce City."
I tend to agree with Mr Hinchey that the All-Star game is going to be a great event. There is truly nothing more special than seeing DSGP packed and the crowd in full voice. This led me to ask Mr Hinchey about building a fortress out of DSGP.
"That is something that we talk about on day one and every other day after that. Once that the park gets to about 15,000 people it takes on a new feel and it is a very difficult place to play. We have to be able to use the greatest advantage we have and that is playing at 5,280 feet. We need to be on the front foot from the start and push the visiting team as hard as we can. But it comes down to good play on the pitch. If you start winning games, people will come out and see this team play."
I found sitting and chatting with Mr Hinchey (and Mr Bravo, Mr Crookham and Mr Smith) very enlightening. I have always been a supporter of a longer term plan rather than using an unsustainable short term model. I would rather suffer through a 2014 like we had if it means greater team stability and a very good block of seasons. The Rapids have made some rather impressive moves this off-season and they are a better team. And I have gone on record saying that I believe they are a playoff team (in 2014 I predicted that they would not be) in 2015. A lot of this though falls on the shoulders of Mastroeni. He has to be a better coach. He has to be a better tactician. He has to use his players better. If he is able to do that, there is a good reason to be hopeful this year as a Rapids fan.
And after speaking with Mr Hinchey, I believe that the team is in a good place and on the right track.