The Colorado Rapids finished 2015 19th out of 20 teams in MLS. Only 9 wins in 34 matches. Only 37 points. So it was certain that retooling was going to need to occur. Just how that retooling would take place was anyone's guess.
With the league's 6th best defense, giving up only 43 goals, defense was an area of strength the team could build from. But with a league worst offense that only scored 33 goals, the attack needed a complete overhaul.
When the playoffs ended, here were the clear areas that needed addressing in the off-season:
- Two creative attacking types.
- A can't-miss striker to either pair with, back up, or replace Kevin Doyle.
- A link-up man with defensive chops at defensive midfield
- A right back.
Shortly after that, with the releases of Maynor Figueroa and Drew Moor, you could add to that list:
- A left back.
- A central defender.
And the team could count on a few solid assets to build with, namely:
- a solid two-way midfielder in Sam Cronin.
- One of league's best goalkeepers in Clint Irwin.
- The 2nd pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
- Two young, talented players that hadn't quite found their place in the team, in Dillon Powers and Dillon Serna.
It seems like from this list of assets and liabilities, one could make a plan. If you ask the Rapids what that plan is, however, you get this kind of non-committal response from Paul Bravo:
"There are some very big pieces that we are looking to secure. Now it comes down to us executing. We've got a lot of things in place, we need to execute and get those players in at the beginning of preseason so Pablo has a full complement of players moving through preseason so that we can start the season strong."
Big pieces. That's the most specific we as fans are worthy of knowing. Big. Pieces. Of what? So the talk can't help us understand. What do the actions tell us? Well, with the MLS pre-season opening in two weeks, here's what the Rapids have done.
- Sign Marco Pappa, an aging creative midfielder.
- Pick up off waivers Micheal Azira, a fringy d-mid who didn't play a minute in the last 14 games for the Seattle Sounders.
- Trade a SuperDraft pick to Philadelphia in exchange for allocation money, a lower pick, and Zach Pfeffer, a young creative midfielder.
- Take Emmanuel Appiah with the 15th pick, a defensive midfielder from the University of Cincinnati.
In addition, the team is rumored to be trying to sign:
- Alan Pulido, a Mexican international who's been gathering dust on the bench all season for Olympiacos.
- Felipe, a very talented Center Back for a very mediocre Udinese in the Italian Serie A.
- Tim Howard, the USMNT's maybe 1st string, maybe 3rd string GK, who currently plays for a pretty decent team (Everton) in the best league on the planet (the EPL).
The team even traded Clint Irwin to Toronto FC for Targeted Allocation Money, in what looks to be a move anticipating the arrival of Tim Howard.
So I have two reactions to this: the first is as a dispassionate analyst trying to decide whether the Rapids off-season moves for 2016 are likely to bear fruit. The second is as a passionate fan of the burgundy and blue.
Do these moves make sense?
Mmm, sort of. The Rapids have two GKs that are MLS-quality starters. Clint Irwin is one of the league's top five keepers (Robles, Hamid, Johnson, and Frei. Tell me I'm wrong.) Zac MacMath finished third in clean sheets in 2013 with 12; ahead of Irwin. So from a business standpoint, I'm ok with trading Clint Irwin if it gets you one of those other pieces mention above that the team needs.
But the Rapids gave up a shot at a young and talented left back, Brandon Vincent, to get another goalkeeper? Why? That makes no sense. We're poorer in allocation money, we passed on a young player, to get an older player at a position we're already good with? It makes sense to trade Irwin. It doesn't make sense to waste that money on an expensive, possibly overrated, older goalkeeper that sucks up a gazillion cap dollars and takes the first allocation spot. If the Rapids get him and flip him to the Galaxy or Orlando for a position of need? Great. But if they actual play Howard at GK? That's really a bizarre decision.
For me, the Pulido acquisition is nice. But it doesn't solve the team's main problem of getting the ball through the midfield. Moving the ball up the field and getting into shooting position in Zone 14, at the top of the box, was a serious problem. None of the players we've acquired or even been linked with does that. Is the plan for Sarvas to have a renaissance at CDM? For Azira to start there? Will they play Pfeffer alongside Powers in the middle with Cronin, and Serna and Hairston attacking at the wings? Will Marco Pappa even play this season, considering his off-field problems?
Teams like Toronto and LA and NYRB spend their offseason getting attacking players like Giovinco, Dos Santos and Klejstan; guys that start for Champions League teams in Europe; and we get three guys (Pappa, Azira, Pfeffer) that can't earn their way off the bench in MLS? How does that address our most pressing problem?
Finally, the team has two weeks until camp, and no starting fullbacks. Last year, the team picked up Michael Harrington, who was OK, and waited around until the last minute to pluck James Riley off the scrap pile, who was not OK. Marlon Hairston and Dillon Serna are options back there, but the team is mum on whether that's even being considered. In lieu of that, the team is likely to be running low on cap space to sign a good player, and instead will need hope to sign someone invited to camp at both of these spots. Did I mention we could've had Brandon Vincent at Left Back? For cheap?
So, to sum up:
The Rapids spent their off-season making the moves to acquire a player at a position they don't need, Goalkeeper, and at another position where they're already paying a DP, at striker, and failed to address their holes at attacking midfield, defensive midfield, and full back. If there is a plan here, nobody in the Rapids front office is sharing it, and the moves thus far don't seem to indicate any semblance of logic to me.
But how does that make you feel, as a fan, rabbi?
Now the passionate fan take. The core Rapids fan: the youth player, the members of C38, the season ticket holders, have two favorite players. Drew Moor. And Clint Irwin. Both class acts;. Spokesmen of the team. The guys that interact with the fans and show up at events. And now they're both gone.
As a Dodger fan, it reminds me of the day the team traded Mike Piazza. We got a few shiny baubles in return, but the soul of the team was gone. The Dodgers got a little better for the rest of the year, then pitched off a cliff when the players in that deal aged and Mike Piazza carried on being the cornerstone of the Mets for another decade. And it hurt. Because we loved him.
If it helps to get the cash required for Pulido and Howard, and the team bounces back this year, then perhaps we'll embrace the two. I've been yelling for a while about the need for the team to acquire a Mexican international to increase the team's exposure with Latinos in Denver, so perhaps this is the right move at the right time. But getting Tim Howard doesn't feel like a smart soccer move: it feels like a smart marketing move.
"The Stars of Brazil: Here. Just two year behind schedule." Do Coloradans prefer to see Tim Howard make 10 saves a game, or do they want, like, a winning soccer team? Because that seems to be the trade off.
Lastly, the Rapids biggest challenge, both emotionally in connecting with their core fans, and in tactically playing a winning brand of soccer this season, is their unbelievable amount of flux. The starting XI on the field in February now almost certainly will include at least 7 players that weren't there 12 months ago, and none of the guys in the starting lineup will have ever met Oscar Pareja, who was coach just a scant two years ago.
Can a team like that gel quickly? Which of these guys can stand up and give an impassioned speech about a fan base they hardly know, or a Rocky Mountain Cup that none of them understand? Is there a core to this team, and if so, will they get to play?
This doesn't look like a plan. And if it is a plan, it looks like a bad one.