We all know that it’s been pretty rough for the Colorado Rapids (and the fans) over the past couple years, so I’ll quickly summarize. The last time the Colorado Rapids were in the playoffs was 2013, and they got knocked out in the first round by the Seattle Sounders. Then, Oscar Pareja left to go to FC Dallas in January 2013, less than two weeks before the MLS SuperDraft. The Rapids hired Pablo Maestroeni as interim head coach in March of 2013, and then gave him a 3-year contract that same year. 2014 and 2015 were terrible, with the team finishing at the bottom of the table both years.
Before the 2016 season, new players were acquired, most notably Shkëlzen Gashi, Marco Pappa, and Jermaine Jones. It looked like the Kroenke empire was finally going to spend some money on making the team better.
And better, they were. Kicking off the season in March with a 2-0-1 record, many Rapids faithful felt that it had to be a fluke. By the end of April, their record had improved to 6-1-2. Zac MacMath was holding it down between the sticks, but Tim Howard was signed mid-season—a huge name was coming to Colorado. Between that signing and the team’s record, people were getting excited about the team.
But every time something negative happened (ahem, the New York City FC blowout) or when the team slumped at the end of the summer, fans started to question the team, and again ask—was the first half of the season a fluke?
During every press conference, we would hear Pablo talk about the team learning from their mistakes, and that they were just going to “Keep Fighting”. At times it was almost frustrating that the team didn’t appear to be as upset about the ties (and losses) as the fans were. There was definitely a slump, there was definitely a tough stretch through August and September, and while we were pretty sure the playoffs were still locked down, the Supporters’ Shield seemed to get further and further out of reach.
Yet somehow whenever the Rapids didn’t get a much-needed result, neither did the other teams fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot. We took down an unbeaten FC Dallas side in Frisco, and when it mattered the most, we beat the Portland Timbers at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to clinch a playoff spot. Chris White wrote that the Rapids needed someone to get hot, and Dominique Badji apparently accepted the challenge by scoring two goals in a 3-2 win over Houston Dynamo the next week (last weekend).
Suddenly, the Rapids clinched the 2nd seed in the Western Conference, a first round playoff bye, and the Supporters’ Shield is still within reach.
The week before the Houston game, I talked to Dillon Powers, who was a rookie in 2013. He said that in his rookie year, “I was just glad to be in the playoffs and that’s it. It’s my rookie year, that’s all I really wanted. And now you start to understand that playoffs aren’t a given, for one, and also, a chance to win the MLS Cup is certainly not a given either—it’s a special opportunity. I feel like this team has a good opportunity to do that.” He said that this year’s squad has “more of a sense of identity... I think we’ve worked hard over the course of the year to create that and know what we’re about, and I think that’s served us really well, and hopefully it will serve us well in the playoffs.”
I also talked to Pablo Maestroeni about the 2016 Rapids, and what makes them so tough to beat. He told me that “it’s hard for teams that are very dynamic in the attack to break us down, and I think in games in the playoffs where they’re so emotional and there’s so much riding on the games, I think there’s a level of comfort in our ability to deny attacking teams a lot of good opportunities.”
The Rapids have also been depending on the young guys this year, when some of the veteran players have been injured or called up for international duty. “I think all the young guys, and even the guys in the back—Jared, Axel, and Miller—they’re relatively young players, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that this whole year they’ve really been the glue to this team, when the other guys haven’t been around.
I think these are the moments that really propel a young player into what people will now say is a very solid professional player. And I think all the guys I’ve mentioned, including Marlon [Hairston], [Dominique] Badji, [Eric] Miller have a great opportunity now, moving towards the latter part of the season, to really put a stamp on their own game, and really help the collective whole move forward into the playoffs.”
When I asked Pablo to talk about the team’s identity, he said “this is my third year and I think everything in life takes time. I think it’s hard for anyone to come in and impart their beliefs and philosophy, and for any group regardless of what profession, to absorb it and accept it and live it, without time. And I think what Dillon’s referring to is that we’ve been through a lot of hardships over the last couple years, and with that there are many learning experiences and learning opportunities, and I feel that we’ve come to better understand ourselves as individuals going through these hardships.
When you have a bunch of guys that believe in what we’re trying to achieve, that understand what their roles are on offense, understand what their roles are on defense, understand what their roles are on set pieces, get results that validate their understanding of all those different things, and then there’s a culture in the locker room of belief, of positivity, of let’s move forward, let’s not dwell on the past... it all encompasses our identity.”
Regardless of what happens in the post-season and beyond, whatever has been going on behind-the-scenes over the last three years is finally working, and the Rapids are having a record-setting year. I personally think this team can win the MLS Cup. I personally think Pablo should be given at least a one year contract extension. I’m excited to see what happens in the post-season.
As I wrapped up my interview with Pablo, he emphasized: ”We’re not this team of the past, we’re a team that’s here and we’re projecting forward... regardless of what anyone else thinks, we believe in ourselves. The #KeepFighting and ‘Why not us?’—let’s change the way we’re perceived from inside and the way we’re perceived from the outside.”
I believe in this team—do you?