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The Rapids Way Op-Ed: An interlinear commentary

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Interim GM Padraig Smith released a brief manifesto indicating a new direction for the Colorado Rapids. We’re here to break down what it means.

Pádraig Smith indicates that perhaps the Rapids Way is thata way.
Mark Goodman, @RapidsRabbi

On Wednesday, Interim General Manager Pádraig Smith and Interim Chief Business Officer Wayne Brant wrote an op-ed to the Denver Post about the club’s direction after the firing of head coach Pablo Mastroeni. Pablo’s firing serves as the final ax blow to the old leadership of the club, as General Manager Paul Bravo and President Tim Hinchey also departed the team this season, as well as Director of Communications Richard Clarke. With the exception of Claudio Lopez, none of the top-level staff from the Senior team remain.

I’m going to nerd out a little here on this letter and read every line in-depth, providing my own comments underneath. This is akin to the way all rabbis read sacred text. And while this little op-ed is certainly not the Bible, as a manifesto for a new club direction, it might as well be chapter and verse of the Book of Pádraig. The original memo is indented, my comments follow each chunk. All bolded text added for emphasis.

The Rapids Way: An Evolution

Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we want to achieve? These are perhaps the most important questions that any organization can ask itself, in large part because answering them truthfully requires complete honesty. It also requires committing to a strong set of values, acknowledging shortcomings, and perhaps most importantly, it requires looking ahead to the future.

I love the concept, first off, that Padraig realizes that this team lacks a fundamental identity. Switching coaches frequently and being under Kroenke Sports Entertainment is partially to blame. Other teams in MLS have forged an identity, either slowly or all of a sudden. The LA Galaxy want flashy players, and are willing to drop coin for Latino DPs. Oscar Pareja espouses a philosophy of youth development and ‘busca la forma’ - find the path. He wants player development and the best creative attributes of each player to mold the team.* Orlando City used Florida’s robust Brazilian community as the base for their plan: recruit a phenomenal Brazilian playmaker and build the team around him.

Colorado had an identity, too. Sort of. The team had a defense-first mentality under Pablo Mastroeni. But ‘we’re gonna defend for our lives’ is simply a tactical approach to in-game management. It doesn’t inform all that much about what the academy teaches or emphasizes, or what kind of players you go after. I mean, you could argue that it informs the academy that they need to defend, and that the club is looking for... defenders. But that doesn’t actual explain what kind of soccer you play when you, for instance, have the ball yourself.

Moreover, the team itself is not clearly defined as an entity. It slots into a horizontal corporate media structure of KSE owning multiple teams in multiple sports across the Denver market. But that means the Rapids help fill out the TV schedule at Altitude, they have the same colors as the Avs, and they help KSE acquire real estate around town. That’s not a structure or an identity. Padraig and Wayne’s comments help to spell out the reality that a long term plan and a sustainable methodology are necessary to be more than a perennial league also-ran as well as bonus content for low grade advertisers on Altitude 2.

As interim general manager and chief business officer of the Colorado Rapids Soccer Club, we believe these are questions best answered in the public eye. In part, because sports organizations — soccer clubs especially — must be just as focused on the community they represent as they are on the success they aspire to achieve. When supporters come out for a match, they should look out over the pitch and see something familiar. Something that makes them proud not just of their team, but also the culture that it embodies.

At the Rapids, we’ve long sought to accomplish that. But far too often — at the fault of no one individual in particular — there has at times been a disconnect between the club’s vision and the product on the field. Alongside the rest of our talented front office, our primary goal is to fix that disconnect. To bridge that divide.

We believe that to earn the fans’ trust, we must be transparent about what our vision is and how we plan to get there. We must also be held accountable when things are not going the way they should. In doing so, it allows fans to see us taking the concrete steps needed to turn that vision in to a reality.

The Rapids have a current reputation of being less-than-forthcoming with information. They also tend to paint over the depth and seriousness of the teams problems. The responses given by the club in 2015, when the team had endured two straight seasons at the bottom of the table, were obtuse and disingenuous. And they made fans mad, because we were being treated like we were idiots. You don’t understand. These things take time. So said the FO. No, Tim and crew, we get it. In 2015 we sucked worse than Orlando City, and they had been in the third division just one season earlier. We do understand: the team was cheap, and late to evolve, and lacked vision, and assumed that the fans just wouldn’t notice. We did notice.

While teams like Red Bull New York were holding ‘town hall’ meetings, the Rapids fed canned questions over the phone to Pablo Mastroeni and Tim Hinchey. Other teams would allow its professionals to acknowledge realities, like that a terrible won/lost record was at least partially the product of poor front office decision-making. The Rapids, meanwhile, had an MLS reporter fired for saying on Twitter what everybody with a brain already knew: bad roster construction creates bad soccer teams, and management bears the weight of responsibility.

The Rapids organization has had only had glimmers of success over it’s 20-year lifespan and has earned just one somewhat surprising MLS Cup in its lifespan. But the team seemed perfectly content to be league-average, or worse, year-in and year-out. All the while fans were screaming that the team was bad, the talent was lacking, the games were boring and the tactics were stale. The team responded by being in denial, and assuming that the fans wouldn’t really hold them accountable. The thinking was: just roll out another block of free tickets to youth teams like Storm and Rush; roll out another ‘Lad’s Night Out’ promotion, and it’ll all be fine.

It wasn’t fine. Perhaps now the FO realizes that the emperor has no clothes. Maybe things will finally be different. The YouTube Q&A with Pádraig Smith and Richard Fleming indicates that they already are. But we have to hope that it’s a trend and not an aberration.

Internally, we call our vision The Rapids Way. But as we sit here today, we realize that to be successful, The Rapids Way must evolve.

And to do that, we must first embrace the things that our club has always done well. The things that make us who we are. Then we must be honest with ourselves about what we’re not doing well, and find a way to improve. Finally, we need to be open and forthcoming about where we want to go.

Long before either of us arrived in Commerce City, the Rapids were a club whose success was built on being well-organized, difficult to break down, and good at grinding out results. Some seasons were better than others, of course, but by and large those attributes have been the calling card of this club for much of its 21-year existence.

I’ll translate: the Rapids Way from 2014-2017 was really ‘the Pablo Way’. It resulted in a 39-35-54 (WTL) record, which is a 30.4% win percentage and 1.20 points per game. Owen Coyle, fired coach of the Houston Dynamo, also accrued 1.20 ppg as manager in MLS. Curt Onalfo had a career MLS record of 1.13 ppg as manager. They were terrible, and they got fired**, and their teams had to fully and totally reboot afterwards.

The Pablo Way didn’t work, and now it’s gone. We need a new way.

Being defensive and physical isn’t going to pave the way to an MLS Cup for this franchise, and being a mildly talent, mid-to-bottom table team is not acceptable. After a huge explosion of season tickets coming after a great 2016 season, there is rampant speculation that many STHs simply did not renew for 2018 due to this year’s poor performance. Clearly, the fans could not accept the mediocre status quo either.

Yet the last few seasons have shown that those attributes are no longer enough. It’s simple — we have to improve. And in doing so, we need to become a more attack-minded team. We need to invest our time and resources in becoming bolder, and more creative in how we conduct ourselves.

If a team is going to suck at football, it had better not be boring in the process. MLS fans will forgive a lot of sins. They aren’t naive enough to think that the hometown team is going to win the Cup every year. But they’ve got to score goals and do inspiring things. They call it ‘the beautiful game,’ but if you decide instead to make it ugly, the fans will turn away from the team and spend their Saturday evenings doing something else with their discretionary spending instead.

With that in mind, going forward we will look to target players who play with boldness and urgency.

Shooting and attacking! Like Deshorn Brown!

We will look for players with high soccer IQ and game intelligence.

Oh, guys that look up and make passes or survey the situation first! So, not Deshorn Brown.

Explosive players with good mobility. Players whose first instinct is to drive forward, to seek out the line-breaking pass, and to take on his opposite number. Players who, at the end of the day, exhibit the same burning desire to win that we do.

But seriously, the team is shifting what it values, at all positions, to tactical aptitude and ball movement, and quick decision making. Going to the outside and crossing is not a priority. Big, lumbering, physical players are not a priority. Goals come from going towards the goal, through the center of pitch, quickly and aggressively. Everybody on the field needs to be able to contribute to an attack.

Some of this feels new - the emphasis on ‘attacking’ - and some of this is broad and vague enough that it isn’t really much more than a good PR soundbyte - namely, saying you want smart players that can make line-breaking passes. No GM is ever going to openly espouse a philosophy of giant oafs slowly shifting the ball around the back line and lofting big passes hopelessly down field. They might DO that, but they sure won’t SAY they want to play ugly, route one soccer every match.

One thing about this that makes me wonder is that the archetype of this kind of player is Marco Pappa, a guy we signed in 2016 with high hopes. But Pappa didn’t see the field enough and didn’t really work out. Perhaps he wasn’t really fully committed to the team, or perhaps Pablo’s frustration that he wasn’t willing to work hard in practice or defend much in games made him dispensable. Perhaps, physically, the wheels were falling off when Pappa arrived. Maybe Pablo and his system really suffocated Pappa’s creativity, and the only reason the failure to utilize a fantastic skill player like Pappa was accepted was that the team won without him. Maybe.

Pádraig re-used all of these phrases repeatedly in the aforementioned Youtube Q & A: “explosive players with good mobility”, “high soccer IQ and game intelligence”, “players who play with boldness and urgency”, so I really believe that this what they’ll target.

That said, Padraig Smith joined the Rapids at the end of 2014. He acquired some players that seem to fit these criteria, and others that don’t. The future of ‘The Rapids Way’ will be, in a big way ‘The Pádraig Way’. And up to this point, Padraig was the guy making much of personnel decisions that gave us the team that we have currently in 2017, scraping along at the bottom. It will be up to him to get the right players, and for the new coach to put those pieces together to get wins.

Pádraig Smith is the sporting director and interim general manager of the Colorado Rapids. Wayne Brant is the Rapids’ interim chief business officer.

Just the fact that these two gentlemen penned the article tells me something I didn’t know. Or that Abbie was right about and that I was wrong about, but don’t tell Abbie. And that is that these two gentlemen are co-running the team, with an even split of responsibility. Mr. Brant is running the sales, marketing, and business side. Mr. Smith oversees all of the football operations. I had thought that this was a downgrading of oversight and control from the days of Tim Hinchey, president, overseeing it all. But it really is a split partnership between two sides of a future vision for the Rapids.

I look forward to seeing if Mr. Brant will release a similar document on the fan experience, team marketing, and business side of ‘the Rapids Way’. And I hope one of those strategic changes to improve the experience for the fans includes something akin to taco trucks on every corner at DSGP next year.

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* I think one could make the argument that what Pádraig put forth in this document might be ‘we like what Oscar Pareja was trying to do with this team before he left, and we’re going back to that.’ It’s possible, but I’m inclined to believe there are geographic and stylistic factors at play too. Oscar wants to develop fast-running, highly-technical, domestic-born Latino players for a transition-game attack. Pádraig probably wants swively, misdirection-heavy passers that can unlock a defense by going forward, sideways, and through you through guile. And he likes to primarily recruit in Europe, rather than west of Federal Blvd.

** Coyle only got 49 games before he was canned. Onalfo got 88 games with the Wizards, 20 for DC United, and 23 for the Galaxy. Mastroeni got 128 games. The front office of the Rapids was either far more patient or far more clueless than those other teams.