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What’s really wrong with the Rapids?

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An in-depth look at all aspects of the club.

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

After the Colorado Rapids lost to the New York Red Bulls a couple of weeks ago, I wrote: “If things are still looking grim in mid-summer, then that might be a different story, but whether we like it or not, this new coach and this new squad are still figuring things out. It’s frustrating, and we’ll find out soon enough if these are just growing pains, a coaching issue, or we don’t have the right players, but we have nothing to lose by giving them a chance.”

I still stand by the belief that we need to give the Burgundy Boys more time; however, while we are seeing improvements on the pitch in many aspects, the reality is that it’s still not good enough in MLS 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever MLS era we’re in. I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what is wrong with the Rapids, and asking myself: why are we getting the same results after gutting the Front Office, the training staff, and the roster? Why are expansion teams coming into the league with a brand new FO, training staff, and roster and seeing the consistent success that our team hasn’t?

When Bobby Warshaw published this piece on MLSSoccer.com on Monday, I figured now was as good a time as ever to break down every aspect of the club and try to answer the title question: What’s really wrong with the Rapids? What needs to change?

Ownership

The Kroenke family doesn’t even try to hide that they don’t care about the Rapids or any other team they own. Stan Kroenke has said about Arsenal, “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved.” The same complaints we have here in Colorado pop up with all the Kroenke-owned teams (he’s never at the games, he’s never even at the facilities) and his son Josh doesn’t even mention the Rapids in an interview in the Denver Post about the Denver teams the family owns. Sports are a business, and I get that, but some of the most successful teams have owners that are actually invested in their team.

Which brings on my next point about ownership, and that’s cold, hard cash. We all had this narrative in our minds that KSE doesn’t open their wallets and that’s why everything is so terrible. But it turns out, that’s not true. The Rapids are 10th in spending in the entire league. Even if you take out the $2 million that Tim Howard takes up, they would only drop a couple of spots.

That makes me think that this particular issue isn’t how much the Rapids have to spend but how it’s being spent.

Front Office

When Tim Hinchey left in the middle of last season, Wayne Brant moved into Senior Vice President of Business Operations. Brant has been with the club since 2007, which means he could either continue things as they were going because he already knows the ins and outs, or he has seen the mistakes made by his predecessors and could change things.

We were told that they would change things.

Brant and Padraig Smith took over as a two-pronged leadership team and developed what we all now know as The Rapids Way. They mentioned becoming more attack-minded and changing the way that the club has always done things. They pledged to sign players with a “high soccer IQ,” and find “explosive players with good mobility,” ”whose first instinct is to drive forward.”

So then the big question here is: have they done that? Is the vision clear?

I would say yes and no. I do think that everyone, from Brant to the players, is aligned with the same mission, and that’s ultimately to become a perennial playoff team and win some hardware. That’s what we all want. And we have seen some players brought in who I would say meet the “requirements” listed in the Rapids Way.

But the undeniable truth is that we are still missing something. Smith seems to pride himself on finding the “diamonds in the rough” and using stats and research to find these guys, and while some of them have panned out, some have not. When it comes down to it, we have three DP spots: one is being used on an aging goalkeeper, one is taken by a player who is good enough to be a DP but keeps getting injured, and the third is open. We need a DP-quality striker or midfielder who is going to come in and make things happen. Hoping we find a diamond in the rough just isn’t cutting it anymore. We need a couple players who are proven and well-known, not just guys with potential.

Then there’s my previous point, which is that the Rapids obviously have the money, but don’t seem to be spending it or using it well. They may be 10th in spending, but there is almost $7 million invested in six players, and as Warshaw stated in his article: “Gashi, Aigner, and Boli have a combined two starts this year, totaling fewer than 300 minutes played. Mason leads the line for an attack with the second-fewest goals scored. Howard, Smith, and Wilson head a defense that ranks 11th in the league.”

Injuries and fitness have been a big problem and there are some issues with Aigner and Hudson, but that’s still A LOT of money sitting on the bench.

There also seems to be a bit of tunnel vision with where the Rapids are getting these players. Smith obviously searches out guys from the UK, but there is a ton of quality coming in to MLS from South America. Or what about Mexico? I was at the Mexico/Jamaica CONCACAF game last summer and there are plenty of Mexican fans that I bet would be much more interested in the Rapids if they saw some representation.

It’s also not all about the money spent on the pitch, though. The FO also created new positions in the off-season for better analysis and conditioning, which they deserve credit for. Assistant Coach Connor Casey and Goalkeeper Coach Chris Sharpe stuck around, which tells me that they believe in the plan for this season. It was smart of the club to keep these guys around to help with the transition.

Coaching Staff

We all called for something to change and Anthony Hudson has brought in that change. There is a slew of new players, new coaches and technical staff members, and a new formation on the field. Practices are much more organized, more focused, and the guys are putting in much more work than I’ve seen before.

Hudson has shown that he is willing to change his tactical strategies and formation mid-game and he is willing to sub in/out players that aren’t working in the game.

What is frustrating, though, is that we haven’t seen our best starting XI yet. Part of this is out of his control with injuries, but part of this is some questionable starting choices. To address the elephant in the room, I actually don’t think he’s favoring the Kiwis over other Rapids. It seems to me that Hudson is trying to figure out the right combination with what he has, which is why we’re seeing guys like Nana in positions that they are clearly uncomfortable in. I assume that Deklan Wynne will lose his starting spot when Kortne Ford comes back, but Tommy Smith is a quality centerback that has earned his spot in the starting XI.

To address the other elephant in the room: To be honest, I don’t think we know enough about the Aigner situation to throw blame around. There is not one person in the Rapids organization who would disagree that Aigner is a quality player, so if Hudson says it’s a performance issue I think it’s either something happened between them that we will never really know the full story about, or Aigner isn’t doing something up to Hudson’s standards. Of course you can blame the coach if it’s a player issue, but you never know what’s really going on so I’m hesitant to blame anyone without knowing the full story.

The Rapids are also tied with LAFC for the 5th toughest schedule so far this season. The Vancouver Whitecaps are close in 7th place. The teams with more difficult schedules are NYCFC, DC United, LA Galaxy, and the Seattle Sounders. Of those teams, only two (LAFC and NYCFC) have a winning record so far this season.

Players

First and foremost, I refuse to put any of this on the players. They are putting in the work, leaving it all on the pitch, and trying their hardest. They want to win and they want to get results. Every single player believes in turning this club around and they’re committed to the effort.

I honestly think that the current roster—when healthy—is good enough to make the playoffs. If the FO can bolster this roster with a couple big signings this summer, that could be just what we need.

Supporter Culture

I can’t write an article about the club without holding up a mirror and taking a look at the supporters. Let’s get some things out of the way first: we know that Denver is a Broncos town. We know that some people who live here don’t even know who the Rapids are, and that’s on the club for not doing a better job of promoting the team (though I have been seeing more billboards and promotional things around town lately).

BUT when traveling supporters outchant and outcheer the home supporters, we might have a problem. And I get it—it’s hard to support the Rapids sometimes. Everything I’ve listed above is really frustrating to deal with year in and year out. But building the Rapids culture is also up to us. We don’t have the numbers that the Timbers Army has, but we can make soccer culture in Denver something better.

Of course, winning helps. If the team wins, more people are invested and more people show up, but there are still plenty of ways we could improve (that don’t require moving the stadium because yes, we all know things would be better if the Rapids were in downtown).

So what’s the deal?

I find it very hard to believe that we can point to one thing and say, “That’s it! Fix this/fire that person/bring in this guy and all of our problems will be solved!” Complex problems are rarely that easy to solve. But when you get the same results year after year and it doesn’t seem to matter who is in charge or who is on the pitch—you have to wonder how things will turn around long-term.