We’ve talked at length about how awful the 2018 season was. And awful doesn’t even describe two record-breaking losing streaks, an all-time low for club points, fewest goals in MLS, etc. etc. etc. There is not a single person who would deny that it was bad.
But Executive Vice President and General Manager Padraig Smith looks at the season in two parts: what happened on the field and what happened off the field. “We’re a professional soccer team, it’s results-driven—and they weren’t good enough. The results weren’t acceptable and weren’t anywhere near the results we wanted,” he admits. “At the same time, I look at what was going on behind the scenes and off the field, and there were huge successes there. That’s something that has laid the foundation and laid the groundwork for what’s happening in this offseason and will happen in the next offseason as well. This is all part of a much longer-term plan, so it’s not that we look at any one individual or season at isolation and say that was a success or a failure, there’s elements within that and whether or not they were successes or failures.” According to Smith, “the change in the culture and the introduction of standards that were so badly needed was hugely successful.”
Smith is very clear that some of the decisions they made last year were going to be detrimental in the short-term, but feels they will be beneficial in the long-term. “The easiest way to show that is by focusing on players like [Stefan] Aigner, like [Yannick] Boli, etc.,” he says. “Would we’ve been better week to week? Would we’ve gotten better results last year had those guys been on the field? We absolutely would. Are they better than the players we put out there sometimes? Yes, they are. But if they weren’t willing to do what was required to meet the standards that we were setting—which we believe are fundamentally important to a long-term sustainable success—then we weren’t going to make those sacrifices.”
In 2018, there were certain non-negotiables that everyone needed to be on board with. Things that Smith says are pretty simple from a soccer perspective: “you need to track your runner, you need to make the runs that are going to create space for other players on the team, you need to be able to press in a coordinated and smart way, you need to be able to use the triggers that the coaching staff have put in place to implement the type of soccer that we wanted to play.”
And if a player wouldn’t do those things, he wasn’t going to play. “If you weren’t willing to do the things that aren’t always seen and don’t always get you big applauds, but are crucial to the team being successful—then we weren’t going to play you, regardless of how talented you were. Had we allowed certain players to go and do whatever they wanted and undermine the standard, the coach, or the locker room, the long-term ramifications would’ve been far worse. When we talk about a mindset that’s no excuses, that players have to be truly dedicated and committed on and off the field, to preparing themselves and being ready to go out there and perform at the highest level, it’s sounds simple, but it’s so important. If you don’t have that right, you will never be successful long-term.”
All season, rumors swirled about players getting kicked off the practice pitch or being in the doghouse for clashing with Anthony Hudson, but Smith says that despite what was portrayed outside the club, “it wasn’t case of Coach Hudson having clashes. Coach Hudson implemented a set of standards and when players didn’t adhere to them, they didn’t get selected. That’s something that we stand by and was a key part of hiring him in the first place—I firmly believe that without those standards and without players who are truly driven to be excellent, you can’t succeed. You simply can’t. Tim Howard adheres to those standards. Tommy Smith adheres to those standards. Jack Price adheres to those standards. Kellyn Acosta… those standards were not outlandish. Those standards were not crazy. But when you want to bring in 17-18 players, it’s tough to do the extensive research that we want to do on every single one and sometimes you get one wrong, even when you’ve met them and talked to them.”
That being said, he’s “very confident” that Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara, two guys known for having big personalities, “understand the culture they’re coming into.” Smith says “it’s easy to point at someone like Kei and say ‘oh there was this issue in Columbus’, but since that point in time, Kei’s had kids, Kei’s changed, he’s gone to different clubs and done different things. He’s motivated to win. He’s a great guy. I spoke to multiple people at multiple clubs that’s Kei’s been at and we got a pretty consistent report back on him. There’s no doubt that Kei’s got a big personality, but you want big personalities, and we feel that his personality is going to fit in.”
Before bringing Feilhaber and Kamara in, Smith and his staff “did a huge amount of background research on those players. We spoke to them at great length and really tried to gain an understanding of how they’ve been and how they’ve evolved over the course of their careers. If we’re going to talk about culture and standards so much, we have to do the work to make sure that these players are going to fit in.” It helps that Feilhaber and Kamara have a good relationship from their time playing together on Sporting Kansas City, and they also know a couple current Rapids’ players like Kortne Ford and Tim Howard (though who doesn’t Tim know at this point?).
For those reasons, Smith feels as though Feilhaber and Kamara have an understanding of the culture they’re coming into and “you want players who are going to get after each other and keep the competitiveness and training at a high level, so we’ve done our research on them and with Kei and Benny we’re bringing in two leaders who are going to add to our locker room.”
Rapids fans are excited, too, and maybe even a little surprised that the Front Office pulled in some well-known MLS names. We’ve gotten used to seeing players from more obscure leagues that we’ve never heard of before, and while that may seem like a different tactic, Smith says the strategy for bringing in new players is the same. “It’s always to get the best players we can for the club to fit the profile of the position that we’re looking to fill at any point in time. You need to look at the market as well—what’s available? What’s the value that’s on the market at any particular point in time?”
Thinking about last year, Smith said “obviously coach knew Tommy Smith very well and I had a relationship with Wolves and was very comfortable and confident in what Jack Price was going to bring. I think Boli coming in from the Chinese Super League was different. He wasn’t our first choice to come in on the striker side, but we were adamant that we were not going to risk the future flexibility of the club when it comes to investing from a DP level or bringing in a striker that was going to take up a multi-year contract, and that didn’t work out the way we wanted. When we moved into this year, there’s no doubt that there was a very clearly defined philosophy for how we were going to play the game.”
He listed the four key priorities for this off-season: two strikers, a number 10, and a right fullback. They made their list of ideal targets and were able to get their top target for each position. Bringing in MLS players is ideal, if possible, because “in any league, you want players who have experience. It helps from the acclimatization perspective but in MLS it’s probably even more pronounced because of the travel, the climate—it’s different. We felt that if we were able to recruit the top target that we had within the league, that would be the right course of action compared to trying to bring someone in from abroad who would need an acclimatization period.”
Not only were they able to get their top targets, but at a value that gave them some flexibility that ended up being crucial for trading up in the Super Draft to land Andre Shinyashiki and for closing the deal with Feilhaber.
It started with bringing in Keegan Rosenberry. “Marlon [Hairston]’s a great kid and has done a lot of fantastic things for us on and off the field, but there’s no doubt that Keegan Rosenberry is a better fit in that position,” Smith says. “He’s on the national team, his sophomore year was a tough year, but his first and third years in the league were exceptional. What he does both defensively and offensively is important. He’s at a very high level, and we build out from the back from our fullbacks and he’s more than capable not only of assessing the situation and picking the right pass, but then playing it. Kei’s already told us how excited he is to get on the end of some of Keegan’s crosses as well, so I think that was the right fit for us. It gave us the flexibility to then trade Marlon, which then gave us the flexibility to bring in Andre and Benny, and I think that’s an absolute benefit for the club.”
The Rapids have absolutely upgraded several positions on the field, but it’s no secret that there is a lack of experience at leftback. Smith isn’t concerned. “We have a plan with Sam,” he says of homegrown player Sam Vines. “Obviously, we’ve known Sam for years, he’s come up through the Academy. When we signed him, we knew it was going to take him time. We sent him to Charlotte and Mike Jeffries and the guys down there did a wonderful job with him. He played 29 games, got a lot of playing experience, and then when he came up here and played against Cristian Pavon [with Boca Juniors] he did pretty well. Is he going to make mistakes along the way? Absolutely. But there comes a point when you’ve got to play these guys. He is good enough. Will there be ups and downs? Absolutely there will, but the whole point of having a Development Academy is to that you can bring players through and then put them in and use them.”
Smith also believes that fans will be surprised at what Deklan Wynne can do when played in his preferred position. “I think he was put in a really tight spot last year. He is a leftback. He played right-side centerback in the three, he played rightback, but he’s incredibly athletic, very quick, good on the ball, tough in the tackle as well. Probably a little more physical than Sam, if not as good technically as Sam, so I think they complement each other nicely. He’s 22 as well, and again, it’s prove-yourself time. We’re excited about it. You can’t have experienced players in every single position and think you’re doing the right thing for the club long-term. This is absolutely the right thing. There will be ups and downs and we’re okay with that because we want these guys to be the future.”
As we countdown the days to pre-season, Smith says the roster is “very close to being finalized. We will bring in one more player. I think that’ll be along the back line.”
But most importantly of all, is The Benny Feilhaber Show coming back? “No comment on that one,” Smith laughs.
We can only hope.