Welp… another year of MLS is in the books as we have wrapped up yet another Sounders-Toronto MLS Cup Final, proving once and for all that nothing actually matters in the grand scheme of things unless you are one of those two teams. After a spectacular flame out of the playoffs from Cup heavyweights LAFC and defending title champions Atlanta United, Seattle and Toronto became their respective conference champions for the third time in four years. Seattle won 3-1 at home putting their Cup record over Toronto at 2-1, which they will in no way hold over their heads until the inevitable rematch next year. With a general shrug of acceptance from the 90% of people who don’t really care about these teams one way or another, we would normally turn our eyes to the next season.
But all of this has gotten me thinking. If we were Seattle or Toronto or LAFC or even LA Galaxy or shudders RSL, we would in all honesty probably be pretty happy with how things ended up this season. But we’re not. We are, now and for all time, Rapids fans. Our blood is burgundy as sure as Salt Lake City beer can’t exceed 3.2%. So after an absolute roller coaster of a year, with some of the lowest lows and highest highs of franchise history, I was asking myself one question: Should we be satisfied with the Rapids in 2019?
Expectations at the beginning of the season
At the start of the year, several of my friends and I were discussing what we considered the benchmark for the end of the season. At the time (before the very first game), we had built what on paper should have been a fairly decent roster, though it was entirely unproven as the sum of its parts.
We had signed MLS veterans Kei Kamara, Diego Rubio, Keegan Rosenberry, and Benny Feilhaber, brought fan-favorite Clint Irwin back, traded for Nicolas Mezquida and draft pick Andre Shinyashiki, and signed a pair of young homegrowns in Matt Hundley and Sam Raben. Overall, it seemed like a good mix of proven in-league talent and promising youth potential. Combined with the fairly large group we saw leave the roster after 2018, it seemed like a big improvement. After the (put politely) disappointment that was last season, we figured it was all uphill after that. Nothing but gumdrops and ice cream. Plus, with what the Front Office had put out years ago regarding the Rapids Way, we figured that this was the time to prove it. Show to the fanbase that we were ready to become that perennial playoff team.
But, we also knew that the weight of 2018 was still upon us. A big roster turnover, plus the loss of a DP, while the rest of the league seemed to be improving. Clubs had started selling talent to overseas clubs and bringing in world-class players. Zlatan, Rooney, and Nani all called MLS their league in 2019 when they easily could have been competing in stronger leagues around the world. Regardless of fan optimism, the 2019 season was going to be a challenge.
All three of us came up with the same target that we all considered both realistic while being optimistic—fighting for a playoff spot.
In a lot of ways, I feel like the three of us all encompassed the majority of Rapids fans. One of us has been following the team since ‘96, I started as a season ticket holder in 2016, and the third member of our trio has been casually following the team the last few years: not as a season ticket holder, but has been to a few games and watches them occasionally on TV. A bit surprising that across that breadth of fans, we still managed to agree on the same goal. So surely between the three of us, we had a reasonable goal in mind for the Rapids fanbase as a whole... right?
We wanted to keep our expectations in check. After 2018, we avoided the Wooden Spoon, thanks to San Jose and Orlando. But like that grandmother that visits for too long over the holiday break and constantly asks you about your nonexistent love life, it is still too close for comfort. It was a lot to expect us to get into a playoff spot, even with the additional spot added. Seattle, Portland, Dallas, LAFC, LA Galaxy... needless to say, there would be some stiff competition. We figured that if we weren’t in the playoffs, we should be at the least close to getting in. Lo and behold, after the turbulent 2019 season, we ended up fighting all season long and still had a chance of making it in on the last game of the season. Good, right?
Possible benchmarks for success
Let’s not jump to conclusions yet. I personally had another set of benchmarks in mind. For a team to be exactly average, they should have (a) an approximately equal split between wins, losses, and ties with an 11-11-12 WLT record, (b) a zero-goal differential, and (c) have a greater point total at home than away due to home-field advantage. Given a 34-game season, this would average out to 45 points with some handwave-y math saying we should get around 30 points at home and 15 away, that math being “eh, that sounds about right” from me. I chose not to put real numbers for the goal differential because it isn’t so much about scoring lots of goals and letting lots of goals in versus the opposite so much as it was about the difference in offense and defense. The law of average says you are equal, and the number would be dependent on the rest of the league.
This season, the Rapids ended up with 42 points, but had we gotten the win against LAFC on Decision Day we would have been spot on for rule-of-average points of 45. Turning one loss into a win isn’t far off that target. Their record overall was 12-16-6, a pretty far cry from an even split but a greater amount of wins than ties, so not bad. The overall goal differential ended up at -5. Not fantastic, but given that 2017 ended with a -20 differential and 2018 with -27, a big improvement. Again, had we won the final game of the season we actually would have been almost exactly on target. Still pretty good. The home-away record is a bit more telling too. A home record of 9-6-2 and an away record of 3-10-4, giving us 29 points at home and 13 points away. Given a little bit of fudge factor, that’s still really close to that target.
So there we go. Three for three on stats, fighting for a playoff spot on the very last game of the season. That’s a success, right?
Should we be satisfied?
By the goals in mind at the start of the season, we can’t consider this season a failure. But, by the same token, I wouldn’t say that we should be satisfied with this season either. To me, being satisfied with the season is saying that that is the level that we, the Rapids fanbase, are considering acceptable. In the context of the season, just missing out on the playoffs is fine. Compared to narrowly missing out on the Wooden Spoon last year, an average team in stats across the board is fine. But in the context of the Rapids overall, missing out on playoffs isn’t. Being just an average team isn’t.
This team has repeatedly said that they want to become a perennial playoff team. That isn’t an ‘average’ team, that would be significantly above average. In a weird way, I feel like we should strive for becoming a team like Sporting Kansas City, where this is the first year that they had missed out on playoffs since 2010. Peter Vermes has led the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances, earning an MLS Cup along the way. That is the sort of success that we need to reach.
I don’t want to make it seem like this season was a disaster. Far from it. We have managed to finally see the club start to turn a new leaf and start looking like the perennial playoff team that they promised. With a fantastic young core to build around combined with key players on lockdown for contracts, we have a huge potential for entering the 2020 season as not just a playoff contender, but a team that could make it to the Western Conference finals or even the MLS Cup.
What to improve in 2020
The actual objectives for the 2020 season is a different discussion. In this offseason though, here is what I feel are the critical things the Rapids need to do:
- We need to shore up the defense. Whether that means signing Lalas Abubakar (as rumors circulate that we indeed have signed him) or bringing in someone else to do the job, we need to make sure that we don’t let another 63 goals in over a single season. Either way, we need more than just one signing. We are short on depth, though I do hope that Kortne Ford is healthy and ready to make a comeback next season. Sign Lalas for a reasonable price, or don’t but get someone who can do the job for the right price, and add some off-the-bench players.
- Sign a Designated Player. With both Shkelzen Gashi and Tim Howard now off the books, this team has the potential to sign not one but two high-profile players. If this team wants to properly compete next year, we need to bring in the quality players that a DP slot can pay for. Look at how teams like LA Galaxy, LAFC, and Atlanta performed with Zlatan, Vela and Josef Martinez respectively—setting offensive records and lifting what were otherwise potentially sub-par teams. We can’t let the Rapids go through the entire 2020 season with just a single DP. We have two spots, let’s use them. I don’t necessarily think that we need both signings ready to go come day one, but after the summer transfer window, we need two on the roster. People can always point to how we have a third DP spot that would be available too, but given this team’s track record and ownership, I think it is a little unrealistic to expect that third slot to be occupied any time soon. And yes, that includes a potential youth DP signing.
- Get the Rapids back to being watchable from the comfort of your home. The current situation with Altitude has been an absolute debacle. If we can’t watch our Rapids for over half of the season, then this fanbase can’t grow, can’t build, and can’t support the team. We hope that the Avalanche and Nuggets get spared the same fate as our season did, but it is important that Altitude not only comes back, but in a way that is accessible to fans. It was a big win to get Altitude back on DirecTV, though the details are lacking. Get it back on the rest of the Big 3, or better yet, offer some streaming service for those of us who don’t want to spend $100+/month on cable just to watch our team. Having “being at the stadium” be the only way to watch the team is unacceptable. It shouldn’t be easier for my brother who lives in Atlanta to watch the Rapids than it is for a Colorado-based diehard.
So for 2019 as a standalone season, it is acceptable. In regards to where this team wants to be, it isn’t. But in regards to the team’s history in the last few years and where we are now, it is. I really do believe that with a productive offseason, this team will be on an upward trajectory and the Rapids will be in 2020 the team that this fanbase deserves.