After a long 2018 season finishing at the bottom of the league with eight wins total, the Colorado Rapids started 2019 in a similar fashion. The Burgundy Boys earned just two points in their first nine games and were on a six-game losing streak with no end in sight at the end of April. Things were not looking good.
Then the Front Office fired Head Coach Anthony Hudson on May 1st and named Conor Casey as the Interim Head Coach. Under Casey, the Rapids lost their next two matches, but then won four of the next five, tied a formidable Philadelphia Union side in Philly, and have earned 13 points out of a possible 15.
Let’s look at what has happened since May 1st to turn things around.
The change in coaching staff is the most obvious—and probably most important—change. Getting rid of Hudson was something that absolutely needed to happen and naming Casey head coach in the interim was a very smart choice. Casey is a club legend, already knows the players, has the respect of the locker room, and has an attacking mindset.
Casey told the Denver Post that “what happens when you play expansive soccer is you need a lot of very good players with the ball and not make mistakes in the build-up. I wanted to eliminate those two things, and concentrate more on our strengths, which I think is more physical and straight-forward soccer.” He believes that the Rapids are better-suited as a compact team that can create chances quickly and take advantage of the altitude.
We’re seeing that philosophy in both training and in games. In an interview with Burgundy Wave, Jack Price mentioned that there’s “more freedom for the lads. Mentally, we’ve got less to deal with in terms of training. We’re just going out in training and enjoying it. There’s days where it’s just football and they can enjoy it.”
Specifically, Coach Casey incorporates transitional exercises in very small, compact spaces where things happen very quickly. “When you win those balls, the idea of those drills is to get out of that space and in a small amount of time, create a goal-scoring chance. That automatically forces you to run forward, pass forward, think forward,” he said.
After the game last weekend, Sam Nicholson mentioned that he’s “got a little more freedom on my own and that’s how I’ve liked to play since I was young. It’s good to have a coach and players around you that allow you to do that.”
None of them are going to come out and outwardly criticize their former manager, but you can tell in the things they say that many (if not all) of the players have felt a shift since the change. As the saying goes, sports are 90% mental and 10% physical, so a positive mindset is key, which leads to the next point.
2. The first win
Another point that comes up often is how important getting that first win was. When asked how that first win affecting the guys, Nicholson responded, “I think we just needed a bit of confidence and some momentum going into the games and once we got that, we started getting a bit more confidence and having that belief in the dressing room that we can beat these teams. The last few games we’ve been competing with teams in playoff spots and we’ve proven that we’re good enough. We just need to keep it going.”
As Casey said in an interview last week, “winning changes a lot.”
3. The addition of Lalas Abubakar and Jonathan Lewis
When Abubakar joined the team on loan from the Columbus Crew, he had an immediate impact on locking down the defense. He has played in four games since he arrived (per league loan rules, he couldn’t play against his former team on May 25th) and when he is on the pitch, they haven’t let in more than one goal. Before bringing in Abubakar, the Rapids had been averaging more than three goals per game.
From the outside, Abubakar seemed to fit in easily, and based on what he says, that’s exactly what happened. “The first day I got here, the way the club welcomed me, they made me feel like I belonged to this place already. I told myself that I’ve got to give everything for the club,” he continued. “I don’t know what they saw in me, but they brought me in so I’m going to give everything to them. And the guys, they welcome me so much, and I’m happy to be here.”
When Lewis was signed from NYCFC, he had an immediate impact on offense, putting in two goals in four games (three from the start). Shortly after his arrival, Lewis said that Colorado already “feels like home” and he was “trying to provide something different that the team didn’t have before.”
Casey believes that these two players are “two very important pieces that came in that made a huge difference, with Lalas [Abubakar] and [Jonathan] Lewis so I think that we can’t underestimate that either, but in a team and group dynamics when you have just one person come in, it can change the whole locker room. So we’ve had two very positive—both people and players—come in that have lifted everybody, and then we get a result and another result and in football, it’s all about confidence.”
A combination of things
On Twitter, we took a fan poll to see what they thought had the biggest impact on the turnaround:
What has been the biggest factor in the #Rapids96 turnaround?— Burgundy Wave (@Burgundywave) June 9, 2019
In reality, it’s probably a combination of all the things. As Kei Kamara told the media after the match last weekend, “soccer gods are answering us right now so we just have to keep worshipping the soccer gods and say thank you for what you’re doing. It’s been good—a good run. We’ve got the U.S. Open Cup coming up, but the positive energy from everybody in there is great, so it’s good.”