Colorado Rapids fans have become very familiar with the phrase “perennial playoff team.” It’s been Padraig Smith’s mantra of sorts since he and Wayne Brant took over the top leadership roles within the club three years ago. In 2019, the Rapids barely missed the playoffs after Anthony Hudson was fired and interim head coach Conor Casey and then permanent head coach Robin Fraser seemed to finally turn things around.
Though 2020 was a year filled with uncertainty, the Burgundy Boys earned a spot in the playoffs, both by points per game and total points, despite playing 3-5 games fewer than every other team in the conference. Losing in the first round to Minnesota United wasn’t how they hoped the season would end, but the players and coaching staff feel they have a solid foundation to build upon.
After their loss on November 22, captain Jack Price said that “We were obviously proud of making the playoffs. It’s the first time, like you say, that I’ve been involved in that, but still very disappointing. We felt like we deserved more tonight. But like I said, we’ll come back stronger and we have to learn from this. Not every team comes to the playoffs and they win the first time they’ve been in. We have to learn, we have to come back stronger next year, and we have to go further.”
Putting the pieces together
Heading into the 2021 season, the roster doesn’t look that much different than 2020, except for a couple of key additions: veteran Michael Barrios from FC Dallas and the 3rd overall Super Draft pick Philip Mayaka.
“We always keep an eye on the players that are real difference makers in this league. And when it comes to chance creation, there’s not many better on a consistent basis than Barrios,” Smith explained. “So when we found out that he was available, we thought it was an opportunity to add another really interesting piece to our attack — an attack which has been pretty potent already, the fourth-highest goal scorers over the last two years — so adding someone like Barrios was really an opportunity to be simply too good to turn down.”
While they may still add some players for depth and/or building for the future, Smith has confidence in Diego Rubio and Andre Shinyashiki up top.
“We’ve got a starting nine in Diego Rubio. He’s a Chilean international. He’s proven over his years in MLS from a goals-to-minute perspective. He is one of the leaders in the league. And even though he may not have had a numerically strong year last year when it comes just to goals, he was absolutely critical in enabling a team to continue to be one of the top goal scorers in the league. Ultimately from our perspective, it doesn’t matter who puts the ball in the back of the net as long as the team is putting the ball on the back of the net,” Smith said.
Rapids fans can also expect to see 20-year-old Braian Galvan play a bigger role in the upcoming season.
“I thought he did incredibly well to adapt the way he did. He has wonderful character, wonderful mentality,” Smith said. “We expect him to get an increased workload this year, we expect him to get more exposure to continue his development. He’s still young, but there’s no doubt he can become an impact player in this league in years to come, so we’ve got to continue to work on that and get him more minutes — but they’ve got to be earned. It’s a tough group to break into, so we’re looking forward to seeing like what he can do a second year at the club/first full season.”
Smith is also excited about Philip Mayaka, who they took as the 3rd overall pick in the Super Draft after making several transactions to move up in the draft.
“We’ve seen him compared to a number of different players around the league and I’m sure he’s looking forward to coming in and showing that he’s Philip Mayaka. He’s not Latif Blessing, he’s not Darlington Nagbe, he’s not Diego Chara,” Smith said.
“He is a tenacious midfielder. He’s got an incredible engine that can really impact the game on both sides of the ball,” Smith continued. “He’s smart when in possession, knows how to keep it from a continuity standpoint, but also can break lines and try and begin attacks, which is critically important for us in that position. And then he also has the ability to go box-to-box and defensively be somebody that impacts the other team when they have the ball and put us on the front foot with turnovers as well. We’re really excited to see what he can bring.”
Looking forward to (hopefully) playing in front of fans again
Major League Soccer recently announced that the 2021 season will begin on April 3, pending negotiations with the MLSPA, and the Rapids are ready to get back on the pitch.
“We’re excited about the group and we want them to be able to get out there and play,” Smith said. “The aim now is to move on and to push on and go further. We’ve got to win games in the playoffs now and get ourselves in a position where we can compete for trophies. We’ve got to bring the Rocky Mountain Cup back home next year, the US Open Cup — we’ve got to be participants in that — and we’ve got to of course get back into the playoffs and be a threat to go the distance in the playoffs.”
Three years ago, Smith and Brant asked for three to four transfer windows and asked fans to trust that they had a long-term plan that would be sustainable. “And we got it,” he said. “I think now we’re starting to show that we can repay that. We are desperate to get our supporters back. We want to see C38, we want the supporters who have stuck with us through thick and thin to be able to watch this group because unfortunately for two years now, they’ve almost been the best-kept secret in Denver sports. In Colorado sports. A top-four goal scoring team, top-five points team over the last two years. And we certainly want our fans there to be able to celebrate those moments with us as well.”