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Pádraig Smith is betting big on 2023

Will the Colorado Rapids’ international gamble pay off?

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Colorado Rapids
Aug 29, 2020; Commerce City, Colorado, USA; Colorado Rapids executive vice president and general manager Padraig Smith before the match against Sporting Kansas City at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Pádraig Smith is making a huge gamble.

Fresh off a disappointing 2022 campaign, the Colorado Rapids’ Executive Vice President and General Manager has bucked the club’s typical acquisition trend by looking to add reinforcements from abroad. While Smith did well to nab former LA Galaxy Designated Player Kévin Cabral and FC Cincinnati prospect Calvin Harris before the new year, the bulk of Colorado’s off-season transfer business has uncharacteristically involved shrewd international moves.

First came Connor Ronan—an up-and-coming versatile Irish midfielder who got stuck in the European loan merry-go-round when he couldn’t crack the first team with the Premier League’s Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The towering veteran center back Andreas Maxsø followed as the club’s second off-season Designated Player signing, and brought with him a reputation as one of the best defensive leaders in his native Denmark.

Finally, the Rapids found a solution to the biggest hole in their team by signing Australian International Alex Gersbach, a Ligue 2 left back who should fill the void left by Lucas Esteves’ departure back to Brazil. Like Ronan, Gersbach also found himself locked out of consistent playing time at his current club—Grenoble Foot 38—and is looking to see if he can re-energize his career in MLS.

The three transfers represent a notable development for a club that’s primarily hounded the domestic market for moneyball deals since Smith took the full GM reins for the Rapids in the middle of the 2017 season. Aside from a handful of exceptions like Jack Price, Danny Wilson, and William Yarbrough, the bulk of Colorado’s starting players have arrived from other clubs in the league like Lalas Abubakar, Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis, Keegan Rosenberry, and Diego Rubio.

Four of those five intra-MLS moves were finalized during the 2019 Primary Transfer Window, but the club’s business ahead of 2023 has made the post-2022 off-season seem like the busiest—and most significant—period of investment during the Smith era.

For comparison, Colorado’s previous Primary Transfer Window saw the additions of Gyasi Zardes, Gustavo Vallecilla, Aboubacar Keita, and Bryan Acosta from clubs within the league, while Brazilian playmaker Max joined from outside the US. Among those players, only Acosta and Zardes played significant minutes during the season, but the latter left for Austin FC as a Free Agent at the end of the year.

The course change is still a risky one. Smith’s previous forays into the global transfer market haven’t always been successful. Price, Wilson, and Yarbrough have certainly proved their worth over the majority of their multi-year stints in Colorado, but all three faced setbacks during 2022, and their highlights have paled in comparison to the lowlights of the team’s non-MLS flops. Signings like Stefan Aigner, Yannick Boli, Joe Mason, Tommy Smith, Johan Blomberg, Younes Namli, Nicolas Benezet, and Esteves—all international acquisitions masterminded by Smith and Co.— unquestionably failed to meet expectations.

With that track record, who can blame supporters for expressing some level of skepticism or trepidation?

There’s additional uncertainty with the moves for Ronan, Maxsø, and Gersbach, who all signed significant long-term contracts with the Rapids spanning four, three, and three years, respectively.

International players across MLS often struggle in their first season stateside as they adjust to the style of play in MLS and the culture shock of moving to the US. Look no further than the aforementioned Max, who failed to earn a starting role following Colorado’s decision to splash nearly $1 million to bring him in from Flamengo on a four-year contract last winter. If the three new faces end up falling into the flop territory, then the Rapids may be stuck footing the bill on a disappointing plate of players that take up international slots for the bulk of the 2020s. As the current roster stands, the club would need to offload an international player, trade for another slot, or obtain a green card for one of their internationals if they want to add another non-domestic player to the first team.

But Smith has clearly done his homework this time around, and Colorado’s flurry of winter moves has the potential to keep the club competitive in and around the top of the Western Conference for the lion’s share of the decade. The three latest arrivals have each been called-in to represent their national teams and still have their late 20s—the peak physical years for most soccer players—in front of them.

Even if they aren’t ready to start right away, all three will provide immediate and valuable depth in critical positions on the pitch. Ronan may not be able to beat out Price or Cole Bassett for minutes, but he should immediately overtake Acosta on the depth chart in central midfield. Smith describes Ronan as a “highly technical and versatile midfielder who can play in both deep-lying and box-to-box midfield roles,” so it shouldn’t be challenging for him to get a starting job if Robin Fraser opts for three in the middle.

Smith shared similar praise for Gersbach, a “technical fullback” known for his “high energy and ability to get up and down the flank.” With the club’s left back job up for grabs, Gersbach should have a great chance of earning plenty of game time in his natural position.

Maxsø should be the best of the bunch, and he’ll be a welcome addition to a defense that gave up 57 league goals in 2022. His leadership and presence, in Smith’s words, will be a “tremendous addition” to the team during a busy year that will see Colorado play matches in the newly-reworked Leagues Cup for the first time. The Rapids made a huge statement by handing him a multi-year Designated Player contract, and the club will assuredly expect big performances out of him right away.

Smith’s wager is still a huge gamble, but it’s one that has a big chance of paying dividends for the Rapids for years to come.