The Colorado Rapids players and staff have made it clear that they don’t want a repeat of the team’s disappointing 2022 season, but actions speak louder than words.
While there’s a lot for fans to like about the team’s 2023 preseason preparations, incoming transfers, and off-season strategy, the Rapids still need to prove that they can sustainably compete among MLS’s top teams.
Colorado’s chosen pathway to that end hasn’t and won’t involve splashing millions of dollars on transfer fees for marquee Designated Players. It won’t involve dishing eye-watering salaries like the $14 million base wage boasted by Toronto FC forward Lorenzo Insigne. It also won’t involve any recognizable European stars.
Instead, the Rapids under KSE have openly taken a moneyball approach to roster construction—a strategy formalized after General Manager Pádraig Smith and fellow executive Wayne Brant penned the now-infamous “Rapids Way” editorial in The Denver Post in 2017.
Smith’s hunt for players he describes as distressed assets has varied wildly in results, but the General Manager has developed a keen reputation for uncovering diamonds in the rough from domestic clubs. Still, while five seasons have come and gone since the Front Office made their case for their vision, sustained success has been an elusive target for the Rocky Mountain club.
Yes, the Rapids bought some good will with fans when former MLS Defender of the Year Robin Fraser took the managerial reins and brought playoff soccer back to Colorado in 2020 and 2021. But simply making the postseason in MLS—even when finishing first in the Western Conference—is a consolation prize relative to the prospect of silverware, especially when the club boasts the fourth-longest postseason win drought in MLS.
Colorado fell right back down to earth after their Conference-topping season in 2021 ended with a one-and-done playoff cameo, and the club was hit with a cold splash of reality in 2022.
While the Rapids rested on their laurels after the impressive year, teams around MLS raised the talent standard in the rapidly-growing league. Colorado took clear steps back, as the team bid farewell to multiple key contributors in the off-season. That left behind a shoestring squad lacking the depth to cope with injury after injury after injury in 2022.
Colorado missed the playoffs as a result, and Smith’s track record of crafting postseason-bound rosters fell back below 0.500.
That’s led to some supporters reeling in restlessness about the Rapids’ prospects in the modern MLS. While Colorado isn’t stuck playing bunker ball anymore, the team still has a long way to go to shed their bottom-feeder “MLS 1.0” reputation among older fans and league pundits alike.
Work is being done off the pitch to improve the club’s standing among diehard soccer fans in the Denver metro area. The on-the-field product has progressed towards what Smith calls “a high-intensity team that is willing to take calculated risks in the right areas of the field” while maintaining “defensive discipline,” but the pieces haven’t easily fallen into place.
The Rapids are trending in a positive direction on the pitch after a busy off-season brought seven new bodies to DICK’s, but competing with the talent standard of MLS’s elite challengers is a difficult proposition under Colorado’s budget constraints. While the Philadelphia Union’s 2022 season showed that the model could work in practice, the star power of Gareth Bale and Los Angeles FC ultimately proved too big of a hurdle for the moneyball squad in MLS Cup. Even that level of success seems so far from Colorado, whom have yet to win a knockout match in any competition since Smith assumed the full GM role at the club.
On paper, the Rapids defense looks significantly stronger than last year. Designated Player and Danish International Andreas Maxsø should satiate fans clamoring for another partner for Lalas Abubakar or Danny Wilson. Up-and-coming Irishman Connor Ronan should provide a healthy supplement to Colorado’s midfield, which also welcomes the return of Homegrown Cole Bassett from his loan misadventure in the Netherlands.
The club’s attack also looks better—or at least more versatile—after the winter. Gyasi Zardes is gone, as Colorado opted to instead spring for French winger Kévin Cabral and Generation Adidas forward Calvin Harris to supplement a resurging Diego Rubio in their attack.
Australia International Alex Gersbach and Serbian shot-stopper Marko Ilić rounded out the team’s February moves, bringing key depth at left back and a fierce competitor to challenge for William Yarbrough’s spot in goal.
While the acquisitions should bring the team back to their previous standard of play, the pace of improvement around the league means that being “2021 good” is no longer acceptable in MLS. Colorado needs to be “2023 good” to be a winner this season, but it’s unclear whether Smith, Fraser, and Company have what it takes to deliver the Rapids a trophy.
The Burgundy Boys will have the opportunity to make a big statement on opening weekend if they take down the defending Concacaf Champions League Winners this Sunday. Upending the snotty Seattle Sounders on their home turf in front of a national audience would go a long way to assuage doubters’ concerns following the team’s poor year.