In 2013, to the surprise of nearly everyone, Oscar Pareja led a young, exciting group of Rapids to the MLS Cup playoffs. After the season, Pareja quit the Rapids for FC Dallas, a club he once played for that was closer to his beloved family. What he left behind was a Rapids organization that had no idea how to get on without him.
The Rapids hired the recently-retired Pablo Mastroeni as head coach, despite the former midfielder’s initial hesitance to take the job. Since installing Mastroeni, the club has systematically dismantled the young, exciting team that made the playoffs under Pareja and turned in finishes of 8th and 10th in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Last year was bad. With the bar so low, any signs of life in Commerce City represent progress. While hardly keeping up with the rest of the league, Colorado has made a few moves in the offseason and has been connected to a fascinating rumor involving a U.S. international.
The Big Question
What are they doing? If there’s a plan in Colorado, no one seems to know what it is. Last year’s massive roster turnover didn’t yield better results, leading to questions as to the team’s approach in the winter ahead of the 2016 season.
A new year means more turnover, with the club saying goodbye to defensive stalwart Drew Moor, forward Gabriel Torres, midfielder Vicente Sanchez, beloved goalkeeper Clint Irwin, and a host of others. The club added former Sounder Marco Pappa to the midfield, presumably to help with the creative duties, as well as former Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer as depth. The highest-profile move so far is the signing of Shkelzen Gashi, an Albanian attacker who led the Swiss league in goals each of the last two years.
But the club has also been connected to names like Carlos Vela, Alan Pulido, and Tim Howard this winter. Those are big names that would cost big money. Colorado doesn’t spend big money. So what’s going on?
Shkelzen Gashi gets the nod here, if only because he’s the biggest unknown on a team that failed so mightily last season. Summer signing Kevin Doyle played reasonably well down the stretch of the season, but it’s very clear he needs help at the top of the Rapids formation. Both Gashi and Doyle will need a healthy and effective Marco Pappa providing them service – except the former Sounder arrives in Colorado fresh off a highly publicized domestic incident that saw him stabbed by a beauty queen. No, that’s not a typo.
The Albanian’s reputation for scoring is strong. In 2013-14, he led the Swiss league with 19 goals for Grasshopper. In 2015-16, he led the league again, this time scoring 22 goals for FC Basel. Colorado won’t be expecting an MLS Golden Boot in his first year in the league, but even if he only approaches similar numbers he’ll do wonders for the Rapids attack.
Gashi is a very “Rapids” type of signing, in that he’s a decent player from a decent league with almost no name recognition. Generally, attempts in that area haven’t worked out for budget-conscious Colorado. If it doesn’t work this time, the Rapids will probably find themselves at the bottom of the table again.
From The Dugout
Planning to play a 4-2-3-1 formation “with a lot of dynamic movement in and amongst those front four players,” coach Pablo Mastroeni is delighted with Colorado's new Designated Player, Albanian striker Shkelzen Gashi, the spearhead of a revamped attack.
“He's a very integral part of everything we're trying to do this year,” said the Argentine coach. “A player with his type of mentality that finds his way into good spots is a position that we've missed sorely over the last year. So being a team that's created a good number of chances but not finishing, I think he's an integral piece along with [Marco] Pappa, Kevin Doyle and Dillon Powers, that will make a very formidable attacking corps from us… we have the makings for a pretty good team and having a pretty good campaign this year.”
Mastroeni intends to move the Rapids towards a more possession-based philosophy, with Zac MacMath playing the role of sweeper-keeper. “We really wanted to be a team that plays more out of the back, controls more of the tempo of the game, using our goalkeeper as a field player in possession, and to this point in preseason I think Zac has been one of our more consistent performers, game in and game out, not only doing the goalkeeping duties but also being an instrumental part of our buildup in the attack. He's been sharp in his distribution with his hands and he's been terrific with his feet. So I think he's setting himself up for a fantastic year if he can keep in this form.”
From the Locker Room
Ireland’s Kevin Doyle has his own take on how MLS is different than England’s Championship, where he previously played. “It’s as physical,” he says. “It’s probably more technical. It’s not faster when it’s hot during the season. You realize why it’s not so end to end: you just can’t do that for 90 minutes in MLS.”
The Rapids have traditionally had a strong homefield advantage in the league, partly because of the area’s altitude that takes a toll on opponents, but in 2015, the team finished last in the Western Conference.
Doyle believes that the slide for the Rapids came from getting away from a basic team identity. “Our style was probably counterattacking – we try to soak up pressure and attack quickly.”
For 2016, Doyle expects the team to improve and to be a key part of it. “I’ve worked hard in the offseason,” Doyle said. “I’ve not done a preseason yet.”
Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni may be under the most pressure of any MLS coach as the season begins, partly because his previous two seasons in charge have been losing years. The Rapids will need to win quickly for Mastroeni to prove he can implement positive change.
This is Home
- DICK’S SPORTING GOODS PARK
- CAPACITY: 19,680, expandable to 19,680
- OPENED: April 7, 2007
- LOCATION: Commerce City, CO
Fan’s Insider Tip
Johnny Rosch (@BurgundyWave): The Rapids have two terrific supporters groups – Centennial 38 and Stout Street Supporters Group. When you join one of their pre-match events, you are treated as an honored guest and regardless of the colors you fly, soccer fans and their families are always welcome.
The Great American Beer Festival is an annual event that is held each fall at the Denver Convention Center and features over 3,500 different beers from approximately 700 breweries from throughout the United States.
There are several soccer-specific bars in Denver; two of the best are The Three Lions on Colfax and The British Bulldog on Stout Street. Both feature terrific beer and food specials and football is on the television as much as possible.
The weather in Denver is nothing short of spectacular! Coming out for a match usually means sunshine and warm temps as we get over 300 days a year of sunshine.