WASHINGTON — Seven weeks ago, the Colorado Rapids found themselves lacking momentum, star power and, frankly, warm bodies to field.
With just 18 players under contract, the Rapids began preseason immersed in questions. There was plenty of talk about making some noise in the transfer market — with Carlos Vela, Alan Pulido and Alejandro Bedoya linked the club — but nothing materialized. For a last-place finisher that hasn't won a playoff game since 2011, optimism was scarce.
The Rapids' vision began to come into focus Feb. 1, with the savvy signing of prolific Albanian winger Shkelzen Gashi. Another piece fell into place March 4, when Colorado acquired U.S. national team midfielder Jermaine Jones two days before the MLS season kicked off.
And the Rapids made the biggest splash of all Sunday, announcing the signing of Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard — one of the most recognizable faces in American soccer for the past decade.
"The last couple years for us have been difficult," Mastroeni told Goal USA after Colorado's 1-1 draw with D.C. United on Sunday. "We spent a lot of time in the offseason thinking about the direction we want to move in as a club. I think the investment in the players that we're bringing in says a lot about that."
Howard, who flew from England to Washington following Everton's loss to Arsenal on Saturday to meet his new teammates, will bring a veteran voice to a fairly young back line. Once Jones returns April 16 from a suspension earned with New England in October, the veteran will give Colorado the aggressive ball-winner the club has lacked since Mastroeni departed as a player in 2013.
Those are two difference-makers entering the equation for a Colorado team off to a solid 1-1-1 start, with the likes of Guatemala playmaker Marco Pappa, Ireland striker Kevin Doyle and midfield centerpiece Dillon Powers leading the charge until the reinforcements arrive.
Although Howard's impending arrival does create an unusual situation for Rapids goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who must hold down the fort in goal while waiting for Howard to eventually claim his job, the moves have fostered an environment of optimism in Colorado's locker room.
"It feels comfortable — there's nothing awkward about any of the changes that we're making," Mastroeni said. "We're looking at the big picture, and what we want to continue to do is make it competitive all over the field. What we're doing is we're building a great culture here. We want this thing to be organic, we want this thing to be driven by the players, we want a new identity."
Added Powers: "The front office and the staff has made some big additions this year. We have more quality now than we've ever had since I've been here. I can see it in training, I can see it in games and in the way it has affected the confidence of the team."
Yet the Rapids' revolution isn't all about big-name signings. In his third year at the helm, Mastroeni has tried to implement a more proactive, build-from-the-back philosophy. Although neither team mustered much of a rhythm at RFK Stadium on Sunday, Colorado took positives from being able to claim a gritty point on the road behind Powers' second-half header.
"These are results we couldn't get in the last two years because the mentality wasn't good enough, the identity wasn't strong enough," Mastroeni said. "Those guys in there are some real men — men of character."
As a former player who spent 12 seasons with the club and captained it to the 2010 MLS Cup title, Mastroeni has seen a culture of winning take root in Colorado before. With Howard and Jones now in the fold, he's hoping to re-establish the Rapids' foothold among the MLS elite.
"We have a clear understanding of what we're trying to achieve, so we're in a much better spot," midfielder Sam Cronin said. "We have big ambitions for this season, for sure."
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