Rapids shaped by astute trades
TORONTO -- Every MLS side has its share of transplants from around the league. Unlike the soccer clubs of lands beyond, but very much like other American sports, trades are frequent building blocks of roster construction in Major League Soccer.
But no one runs the swap-shop better than Colorado Rapids, who stand and fall largely on the backs of players unwanted at their former addresses. Or they were wanted, perhaps, but not at a certain asking price.
Seven of the anticipated starters Sunday arrived in Colorado via trade within the league. Six of those landed at Dicks Sporting Goods Park within the last two years as coach Gary Smith, just like the coach he'll oppose in Sunday's MLS Cup final, put the roster in for a major overhaul upon his arrival two and a half years ago. The other trade acquisition starting Sunday, indomitable striker Conor Casey, was also unwanted at his previous MLS address (Toronto) but had already arrived through a swap when Smith took over midseason of 2008.
Even trusty goalkeeper Matt Pickens is on the scene because he wasn't wanted at Queens Park Rangers, the London club currently trying to arrange its escape from England's second tier into the Premier League.
Smith has proved to be a master at turning up trade value, at getting more from players adjudged superfluous elsewhere.
"I give Gary lot of credit for pulling us all together," said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, the centerpiece of a whopper exchange 10 months ago.
Some of the players traded to Colorado just needed a tweak, as with former fullback Marvell Wynne, who changed positions to center back with marvelous results.
In other cases, players just needed a chance, as with left back Anthony Wallace. Wallace, in fact, is half of one intriguing little twist to Sunday's final at BMO Field. He and center back Drew Moor came from FC Dallas, the Rapids' opposition in Sunday's nationally televised match. Both players should have a lot to say about the result, especially Moor, whose blue-ribbon season at DSG Park flew under the radar for many people.
"In all honesty, Drew was a fantastic addition," Smith said. "He's been so versatile for us along that back four and predominantly as a center back."
Moor had been a loyal soldier for Dallas previously, appearing 123 times over five-plus years for his hometown team. Ate age 12, Moor attended FC Dallas' very first game as a fan back in 1996 at the Cotton Bowl. So it stung a bit when management traded him to Colorado. FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman still says great things about Moor, but his team was leaking too many goals at the time and the coach needed to shake up matters somehow.
Besides, the swap brought Ugo Ihemelu to Dallas. Ihemelu had played under Hyndman back at SMU, so both teams found something they wanted.
Wallace had spent almost four years at Pizza Hut Park, stuck hopelessly with the reserves. The former U.S. youth international had made just 13 appearances over that time. And this year he wasn't about to displace Jair Benitez, who sets the standard for attacking left backs in MLS. So, a change of scenery clearly in order, FC Dallas shipped him West on July 15. Having labored through half a year of left back by committee, Smith was thrilled to upgrade at a position of relative weakness all around the league.
"Anthony's inclusion just before the [trade] window really closed was a lovely addition for us, and again, you know, Dallas have got some wonderful four backs there, and there's fault for choice really for left backs and were at that time. ... We're pleased to have both of those guys here. They've been great for us, and they've been extremely good additions."
Wynne's case reflects especially well on Smith's ability to peel back a few layers and spot something that others might have missed. Wynne had spent three years in Toronto, which was actually his second MLS address. He played one season in New York but had been shipped east to Ontario by then-Red Bulls manager Bruce Arena, who liked Wynne's signature speed but thought him unpolished.
Wynne had seemed to plateau in Toronto, where he was usually the first-choice right back but was sometimes asked to play in the midfield. He was a bit foul prone in defense (surprisingly so considering that amazing recovery speed) and his attacking qualities were still subpar. So, on he went.
Smith was happy to have him -- but with a major twist. He made Wynne a center back, something nobody saw coming. Wynne spent the majority of his 27 starts this year in the middle of Colorado's four-man back line, collecting the finer points of his new position along the way. He may never be a national team center back, but it looks like a brilliant move, a shift in fate that definitely adds value to the 24-year-old defender.
Smith had seen a player with tremendous leaping abilities, strong in one-on-one defending, and generally better in stopping attacks than starting them. Still, it gave his teammates pause.
"When we were told that Marvell was going to be playing center back, we all kind of had a scratch your head moment," Larentowicz said. "But Marvell was great from game one, and it's worked out great for us."
Larentowicz's well-documented arrival from New England was surely one of the most productive moves of the offseason. He landed in Denver from the Revolution along with Well Thompson in exchange for goalkeeper Preston Burpo, center back Cory Gibbs and cash. Colorado had leverage in that trade because New England goalkeeper Matt Reis was undergoing surgery that would remove him for action for months, so the Revolution was desperate for a man to guard goal while their No. 1 healed.
Larentowicz's addition did two things: it helped to create one of the strongest, most balanced midfields in MLS and; it made longtime Rapids midfield fixture Pablo Mastroeni a more complete, two-way player. Comfortable that another quality central midfielder would recognize when to provide cover, Mastroeni roamed forward more frequently in 2010. Those 2 goals and 3 assists may not seem like a lot, but both equaled career highs over his 13-year-career. And Mastroeni, who has appeared in two World Cups for the United States, scored his first playoff goal three weeks back.
Brian Mullan, who is likely to start on the right Sunday, is a little different case. He was still valued around Houston, but there's a big overhaul going on in South Texas. The Dynamo saw a chance to get a player who looks a lot like Mullan, only much younger, in Colin Clark. Clark, an antagonizing outside midfielder with a big engine and reliable crossing ability, is recovering from knee surgery that took him off the field for half the 2010 season.
Meanwhile, Colorado got a man who will be appearing in his fifth MLS Cup final, whose experience in Major League Soccer's biggest annual event could prove invaluable on Sunday. Thompson seems set to start on the other side, opposite Mullan in Colorado's 4-4-2, just as he has in two of three playoff games so far. So, the Rapids are really stretching considerable value from that massive offseason swap with New England.
Finally, there's Casey. Toronto won a lottery for his services as he returned from six years in Germany back in 2007. He played just two matches for the club but was quickly moved on. With 42 goals over 89 regular season appearances, it's safe to say that one has worked out pretty well for the Rapids too; Casey is now the clubs all-time leading scorer.