Oscar Pareja built the Rapids into a solid MLS squad before bolting to FC Dallas over the offseason. (Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)
Through two owners, two stadiums, three team color combinations and a stretch of six consecutive seasons (2006-11) during which average attendance fell below 15,000, the Colorado Rapids struggled to find their footing.
Even the club’s 2010 MLS Cup title failed to generate much traction. Crowds rose less than 4 percent the following year and coach Gary Smith, managing director Jeff Plush and many of the players who helped lift that trophy were soon shown the door.
Then, just as the Rapids finally appeared to be forging a lasting identity, the current seemed to knock them over once again.
Under club president Tim Hinchey, technical director Paul Bravo and coach Oscar Pareja, Colorado last year assembled one of the most dynamic and intriguing rosters in the league. Dillon Powers (first) and Deshorn Brown (second) dominated the 2013 MLS rookie of the year voting. Chris Klute, 23, has been touted as the U.S. national team’s future left back and central defender Shane O’Neill, 20, started 25 games. The club finally signed its first designated player last summer, Panamanian striker Gabriel Torres, and added veteran Uruguayan forward Vicente Sánchez as well.
Pareja tinkered with the tactics and the team gelled through the second half of the season, finishing on a 9-4-4 run and making the playoffs. Meanwhile, attendance climbed to its highest total since 2005. The Rapids were on the rise.
But Pareja’s awkward departure to FC Dallas, a protracted saga that dragged into January, left Colorado without its manager. Club legend Pablo Mastroeni, who retired in December, returned to Denver to work with Bravo and volunteered to lead the team on the field through preseason. The Rapids’ campaign kicks off in 28 days. Mastroeni hasn't been named interim manager, although he’s certainly acting as one.
There are sophomore slumps to avoid, foreign forwards to integrate and a significant midfield evolution underway with emergence of 19-year-old Dillon Serna, the departure of stalwart Hendry Thomas and last week’s arrival of Spaniard José Mari. Colorado needs a coach. It needs continuity. But Hinchey isn’t concerned. The club president told SI.com that the foundation the Rapids needed already has been laid.
“Oscar made his decision and that was up to him and it certainly wasn’t what we had planned,” Hinchey said. “But beyond that, there really isn’t any upheaval. The player signings, draft choices, were all planned. Paul and his group do a phenomenal job … We’re very considered in everything we do. Paul and the staff around him has been here for some time now. We have a group that’s been very consistent throughout the club, from youth development and the academy on up. We have an infrastructure that is committed to what’s important to this club and we do things by design whenever possible.”
Indeed, there is continuity below and above the head coach. Bravo, who sat in on the league coaches photo at last month’s MLS draft, arrived in 2009. Hinchey came aboard the following year. The club’s experienced technical staff includes Steve Cooke, an Englishman who holds a UEFA ‘A’ license, long-time youth development director Brian Crookham, former U.S. U-18 national team coach Mitch Murray and John Metgod, a former Dutch international who arrived from England’s Derby County.
Hinchey said Bravo and his staff had a vision for the Rapids “attacking, possession oriented” style of play that existed prior to Pareja’s appointment two years ago and that remains in place now that he’s gone.
“That’s how we’ve taught the game in our academy for several years now,” Hinchey said. “We’re not 100 percent there yet, to be fair, but we would love to aspire to it and when people see it, they’ll say, ‘That’s the Rapids way.’ … From a coaching perspective, we think it’s important to have someone who values homegrown youth development and values that integrated approach from the very beginning all the way through the first team.”
Hinchey said he also wants a coach who isn’t afraid to test young players, who isn’t “jolted by outside influences,” who values the college draft and who, perhaps most importantly, recognizes that “no one is bigger than the club.”
The Rapids aren't looking for another course correction. They're seeking a manager who fits in and is eager to build on the work already done. Those coaches don’t necessarily grow on trees, which is why the club is committed to taking its time in pursuit of the right hire.
Hinchey acknowledged that he understands the public pressure to hire Mastroeni -- “I’m a sports fan too,” the president said – especially since the likes of Jason Kreis and Mike Petke had considerable success managing their former teams. But Hinchey believes the Rapids are on the verge of something special, and he’s willing to exercise patience before identifying a “long-term solution.”
He said Bravo has led the search and has interviewed four candidates so far, including Mastroeni. The Rapids have spoken to at least one foreign coach. The goal is to have a permanent manager in place when they open the 2014 MLS season on March 15 at Red Bull Arena.
“The right course of action is to continue our project,” Hinchey said.
He insisted that the Rapids aren’t taking advantage of Mastroeni, who understands he may not get the job. Mastroeni also understands that the club’s decision to take more time and interview additional candidates means that whomever is selected will “be the guy. He’ll have the backing,” according to Hinchey.
The former U.S. national team midfielder certainly offers familiarity and continuity but as Hinchey said, that now exists elsewhere in the organization. Mastroeni, who captained the club to the 2010 title, is 37 years old.
“Pablo knows exactly where he stands and knows how he’s thought of at this club,” Hinchey said. “He’s clearly illustrating his love for the club and his interest to be a coach. The spirit of the group has been amazing … the feedback from what I’ve got is that [Rapids players] are thrilled that he’s here, and he’s helping us get to the next step actually with more continuity than just bringing in some other interim person. I think it’s working.”
While Petke was waiting for Red Bull to make its coaching decision, he said, “If they come to me tomorrow and say, ‘Mike, we need a janitor and that’s going to be key to winning games,’ then give me a freaking broom.” Petke was New York through and through and ultimately, that proved to be the difference.
Hinchey said that Mastroeni feels similarly and is “stepping up and illustrating what he’s all about.” The former captain “is going to be part of this club, one way or another,” Hinchey said, regardless of who takes over the first team.
It is a club that, at long last, looks like a good place to be.
“I look at where we were two years ago, to where we are today, and we’re far more prepared to do this. We’re way ahead of where we were,” Hinchey said.