On this day last year, Colorado Rapids fans will have watched on as New York City won at Portland Timbers to lift their first-ever MLS Cup, defeating the hosts on penalties after the teams were tied at 1-1.
Rapids fans will have taken some solace from seeing the Timbers toppled, the team which agonizingly pipped them at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park on a Thanksgiving Day to forget.
The burgundy faithful would still have marched into the MLS offseason with something of a spring in their step, their memory still fresh from a record-setting 2021 season, and their team arguably being just one or two pieces from kicking on in 2022.
Progress failed to materialize. In fact, rather than key components being added to an already settled and cohesive squad, too many parts were removed. The addition of Gyasi Zardes, though a boost, was not enough to make up for the losses elsewhere.
At the end of 2021 there was a genuine belief and confidence among the hardcore that the season’s success could be built upon.
Twelve months on and the offseason feeling is one Rapids followers are all too familiar with. Though additional signings could drastically change the mood, currently fans are preparing to walk into 2023 with not much more than hope and blind faith.
How has it come to this?
There is much which goes on behind the scenes. There are salary caps to calculate, but also an understanding that the Rapids are not about to drop millions on household names, even if they did want to pick Colorado over LA, or New York, or Miami. (To be honest, their loss, for those fortunate enough to live here).
But the Rapids had worked so hard, and endured seasons of struggle in rebuilding this squad, a project which began after reaching the Western Conference Championship game of 2016. Reasons at that time for the picking apart of that squad were varied but included age of players and size of contracts.
What followed, in 2017, 2018, and a good amount of 2019, were dark and difficult times as the club cleared house, wading through dozens of players and a few head coaches.
The arrival of Robin Fraser, along with a settled squad, brought some success in the Covid-disrupted 2020 season (fans of other clubs will argue the story may have been different had points per game not been introduced).
The team, with limited tweaks, then truly kicked on in 2021 to finish top of the Western Conference for the first time in club history, amassing the most points in club history, and with a home and road record to be proud of.
Not unlike all other MLS clubs, the Rapids develops youth to trade, after all it’s a business. Sam Vines departed in August 2021 for Royal Antwerp. Cole Bassett followed in the offseason for his ill-fated adventure in the Netherlands. Auston Trusty got the call from Arsenal, and he exited in July of this year.
So, three players gone for clear and obvious reasons. The club would never stand between them and their dreams of playing abroad, while it also reflects well on the Rapids’ development program.
But it was the other trades which caught many off-guard and left them puzzled. Club officials have previously talked of planning across numerous transfer windows, meticulously plotting the needs and aims on the playing side.
And so, when US international Kellyn Acosta left for LAFC in January, it was a head scratcher, especially off the back of losing Younes Namli and Dominique Badji at the end of ’22. Namli, most understood, and Badji got a bump in salary the Rapids were unlikely to meet, though in the end they missed depth this past season.
But add to the departure of Acosta, Badji, Bassett, Namli, Trusty, and Vines, the names of Andre Shinyashiki, Nicolas Mezquida, and Mark-Anthony Kaye and all of sudden the subtle tweaks made to the squad in previous seasons had been kicked into the long grass. A squad which was on course for hosting the 2021 MLS Cup was denied many of the protagonists of that squad for an assault on 2022.
Having so much movement out of the club after such a sensational season seemed to go against the strategy which had brought them to that point, making it very tough to be the perennial playoff team the club has claimed they can be.
Moreover, players brought in were not the upgrade expected. Bryan Acosta often lacked the defensive discipline to play the role vacated by his namesake. Gustavo Vallecilla - for whom the Rapids dropped $800,000 in allocation money - was not an upgrade on Trusty.
When Kaye departed, the Rapids acquired Ralph Priso who may now have slipped further down the midfield chart with the return of Bassett. Michael Barrios gradually became more effective off the bench, having been top scorer in 2021, and midfielder Max Alves has yet to show the form which secured him a four-year contract.
Without Jack Price for long spells the back line appeared more vulnerable. The Rapids’ spine was far more brittle. With the back line exposed, cracks appeared in the partnership between Lalas Abubakar and Danny Wilson. At least without Price in ’21 the Rapids had the destroyer which was Kellyn Acosta. They had no such luxury in ’22 and it showed.
So, as I write, hope and blind faith will carry the Rapids fans into 2023. They will hope Price stays healthy, that Braian Galvan - returning from a second ACL injury - comes back stronger and kicks on, and that the big offseason signing to date, Kevin Cabral from LA Galaxy, offers more than his numbers suggest.
Rebuilds in previous cycles have mostly been needed and understandable, coming as they did after below par seasons. That was not the case with this situation.