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Irish influence proving crucial in remarkable Major League Soccer turnaround for Colorado

Kevin Doyle is the headline act but Meath man Padraig Smith is the Rapids’ Sporting Director.

MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER has a certain reputation. Many see it as a retirement home for fading Premier League stars. The more cynical simply treat it as some kind of gimmick.

But it’s easy to sneer from a distance. There’s plenty to admire about a league that’s only 20 years old.

In two decades, it has managed to forge an identity. It’s a sustainable environment and MLS is not reliant on the arrival of superstars. The league has managed to coax high-profile US internationals to play in a domestic league in their prime. The attendance figures are impressive with an average of over 21,500. In Seattle, it’s over 40,000. MLS continues to develop despite the saturated elite sports landscape in North America. Currently boasting 20 franchises, another two will be added in 2017 (Atlanta and Minnesota) while Los Angeles FC will feature from 2018 onwards. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a league that continues to surprise.

MLS Fire Rapids Soccer Source: David Zalubowski

We’re constantly told that economic strength of clubs is the ultimate barometer of success. The teams that pay more will win more.

MLS doesn’t follow along the same lines.

In 20 years, there have been 10 different champions. Yes, LA Galaxy are the most successful with five titles. But who’s next on the roll of honour? New York? Chicago? The best supported side Seattle? Nope. It’s DC United in Washington with four. In the last three seasons, there have been three different MLS Cup winners – Portland in 2015, LA in 2014 and Kansas City in 2013.

And this year, to put it all in context, the reigning champions didn’t even make it to the playoffs.

And also this year, the second-worst team in MLS in 2015 are now just one step away from the championship decider.

Colorado Rapids had a miserable time last term, conceding far too many goals and badly struggling to find the net at the other end. They were 19th from 20 teams and bottom of the Western Conference. It followed on from an equally traumatic 2014 when they finished 17th overall.

Kevin Doyle’s first taste of MLS proved rather bitter than sweet. He scored five times in his debut campaign but was part of a weary, confidence-shy setup. It was something similar for Doyle’s former international team-mate Sean St. Ledger.

San Jose Earthquakes v Colorado Rapids - MLS Source: John Hefti

And then, over the course of one off-season, things began to change.

Acquisitions were made. The squad was given a dramatic and comprehensive overhaul. With a complex transfer system (the league is single-entity and owns player contracts so ‘transfers’ between teams don’t happen in the same way as elsewhere), it’s time-consuming and logistically difficult. There’s a salary cap, there are Designated Players, there’s a SuperDraft. But the Rapids brought in a wealth of experience and reliable MLS veterans.

In terms of the glitz and glamour, they signed US international and former Schalke and Blackburn midfielder Jermaine Jones. He was integral to their magnificent start to the season, scoring twice and registering two more assists in his first three games.

Albanian international Shkëlzen Gashi arrived from Basel with a ton of Champions League experience and having enjoyed a number of superb seasons in Switzerland.

Then, Tim Howard arrived and everything gelled together.

Gashi, it was quickly revealed, enjoyed the odd spectacular strike. But while they still weren’t as devastating in front of goal as some other teams – Dallas, LA, Seattle – they were vastly improved defensively. They went unbeaten at home. At their own ground, they only conceded seven goals in 19 regular-season games.

And when it mattered most, their big names delivered.

They faced LA in a Western Conference semi-final and lost the first leg 1-0. But in their own backyard, they were resolute once again and frustrated the Galaxy.

Source: Hamdos Channel/YouTube

Gashi conjured another wonder-goal and the game went to a shootout. Howard, who’s earning big money in Colorado, proved the hero and saved two penalties.

On Tuesday, they face Seattle in the Western Conference final first-leg and are two games away from a championship decider. It’s been a remarkable turnaround.

But as much as there’s been an Irish influence on the field for Colorado, arguably the more crucial impact has come off it.

Meath native Padraig Smith joined the franchise as Sporting Director at the end of 2014 and has been hugely influential in every facet of team performance, including recruitment and analytics.

Padraig1 Colorado Rapids' Sporting Director Padraig Smith. Source: Colorado Rapids

Formerly a Director of Finance with the FAI and Financial Analysis Manager with Uefa in Switzerland, he’s been central to the upturn in the Rapids’ fortunes.

A baseball nut and disciple of Bill James’ well-documented theories on sabermetrics, Smith has navigated the complexities of Major League Soccer’s finer details and uniqueness and Colorado have seen the benefit.

“When you’re constrained with the salary cap, you have to start finding ‘value players’ that can then allow you to spend elsewhere,” he told MLSSoccer.com earlier this year.

These are all big components and you can’t win with four players in this league. I’m a big believer that soccer is a zero-sum game and that the incremental improvements you make on the lower end of your roster are every bit as important as the marginal improvements at the top.”

Such a statement is exemplified by the situation facing Colorado for the remainder of their season. While on international duty with the US, Howard picked up an abductor injury and is out until next year. Zac MacMath will deputise against Seattle, a player signed permanently by Smith and Colorado earlier this year after a loan spell with them in 2015.

Before Howard’s arrival, MacMath – certainly helped by an excellent defence – was first-choice and the best goalkeeper in the league. When Howard was signed, he was demoted to the bench.

But, as a testament to recruitment and how important certain personalities are in a dressing room, MacMath remained entirely professional.

MLS Timbers Rapids Soccer High-profile signing Tim Howard won't be available for Colorado for the remainder of the season but the team's recruitment strategy means it's not a massive loss. Source: Jack Dempsey

“People hear about someone in the locker room that’s causing trouble”, he said this week.

“Players and coaches interact, they don’t want a player who is like an angry little kid causing trouble all time. I’ve never been that kind of person. I definitely expressed how disappointed I was, but I wasn’t going to let it affect me going forward”.

That perspective and attitude can only be a good thing for Colorado. The spirit and sense of togetherness they have fostered seems incredibly strong.

And because of the uniqueness of MLS, Smith is excited about what he and Colorado can achieve in the future.

image"Teams can only have three players that they can spend wildly on", he says
So we’re really all in the same boat for twenty-six players. And I think that means that if you are intelligent, and if you’re smart with your player acquisition strategy, that you can put yourself in a position to be successful year-in, year-out. And that’s really what we want to do here. We want to be a perennial playoff team. And I think that, while there are constraints in place, the constraints are the same for everybody. And I certainly believe that what we’re putting in place here now; the strategy, the player evaluation database, and the structures that we’ve got in place, will enable us to be strong for years to come and on a consistent basis".     

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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