A Beautiful Game

On February 22, 2010, Richard Bamber moved to Denver from Surrey County, England, an affluent woodland area attached to London’s southwestern flank. Having never lived outside the queen’s purview before, he immediately began searching for something that might help him acclimate to life in the States—and found the British Bulldog, a pub on the edge of downtown that serves English beer and a decent order of fish and chips. Any reticence about the place disappeared the moment he opened the door and discovered the dim lighting, pressed-tin ceilings, and, most striking, “the table”: a roughly four-by-six-foot chalkboard showing the standings of England’s Premier League. “It was obvious,” Bamber says, “whoever was running the place really cared about soccer.”

The Bulldog’s then general manager Jon Forget was betting that in a sea of Broncos, Nuggets, and Rockies bars, a pub that prioritized soccer would stand out. So he opened at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays to show Premier League matches live and covered the interior of the place with scarves and jerseys. When outsiders popped in and asked to switch the TV to the Rockies, the bartender would point to the lights of nearby Coors Field and say, There’s your baseball. Go and watch your game.

Around the same time, Forget (pronounced “For-jay”) was starting a fan club for the Colorado Rapids, Denver’s MLS team. The idea was to attract supporters of rival European sides to the Bulldog in the mornings; then, once those games finished, everyone would change into burgundy and go to Dick’s Sporting Goods (DSG) Park to cheer on the Rapids together. They called themselves the Bulldog Supporters Group, and the Rapids seemed thrilled to have them. Then head coach Gary Smith attended the group’s launch party, and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE), the Rapids’ ownership group, printed T-shirts that bore the club’s emblem—a shield with a bulldog in a bobby cap—at a discount.

The Bulldogs rented buses for games, charging for the roughly nine-mile rides to and from DSG Park in Commerce City, and hosted tailgates before matches. After, they’d come home singing songs: He runs as if his boots were lead / Conor, Conor! / He puts a razor to his head / Conor, Conor! / He used to play in Germany, but now he’s back at DSG / Conor Casey! / Rapids number nine! Sure, the level of soccer on display was more bush league than Premier League, but for Bamber, who had held season tickets to the Premier League’s Crystal Palace in London and traveled to World Cups, the Rapids provided an opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie and atmosphere of live soccer. Season tickets were cheap, too.

Even with prolific striker Conor Casey and his goal-scoring compatriot Omar Cummings, the Rapids finished at 12-8-10 that year. The team squeaked into the playoffs, though, and suddenly—almost mysteriously—couldn’t lose. Colorado beat Ohio’s Columbus Crew FC in the first round on penalty kicks. In the second, Cummings completely missed a pass and the ball still somehow bounded into the goal for the game-winner. Then it was off to Toronto for the MLS Cup final against FC Dallas.

With only a week to prepare, the Bulldogs scrambled to arrange itineraries for the 50 or so members who would travel to Canada. In the end, most flew into Buffalo, New York—connecting through Philadelphia or Chicago—and took a bus to Toronto. Forget and Bamber, who had helped organize the Bulldogs’ trips? The Rapids gave them seats on the team’s charter plane.

The Bulldogs’ arduous treks were rewarded when the Rapids beat Dallas 2-1 to claim their first and only MLS Cup. Colorado won ugly: Its first goal came from Casey, who poked the ball in while sitting on his butt. The Rapids’ winning score was actually attributed to Dallas (a player knocked the ball into his own net) but was created by Colorado’s Macoumba Kandji—who tore his ACL on the play.

That night, members of the Rapids’ front office told the Bulldogs to assemble at a bar. Soon enough, Pablo Mastroeni and other members of the team barged through the doors. Senior director of soccer development Brian Crookham bought a couple of pitchers at last call to keep the party going. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens toasted with Bamber. “You felt a real—wow, it doesn’t get no better,” Bamber says.

The Colorado Rapids deployed a physical style of play during their 2010 MLS Cup–winning run. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rapids

Mastroeni, too, sensed something stirring. The Rapids’ captain had been in MLS since 1998 and spent most of that time playing in front of thin, apathetic crowds. Maybe that would change now. Says Mastroeni: “I felt like we were on the cusp of starting something special in Colorado.”

The Opposite of Love Isn’t Hate

It’s 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning almost 10 years after that title, and Five Points is deserted. The exception is the British Bulldog. Packed tight around its scarred wooden bar, patrons crowd three deep, each with one eye on the Liverpool-Tottenham match and the other on the bartender, who will soon run out of glasses and resort to pouring Carlsberg into plastic cups.

Above the throng, high on the side wall, the Premier League table Bamber first spotted nearly a decade ago still lords. It’s why everyone’s here—ordering beer and brown liquor and sparring over teams from distant corners of the United Kingdom—on a bitterly cold weekend morning.

As for the MLS standings? That tiny board is tucked away in the far corner, next to the bathrooms. Bamber, wearing a Crystal Palace jersey, points to people he knows in the crowd: “He used to be a Rapids fan. He used to be a Rapids fan. He used to run buses. The bartenders used to go to the games.” Bamber himself stopped renewing his season tickets in 2016.

Such a lack of interest in the Rapids is in stark contrast to the rest of the league’s fans. In fact, the past decade was an era of incredible growth for MLS. Average attendance increased 34 percent to 21,305. Cable TV viewership rose nearly 60 percent between 2012 and 2019. Over the same period, general interest in MLS among Americans jumped 10 percentage points, to 47 percent, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. When Forbes published its first valuations of MLS clubs in 2008, the average franchise was worth $37 million. In 2019, that number was $312.5 million. Ten expansion teams have joined the league since 2010.

One of them, Atlanta United FC, draws an average of more than 50,000 spectators to home games. Seventy-five minutes before those matches, hundreds of fans meet at an undeveloped area called the Gulch and march to $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They beat drums and swing banners and sing songs. Inside the arena, conductors called “capos” lead the masses through organized chants and Viking Thunder Claps—crescendoing series of overhead slaps that, when carried out by 50,000, feel as if they can move the earth. Similar scenes play out in cities such as Toronto, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.

Not in Denver, though. The Rapids rank near the bottom of MLS in attendance, and—because the league doesn’t make much TV money and relies on ticket sales for most of its revenue—it’s the least valuable team in the league, according to Forbes. For what it would take to buy one Atlanta United ($500 million), you could get about two-and-a-half Rapids ($190 million).

To be sure, the club hasn’t provided much cause for enthusiasm. Since winning the MLS Cup, the Rapids have made the playoffs only three times. But the team isn’t just bad; it’s been boring, finishing last in goals in the league in 2015, ’17, and ’18. (In 2016? They finished second to last.)

Denver’s apathy toward its MLS team, though, seems to go deeper than the on-field product. “The [youth] club teams in the area—the Rapids have alienated those teams,” Omar Cummings says today. “The people who are into soccer in the region around Denver, a lot of those people don’t really support the Rapids. I don’t even know how that came to be.”

That estrangement extends to Bamber, who sparred with the club in the 2010s over what he felt was the marginalization of the Bulldogs. He admits to being disappointed then. Now, he doesn’t feel much of anything. “You get over being angry,” Bamber says. “Then you just don’t bother. At least when you’re firing off on Twitter, you still care.”

The Rapids are not oblivious to their obscurity. “Since MLS has come about, you think about LA, you think about Chicago, you think about Atlanta, you think about Seattle,” says Robin Fraser, the team’s new head coach. “You don’t really think about Denver.” Fraser and executive vice president and general manager Pádraig Smith claim that’s about to change.

Robin Fraser became the Rapids’ fifth coach in five years in August 2019. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rapids

Smith has been with the franchise since 2015 but only recently took control of the soccer side of the organization; he’s an Irishman, a former accountant, and a Moneyball acolyte intent on modernizing player assessment. Fraser was hired this past August as the Rapids’ fifth coach in five years. Once he joined the team, Fraser took Smith’s players from a historically awful start to the edge of the playoffs. His brand of soccer helped the Rapids finish third in goals in 2019. The pair then spent the offseason signing creative, attacking players who could join the young squad and not only help the team make the postseason, but also help them get there in style. Because, Smith says, although winning is his primary goal, winning with excitement—winning with a flourish—is what’s going to draw people to DSG Park. Smith contends they landed every player they wanted. Now all that’s left to do is overcome a quarter century of indifference and a decade of decline.

Hey, Hey, We’re the Rapids

One of 10 founding members of MLS, the Rapids held their first home game on April 21, 1996, at the old Mile High Stadium. To celebrate the occasion, the team organized a games and skills area in Lot F, and there was a parade of 2,000 youth players before the match. All told, nearly 22,000 turned out to watch the squad, in their billowy white, green, and gold uniforms, beat Dallas 3-1. Many never came back.

“Everybody in the first year did reasonably well—except the Rapids,” says Dan Counce, who became the team’s general manager before the 1997 season. “It was novel and new, so everyone was drawing pretty well in attendance. But the Rapids for some reason lagged behind.” New York, for example, averaged 23,898 fans. Los Angeles led the league at 28,916. Colorado barely eclipsed 10,000 in a venue that could hold more than 76,000. The no-shows didn’t miss much. Only two clubs in the 10-team league didn’t make the playoffs that year. Colorado was one of them.

The team’s original owner, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, hired Counce, who was running an import-export business at the time, as the general manager in year two. Counce quickly realized Denver didn’t possess nearly enough soccer fans to support a professional team. “So we used—I hate to use the word ‘gimmicks,’ but that’s really what they were—we used gimmicks to try and build the audience and really create a pulse in town,” Counce says.

That meant post-game concerts featuring the Beach Boys and the Village People. “I had the Monkees, too,” Counce says. “Remember the Monkees? Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!” To publicize the performance, Counce dispatched cheerleaders and a man in a monkey suit to deliver frozen bananas to radio stations. He figured the 10-year-old girls who had loved Davy Jones in 1969 would by then be moms dying to drag their families to Mile High Stadium to get a glimpse of their teenage idol.

The Rapids weren’t the only team struggling. MLS has a unique business structure, one in which every team is technically owned by the league. So-called “owners” like Anschutz are basically franchisees—custodians of their markets. Over its first five years, MLS lost a reported quarter of a billion dollars; in 2002, it shut down two teams. Owners began to flee, and bankruptcy for the entire enterprise loomed. Anschutz and fellow tycoon Lamar Hunt, who owned FC Dallas, kept MLS alive by assuming control of a combined nine of the 10 teams.

So, like the rest of MLS, the Rapids limped into the new millennium—at least, at the ticket office. On the field, they were competitive: Colorado played in its first MLS Cup final in 1997, lost, and only missed the playoffs once over the next eight years. Still, few fans cared. “I can’t say it was a good following,” says Mastroeni, who joined the team in 2002. “Week to week, it wasn’t the most conducive field to try and drum up the 12th man given the enormity of the stadium and the lack of support at the time. It made for awkward silences throughout the game.”

It was about this time that the club came to the attention of Stanley Kroenke. A St. Louis real estate magnate, Kroenke had purchased the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche in 2000. Anschutz wanted to bring financially flush investors into MLS and lobbied Kroenke to take control of Denver’s soccer team, too. Kroenke already had plenty of sports execs at KSE, which was based at the Pepsi Center. Surely they could handle the Rapids, too.

Then the president of KSE, Don Elliman advocated for the purchase: “I thought that soccer, if you were willing to take the long view, had a good future. I told Stan, ‘If you’re in this for five years, three years, don’t do this deal. In the short term, it’s not likely to be positive.’ Fortunately, Stan always takes the long bet.”

If You’re First, You’re Last

Perhaps the Rapids would take decades to pay off as a sporting enterprise. As a real estate venture, though, they were ready to contribute to the Kroenke empire almost immediately.

At the start, MLS played in huge football stadiums. The league knew it needed to eventually build smaller, more intimate soccer-specific venues to improve the viewing experience. The LA Galaxy, for example, were incredibly popular compared with other MLS franchises. But the average crowd barely covered a third of the 91,000-seat Rose Bowl. It’s difficult to incite the sort of song-chanting, chest-painting, finger-flipping mob mentality that makes for festive sports watching when your nearest neighbor is sitting three sections away.

In 1999, Columbus Crew SC became the first MLS team to open a stadium designed solely for soccer. Los Angeles and Dallas soon followed. Charlie Wright took over as general manager of the Rapids in 2004, after KSE had purchased the team. He says the league expected Colorado to construct its own stadium, too, and that was fine with Kroenke. “Stan’s initial interest was definitely around real estate,” Wright says.

The model set by Columbus, LA, and Dallas was to find a suburban city or county in which to erect a 20,000ish-seat facility. Not only did that locate a team closer to the families execs believed would be the lifeblood of ticket sales, but outlying governments were also more willing to strike generous deals with still-fledgling MLS teams.

Kroenke landed on Commerce City. (Wright claims some KSE executives speculated about buying Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park, tearing it down, and erecting the stadium on the edge of downtown Denver. Kroenke, along with Revesco Properties, now owns that land but plans to build a massive mixed-use development dubbed the River Mile there.) The idea was for KSE and Commerce City to partner on the development of a 917-acre parcel of land. KSE would build a stadium (the facility now known as Dick’s Sporting Goods Park), while Commerce City approved more than $100 million in tax incentives to aid in construction of the venue and a planned retail and commercial project called Prairie Gateway on the remainder of the site. Then city manager Perry VanDeventer predicted DSG Park would do for Commerce City “what Coors Field did to LoDo.”

A bold prophesy—and one that didn’t look so Pollyannaish on April 7, 2007, when DSG Park opened to a sellout crowd of about 18,000. The $71 million soccer stadium featured peaked canopies that called to mind the Rocky Mountains, and the stands offered unobstructed vantages of the field from every seat. KSE execs spoke about how owning their own home would permit the Rapids to generate more revenue through sponsorships and how the intimate setting would inspire more enthusiasm. The Rapids reported selling three times as many season tickets as the year before.

In truth, the new digs did little to ignite Denver’s interest in the Rapids. Average attendance was 14,749 in 2007 and then declined for two straight seasons. “They improved, but they improved a modest amount,” says Wright, who was the team’s GM and chief financial officer the year the stadium opened. The Great Recession spoiled plans for developing Prairie Gateway. That moniker is now mostly associated with the Prairie Gateway open space—where, in summer 2019, an outbreak of the plague tore through the prairie dog population and forced the Rapids to cancel a post-game fireworks show.

KSE’s geographical gaffe became startlingly clear after the 2010 MLS Cup victory. As the league gained greater financial stability, it began to add clubs: the Portland Timbers (2011), Atlanta United FC (2017), Los Angeles FC (2018), and seven more. Many of the 10 new teams built their stadiums in downtown areas where they were conveniently situated near America’s most zealous supporters of the sport, young urbanites. “Whereas [the Rapids’] stadium was a great place to play five, 10 years ago, as all these cities have come online, it’s fallen further and further back,” says Chris Smith, who creates Forbes’ MLS franchise valuations. According to a 2013 study, an MLS game misses out on about 260 fans for each mile the venue resides outside a city center. That would mean the Rapids lose approximately 2,340 spectators between LoDo and Commerce City for each match.

The location of DSG Park underscores an even larger problem Colorado faces: It’s an old team in a newly rising sport. Todd Jewell, a professor of economics at Texas State University who studies MLS, points to the league’s original clubs. “You think about who these teams are,” Jewell says, “and not many of those have been able to generate any rabid fan support.” Only two of the legacy franchises ranked within the top half of attendance in 2019.

Some in the MLS class of 1996 are attempting to buy their fans’ affections. Before this season, Sporting Kansas City spent about $10 million on a player, Columbus paid around $7 million, and D.C. United shelled out some $5 million. Chicago Fire FC, which arrived in MLS two years after the league started, is uprooting the entire franchise in an effort to rekindle interest in the club. In the mid-2000s, the suburb of Bridgeview built the Fire a $98 million stadium. The team languished there; it was the only club to draw fewer people than the Rapids last season. So this past offseason, Chicago’s owner paid $65.5 million to break its lease with Bridgeview and relocate to downtown’s Soldier Field. “There’s definitely a handful of teams who need to do something to move the needle,” says Phil West, author of The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom. The Rapids, he adds, are attempting to stoke fan excitement. They just don’t seem to be trying as hard as other franchises.

Bloom of Youth

The Rapids hope building a foundation with young, local players resonates with fans.

The Second-Worst Person in Sports

The morning after winning the MLS Cup, the Rapids flew home to Denver with the Anschutz Trophy fastened securely in the front row of first class. Hundreds of cheering fans awaited them at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Governor Bill Ritter declared November 23 of that year Colorado Rapids Day, and Mayor John Hickenlooper honored the squad during a rally at Skyline Park. With the team flag flapping over the Capitol, managing director Jeff Plush told the 1,000 or so in attendance that the franchise wasn’t satisfied with one title: “We want this to be sustained greatness.”

Instead, supporters got nine years of instability. In 2011, while the team was in El Salvador for a CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) Champions League game, head coach Gary Smith groused about the Rapids’ stinginess—in particular, his front office’s insistence that the squad fly commercial to South America. “These guys are traveling charter and staying in all the best places,” Smith said, referring to the Galaxy, who also competed there. “Our guys are staying in some shed with straw on the floor and eating out of a trough.”

The Rapids fired Smith after the season. Plush’s contract wasn’t renewed, either. Wright lasted until January 2012 before his position was eliminated.

In its quest for relevance, KSE turned to sports marketing veteran Tim Hinchey, who became the Rapids’ president in December 2011. Hinchey boasted an impressive resumé—having run commercial activities for Derby County FC, a historic English club—and he immediately set about raising Colorado’s profile. The Rapids were one of the last MLS teams not to have a jersey sponsor; Hinchey made a reported $8.3 million deal with Ciao, a multinational telecom company. According to Hinchey, season tickets increased from 1,400 to 6,000 during his tenure thanks to KSE adding ticket sales staff and spending more on advertising.

Hinchey also presided over the merger of the team’s supporters groups—the Bulldogs, Class VI, and Pid Army—into a single entity called Centennial 38. (The trio had butted heads over their varying styles. Pid, for example, tried to be more punk rock and chanted things like “Fuck families!” which didn’t sit well with the team or, well, families.) Most impressively, Hinchey signed Tim Howard, widely believed to be the greatest American goalkeeper of all time. That season, 2016, the league honored Hinchey as executive of the year, and average attendance at DSG Park topped 16,000 for the first and only time.

But many remember Hinchey’s stewardship of the team, which ended in 2017, with anger—and a little embarrassment. The partnership with Ciao ended in a lawsuit, the company reportedly making good on only $75,000 of its commitment. The signing of Howard, who retired after the 2019 season, was a boon, but Hinchey’s other high-dollar acquisitions failed more than they succeeded. Swiss midfielder Shkëlzen Gashi, to name one flop, became such an on-field liability (unhappiness with his contract led to him showing up for the 2017 season out of shape, which led to injuries, which led to only four goals over his final 38 games with the team) that the Rapids cut him with a year remaining on his contract, eating $1.6 million. Then there was Hinchey’s abrasiveness. Bamber remembers sending Hinchey an email asking why the team was holding its jersey unveilings in corporate bars rather than the Bulldog. He says Hinchey responded tersely: Don’t contact me again. (Hinchey says he doesn’t remember any negative interaction with fans.)

Another instance of Hinchey’s ornery personality played out in the media in 2014. As the team finished the season on a 14-game winless streak, the Rapids beat writer for mlssoccer.com tweeted, “Say it once, say it again: Front office deserves much more blame than coaching staff.” That set off a string of contentious emails between Hinchey and the reporter—Chris Bianchi, a meteorologist who moonlighted as a soccer journalist for the league-owned website—which ended with Hinchey writing, “Enjoy the weather.” MLS fired Bianchi a few days later. What could have been a private spat, however, turned public when Deadspin published the emails. Hinchey points out that Bianchi was a league employee. Bianchi says that after the dustup, former and then current Rapids employees reached out to him to thank him for exposing Hinchey’s dictatorial management style. “Tim made a poor decision for his own sake,” Bianchi says. “That childish taunt was never going to look good.” ESPN’s Keith Olbermann declared Hinchey the second-worst person in sports that week. During the final games of the 2014 and ’15 seasons, a plane circled above DSG Park pulling banners that read, in part, “KSE & Hinchey out.”

Hinchey eventually took that advice, becoming president and CEO of USA Swimming in 2017 and leaving KSE to shoulder the blame for the team’s performance. “Colorado’s biggest issue is their owner, Stan Kroenke,” Sam Stejskal wrote in the Athletic this past May. “Broadly characterized by high-ranking sources around the league as the worst owner in MLS, Kroenke…is absurdly absent from the Rapids organization.” Past and present KSE execs characterize that assertion as false. “When we have opportunities and ideas, ownership is very involved and supportive of what will make the team better and what’s best for the fans’ experience,” says KSE chief operating officer and executive vice president Matt Hutchings, who pointed specifically to the Rapids’ multimillion-dollar commitment to Howard as evidence of Kroenke’s willingness to invest. (Kroenke was not made available for this story.) But even some former Rapids view Kroenke as an absentee owner. “We definitely had a feeling that Kroenke didn’t necessarily care about what went on,” says Marvell Wynne, a starter on the 2010 Rapids team. “Even after we won the Cup and went to the White House, he didn’t say hi to us, he didn’t talk to us, we didn’t shake his hand. He was there and we shook the president’s hand, but we didn’t talk to [Kroenke], and he didn’t acknowledge us.” (Kroenke is also the majority shareholder of London’s Arsenal FC, one of the most popular soccer teams in the world, and his stewardship of the Gunners has inspired even greater ire: “He is single-handedly sucking the soul out of the club I love,” an Arsenal fan told the Denver Post in July 2019.)

Kroenke’s perceived inattention has earned the Rapids a reputation as a threadbare organization with few scouts, zero high-priced stars, and modest player amenities. Before joining the Rapids, Fraser was an assistant coach for Toronto FC. There, players had a theater dedicated to watching film. At DSG Park, the staff has to rearrange tables and stools in the eating area so everyone can see the TV.

But it’s probably naive to think Kroenke would care about the Rapids. The secret behind MLS’ valuation boom is that though prospective owners are shelling out $200 million to start franchises, most teams lose money. Even mighty Atlanta United earned only $7 million in 2018. Colorado, which lost $5 million that year, represents five percent of the worth of Kroenke’s NFL team, the $3.8 billion Los Angeles Rams. To the average Denverite, that’s the difference between your car and your house. “Frankly, it’s not a bad business decision for Kroenke to hold on to the Rapids,” Jewell says. “If it loses a little bit of money here and there, he takes it off his taxes, and he may eventually be able to sell the team for 10 or 20 times what he bought it for.” Unfortunately, Jewell says, sound financial planning usually fails to generate a lot of fervor among fans.

The Young and the Restless

In 2019, Littleton’s Cole Bassett, 18, was named one of MLS’ best 22 players under the age of 22. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rapids

Cole Bassett doesn’t know life without the Rapids. Born in 2001, the Littleton native’s first memory of the team is competing against other kids during a halftime exhibition at DSG Park. Later, he held Chris Klute’s hand as the Rapids player took the field to play the Galaxy, David Beckham standing mere feet away. (Bassett later tried desperately to mimic Klute’s hairstyle—an afro. The results were not great.) Recently, Bassett found a letter he wrote to Santa Claus when he was nine or 10 years old. “One of the things on the list was a Conor Casey jersey,” Bassett says. Evidently Santa isn’t a Rapids fan, because Christmas came and Casey’s number nine didn’t.

In August 2018, Colorado inked Bassett to a pro contract, making him the youngest signee in the club’s history. That distinction lasted eight months, until the Rapids added 16-year-old Sebastian Anderson of Highlands Ranch. They join 24-year-old Kortne Ford (Greeley), 20-year-old Sam Vines (Colorado Springs), and 22-year-old Andre Shinyashiki (Brazilian, but a University of Denver alum) to form the foundation of the Rapids’ plan to capture prospective fans’ attentions in 2020 and beyond. “If you can win with local, young, fast, exciting players,” Rapids executive vice president and general manager Pádraig Smith says, “everybody’s going to want to be a part of that.”

Should KSE’s goal really be to run a streamlined ship, Smith appears to be the perfect captain. The Irishman was an auditor for Ernst & Young before working for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). At FAI, he implemented the first salary cap in European soccer. At UEFA, Smith led financial investigations into teams.

While counting beans, Smith gained an interest in analytics—how to appraise athletes based on data rather than subjective observations—and developed a rudimentary model for player evaluation. Hinchey, whom Smith knew from Derby County, invited Smith to come to DSG Park in 2014 to give a presentation on his stats-based system and later offered him the job of sporting director; Smith would handle the analytics team. Once Hinchey left, Smith took over the soccer operations of the Rapids (senior vice president of business operations Wayne Brant runs ticketing and other commercial interests) and says he was tasked by KSE to be more than a caretaker for a skeleton crew. “I’m under a clear instruction to win,” Smith says.

Smith has spent his five years with the club building a system that’s married to data yet covets youth with local ties to the club, like Bassett. Hinchey started the Rapids Development Academy, but Smith tapped it (Anderson, Vines, Ford, and Bassett all came to the pro squad through the program). He recruited an assistant GM to oversee analytics, a director of player personnel, and full-time video and data analysts. In August 2017, Smith and Brant penned an op-ed in the Denver Post promising Rapids fans that these new resources would usher in a bold future. They called this new culture “the Rapids Way” and vowed that the team would be a regular fixture in the playoffs.

Many believed 2019 would be the year Colorado finally fulfilled that promise. The Rapids opened that season at home against the Portland Timbers and knocked in a last-minute goal to secure a 3-3 tie. The team proceeded to lose seven of its next eight games, drawing the other. The low point came in April after a loss in Atlanta. Following the game, Smith’s handpicked coach, Anthony Hudson, told the media that it shouldn’t expect too much, because “we are fighting at the bottom with a bottom group of players.” Smith fired Hudson days later. Afterward, Smith addressed the team in the locker room. He prefers to avoid the players’ domain but felt it was important that they knew he believed in them. They were better than 0-7-2. Smith saw Howard nodding his head and thought, We’re going to be OK. “I didn’t know they were going to turn it around as quickly as they did,” Smith says.

Once Smith installed assistant coach Conor Casey as temporary manager and hired Robin Fraser as Hudson’s permanent replacement, the Rapids notched the third-best record in MLS. Even more remarkably, as the Rapids engineered an unlikely playoff push (they eventually fell just short), Denver actually started to care. On May 3, 10,794 people turned out to see the Rapids lose to Vancouver at DSG Park. Almost 17,000 came to watch them thump Cincinnati a month later. “At the end of the day, if people are going to come out and watch our games, they want to be entertained,” Smith says. “They want to go home and say they enjoyed that.”

Buoyed by the final half of the season and both Howard and Gashi’s expensive contracts coming off the books, Colorado added three offensive-minded international players this offseason: Younes Namli from Denmark, Nicolas Benezet from France, and talented prospect Braian Galván from Argentina. Vines trained with the U.S. men’s national soccer team, while Bassett made the American under-20 squad. Returning striker Kei Kamara is the fifth-highest-scoring player in MLS history. “This is a team of runners and a team of guys who do things at speed,” Fraser says. “I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think we can be a really fun team to watch.”

Winning with any kind of splendor is something the Rapids—even the 2010 squad—have never been able to achieve. In that way, Smith understands that although he’s not trying to erase the club’s past, its future must look very different. “We’ve achieved something in this league,” Smith says of Colorado’s lone Anschutz Trophy. “But now this league is changing, and we can’t simply rest on our laurels here. We need to be able to take the next step.”