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Two years ago, the Colorado Rapids won their first MLS Cup championship, only to have head coach Gary Smith fired at the end of the following season—he’d help lead the team to its most successful stretch since 2000—due to disagreements with upper management. In January, the Rapids announced that Oscar Pareja would take over the head coaching position.
A former professional soccer player and assistant coach of FC Dallas, the Colombia native talked with 5280 on the eve of the team’s season home opener this Saturday (versus Columbus Crew; 4 p.m., Dick’s Sporting Goods Park; get tickets here) about what we can expect from the upcoming season.
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What is your coaching philosophy?
I always want to take the game in a professional way. I like a team who is disciplined, who is intense, who has a position-oriented game, and is creative. I like to mix those four facts and then put a product on the field that people enjoy.
There’s been a lot of talk since you were hired about the team moving from a defense-focused approach to being more offense-minded. You’ve also changed the team’s on-field formation. Are these the major changes fans can expect to see this season?
We’ll see. It’s going to be a progression. We’re still going to have a disciplined team that works hard defensively. But obviously our goal is to be effective with a team who’s going to be defensive-minded as well. But it takes a connection with our defense. I don’t want people to think, Oh, we’re going to put five forwards. No, it is a team that is going to have discipline defending and a lot of creativity going forward.
When you say you want “creative” players, what does that mean?
Creativity is having people who are present on the field. I like people who are disciplined and have a job on the field, a prescribed job, but I also like them to spread themselves because at the end of the day that’s what the people like, seeing different things, not just linear players who are just defending and crossing the ball. I like people who spread themselves and have flexibility on the field and that needs a lot of creativity—and obviously I look for players who have that instinct and that natural talent.
Did you come in with a set plan on how you were going to adjust the team or do you watch the players and tweak your coaching in response?
The first thing you have to do is just see what you got because in the MLS you have a challenge, obviously, with the roster. The MLS is not a league that you can come and bring five players at a time, six players, or whatever you want. The first thing that you do is just analyze and get to know the players well enough to say, You know what, what I have in mind I can get it, or I may tweak it a little bit here and there. So I’m in the mode now on knowing the players as much as I can, what they can bring me, and then putting out the formation that I need.
What do you think will be the team’s biggest challenge this season?
Probably the first couple months it will be just adjusting to each other. That’s normal. They have had a program in place for years and now things are changing, and everything takes a little time.
What’s been the biggest adjustment for you in going from an assistant coach to head coach?
I know the job, so it was expected. Many things come at you at the same time and you have to have answers; that always is and will be a challenge for any head coach, not just for me. It’s a challenge that any coach has on a daily basis.
Does being a former MLS player affect your coaching?
Knowing the league is a key. I think it’s important. Being around, being in the locker room, knowing the cultures. Having the experience and the blessing to live in this country for 15 years and being in the league for nine years, that helps me a lot.
Soccer is growing in popularity in the States. How do you think the MLS is viewed internationally? Is it more respected?
It is. It is growing. I can remember the MLS in 1996 when everybody pictured it as a league that had football fields, lines everywhere, teams that were playing shootouts, and a league that was young and played by the college players. Now we have a league that is playing in specific stadiums, putting 30,000 people in the stands, having a more usual calendar of games that matches the other leagues, and having players that come here from all over the place, at younger and younger ages. That is a good sign. We should be very proud.
—Image courtesy of the Colorado Rapids