Today also beings the Oscar Pareja Chapter in Rapids history. Where will he fit in the long history of the Colorado Rapids?
Yes, long! MLS is no longer an infant and the Rapids are starting their 17th year. Junior year of high school is a pretty fun one right!
The Rapids were born in 1996 in the era of Shootouts, Cheerleaders, and Americanization of soccer. Some teams came out of the gates well like DC United. The Rapids went straight to the NICU. The new car smell wore off fast as the Rapids became perhaps the least talented team in MLS history under the guidance of Bobby Houghton. Not too many of the nearly 22,000 fans on opening day were there for the final match of the season. The marquee player for the Rapids was suppose to be Roy Wegerle who only scored four goals for the Rapids and ended up being our second coach in history after Bobby Houghton was fired with one game remaining in the season. The team and fans had quit long before Houghton was fired. 1996 to this day is by far the worst season in Rapids history.
Our third coach was one that many Rapids fans came to love. Glen Myernick took the Rapids to their first MLS Cup in 1997 where they had to meet a very powerful DC United squad losing 2-1. The season wasn’t exactly a success finishing six games under .500, but the Rapids got hot and took down the KC Wizards before eliminating the Dallas Burn with a thrilling 87th minute goal by Chris Henderson. The final was at RFK Stadium against the MLS power house at the time DC United, but it was dumping and many hoped it to be an equalizing factor. The Rapids were over matched.
The following season, the Rapids were entertaining and more confident and Myernick guided the team to an even 16-16 record. In the playoffs they got run over by eventual MLS Champions Chicago Fire. The highlight of the season was the Rapids qualification for CONCACAF Champions League. Not too many people were there to see the match, but it was the best atmosphere of a Rapids game at that point in history when the Rapids faced off against Mexican Team (and former Marcelo Balboa club) Leon. The Rapids pulled off a 1-0 victory in a time when Mexican Clubs where considered light years ahead of MLS at Mile High Stadium in a crowd that was split between clubs. The play on the field was absolutely passionate and the hardest fought game I’d ever seen of the team in green. I’ll never forget it.
Myernick continued to build the success at the Rapids with a record of 14-9-9 (if you consider shootout games a tie). Sounds good right? But the team struggled to score goals and ended up getting crushed in the playoffs by Los Angles with a 5-0 aggregate. But what the season is most noted for was the Rapids becoming the only MLS team to lose to a lower division American team in the US Open Cup Final, dropping the game 2-0 to the Rochester Rhinos.
In his final season with the Rapids, Myernick again had trouble getting his team to put the ball in the net with the Rapids ending up 13-15-4 with a goal differential of -16 finishing 8th in the league. When they hit the playoffs the goal scoring problems continued and the KC Wizards kept the Rapid off the score sheet until the 70th minute of game three. At the time the Rapids had already given up five goals. It was time for a change and Myernick was replaced by Tim Hankinson. One thing was not debatable, at that point Myernick was the best coach the Rapids had ever had. But that accomplishment wasn’t too difficult to achieve.
So Tim Hankinson was brought in after four seasons with the Tampa Mutiny to play a more exciting style of soccer. Does that sound like a recurring theme Rapids fans? Well along with bringing in Hankinson, Rapids GM also brought in Scotsman John Spencer who’d go on to achieve legendary status with Rapids fans. Mid season, the Rapids also acquired a player Hankison was familiar with World Famous Colombian Carlos Valderrama. Give Hankison credit where credit was due – he knew how to manage one of the most temperamental players MLS has ever seen. His first season was considered a rebuilder as the Rapids finished 5-13-8 in a season sadly shortened and marred with the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
He got the team rolling however in 2002, the season many consider to be the most exciting regular season in Rapids history. At 13-11-4 the Rapids finished 4th in MLS, however it was the quality of play that got fans craving games. Henderson, Chung, and Carrieri each had 11 goals and Valderrama racked up 16 assists creating some of the prettiest goals ever seen in the glorious state of Colorado. If only John Spencer hadn’t gotten hurt, the Rapids were for the first time considered a real force in MLS. After eliminating the Dallas Burn yet again, they fell soundly to eventual champion Los Angles, but everyone was looking forward to the return of John Spencer and 2003.
But at the age of 41, Valderrama retired and while John Spencer returned to excite Rapids fans, the team was not the same and again returned to the bottom scoring teams in MLS finishing 11-12-7. This time the KC Wizards eliminated the Rapids in the playoffs and attendance fell. When 2004 rolled in the Rapids couldn’t score in a brothel. Even John Spencer managed only 4 goals and battled injuries all season. The team finished 10-9-11 with the 11 draws being the notable number and managed only 29 goals all season. It seemed to many that the key to the Rapids successful 2002 season was not the coach, but rather Carlos Valderrama. Then end of the Hankinson Era ended with Los Angles once more eliminating the Rapids from MLS Cup playoffs.
The next chapter not only saw the hiring of former USNT defender Fernando Clavijo as coach, but also the end of the AEG ownership and the beginning of the KSE Era. KSE announced the plans to construct a soccer specific stadium and Rapids fans every where were excited to have an owner then didn’t consider the Rapids the lowest priority among a large collection of MLS teams. (Note: At the time most Rapids fans were mostly concerned with the survival of MLS and even closer to home, the survival of the Colorado Rapids. When MLS contracted and folded Miami and Tampa, the Rapids were on the list of teams to fold but was saved by Coloradan and owner of AEG, Philip Anshutz. So while it was obvious the emphasis was to cater to big teams like NY, LA, and CHI, Rapids fans just had to grin and bear it.) What many Rapids fans do not know is that KSE requested to put the team on hiatus until the stadium was completed. The request was denied and KSE decided the best strategy was to lose as little money as possible until DSG Park was constructed.
What that meant was very little investment in the team at every level. So with that background, it was a great accomplishment that Fernando Clavijo ended 2005 with a 13-13-6 record, yet another team that wasn’t scoring goals like the big clubs. However, the team’s defense was as good as any in MLS and the Rapids went to the playoffs once more eliminating FC Dallas. As a side note, the second leg of the playoff series was the launch of the first successful viewing party as people crammed into the back of Delany’s in Denver to watch the Rapids lose the lead 2-1 in the 105′. Pandemonium broke out when the Rapids responded seconds later with Richie Kotschau sliding one in to even the match. The game went to penalties and the Rapids were victorious 5-4. Los Angles would once more keep the Rapids from their second MLS Cup Final and go on to win the Cup.
2006 rolled in and for his second season, Clavijo’s team performed just a bit worse finishing 11-13-8 again not scoring like the top teams in the league with the top scorer only having 7 goals, but this time the defense slipped up considerably allowing 12 more goals. The team squeaked into the playoffs. But once more, Clavijo’s team dug deep and once more met up with FC Dallas, and once more evened the aggregate in extra time, and once more eliminated FC Dallas with a very nerve wrecking penalty kick victory 4-3. Once more we fell short of MLS Cup, this time at the hands of Champions Houston.
2007 the opening of DSG Park!! Everything was going to change. This was the moment the Rapids were going to rise. It was not to be. Clavijo’s team missed the playoffs with a 9-13-8 record scoring only 29 goals. The defense was among the tops in the league, but with a top scorer only having 6 goals, Rapids fans deemed the team extremely boring. Clavijo traded fan favorite Kyle Beckerman to hated rivals RSL. Shortly after Rapids fans went ballistic and staged a very visible protest which pitted supporters against the Front office. But Clavijo had brought them to two Conference finals and was resigned.
2008 not much changed except for the exodus of fans. It was probably the lowest point of the Rapids history. The Rapids continued to struggle and after a 7-9-4 record, Fernando Clavijo resigned from his position under much pressure from the fans as well as a very public divide with the Rapids President Jeff Plush. Bobby Houghton wasn’t around long enough to get the fans hot under the collar like Clavijo did, however Clavijo did find success in the playoffs. At this point however, Myernick was still the best coach the Rapids had ever had; Clavijo’s tenure did not over turn that.
In late August, Jeff Plush hired Englishman Gary Smith to his first head coaching position. Gary did have an impact on the team, but fell short on the last day of the season tying those hated rivals on the other side of the Rockies and missing the playoffs for a third straight year. The Gary Smith era started out quietly but it sure ended in a big way – Championship followed by inexplicable dismissal after an extremely public divorce! I don’t think you’re going to find many Rapids fans who do not consider Gary Smith to be the All Time Best Rapids Coach in history. It was never going to be too impossible of a task to over come the Rapids past, but the first Rapids Championship elevates Smith to legendary status.
One criticism of the Smith era was the style of play and is often cited by Rapids officials. Oscar Pareja’s time begins with the promise of a new entertaining attacking style, the firing of team President Jeff Plush and beginning of new President Tim Hinchey. This is also the first coach hired by Technical Director Paul Bravo. The team is for the most part the same team that won the Championship padded with some additions from South America. Can Oscar’s time overcome the Championship Gary Smith brought us? Time will tell. I think the winning goal for Pareja would be the accomplishment of more entertaining ball, a team that improves their mediocre regular season finishes – meaning more victories, and the Championship. If he can do those three things, there may not be a debate.
Tall order, but the journey begins today!!! Hope to meet many of you at the tailgate and the post game party with the players. Up the Rapids and let’s get this story started off right.