Premiership power fuels Colorado’s rise
It took a fluke goal to win it, but the Colorado Rapids’ first MLS Cup championship was the result of careful planning that had origins at one of the world’s most famous clubs.
Englishman Gary Smith, virtually unknown in his homeland, was dispatched to the Rocky Mountains two years ago by English Premier League side Arsenal to set up the Colorado youth academy as part of an agreement between the clubs. After a few months and some managerial upheaval, he was the head coach.
As of Sunday night, Smith was leader of the MLS champion, an unlikely winner in an unlikely season where the form book got torched as soon as playoff time rolled around.
A deflected own goal from FC Dallas’ George John gave the Rapids a 2-1 overtime victory in an entertaining title game at Toronto’s BMO Field. David Ferreira had put Dallas ahead in the first half before final MVP Conor Casey equalized in the 57th minute.
For Smith, whose own playing career in the secondary tiers of English soccer was cut short by injury at the age of 27, it was both his finest hour and justification of his methods.
Smith did not work directly alongside Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger but served as a scout in the Gunners’ system. The tried and tested ways Wenger has implemented in North London these past 15 years rubbed off, and Smith has attempted to recreate both a passing style and defensive resilience in Colorado.
“[Smith] has done a good job there,” Wenger said recently. “He went over and was given an opportunity, which he has taken very well. He has improved the team and showed his ability as a coach and we are all wishing him well.”
Wenger and Smith have spoken on the phone, and in the lead-up to the MLS Cup final Arsenal took a level of interest in Colorado that was surprising, notwithstanding the informal arrangement between the organizations.
Wenger sent a personal message of support to Smith and his team, while the Arsenal website and match-day program this week both carried details of Colorado’s progress.
Smith’s achievement in MLS has boosted his credentials and will increase the likelihood he could be offered a coaching position in England, one which would probably pay considerably more than his Colorado salary.
“Of course I would consider it and going back to England would be wonderful,” Smith said. “But I want to be successful with Colorado first. Otherwise I would feel this experience wasn’t quite complete.”
Coming into the postseason, no one was talking about Colorado. All discussions were about the star-studded lineups of the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. Even heading into Sunday, Dallas was grabbing most of the headlines thanks to its demolition of the Galaxy the week before.
But Colorado and Smith remained unbothered and stuck to their game plan. Holding midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz were outstanding, while Casey stuck his head in the firing line and was a physical presence in attack.
And while luck played a role in the winning goal, with Macoumba Kandji’s hopeful effort deflecting off John’s knee and into the net, Colorado dominated the extra period and deserved its win.
MLS’s playoff format is not to everyone’s liking, and the fact that the champion won only 12 regular-season games and finished fifth in the Western Conference will offend the purists. Commissioner Don Garber announced there will be some changes for next season, but those are just to add numbers, not fairness.
However, Smith and his troops worked with the rules they were given and fulfilled the primary criteria for MLS glory – excellence in November.