By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 7, 2011) US Soccer Players — There's a model in Major League Soccer for over achieving and then staying competitive for a few years. You make your splash, then you remain in the conversation. The clubs that have followed this path win their Cup as a low seed, and then use that core group of Cup winners to stay right at the cusp of contention. They're normally not the best team in their Conference, but they could be. All they need is a couple of pieces or maybe a tweak, and they're willing to wait for it.
Colorado bucked that model.
Entering the 2011 playoffs as a wildcard team, they exited to Sporting Kansas City in the Conference semifinals. There would be no repeat, even with Colorado finishing a spot higher in the overall standings than they did in their championship season and at various points looking like a team that could finish much higher in the Western Conference.
First to go was head coach Gary Smith. After giving the team a public ultimatum courtesy of the local paper that it was either him or technical director Paul Bravo, Rapids management went with Bravo. Smith wasn't shy in his criticisms of his club, calling out his boss, managing director Jeff Plush, and pointing to what he felt was a team that was on a path to success.
With Smith gone, the next step many expected was the naming of a new coach. Instead, it's Plush also leaving the club. In a media statement announcing that move, Plush said "I believe I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish; it鈥檚 time for me to explore the new opportunities in front of me."
In other words, his exit wasn't contentious and he remains a consultant to Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. Where this leaves Colorado becomes a very good question. 2011 is another in a series of expansion years, and any MLS club needs to make sure they don't create their own competitive disadvantage. That happened to DC United last season, where the players weren't in place to really compete early and even with the addition of the eventual League MVP there wasn't enough time to make the safety net of the playoffs.
Let's consider how safe that net is in the aftermath of Gary Smith's exit. Unless the expectations are so high only a Cup win will do, normally a coach can expect another season simply by making the playoffs. There's a long list of teams that have extended employment based on that, even as the criticisms mounted that there wasn't a lot of difference between just making and just missing the playoffs. Real Salt Lake and Colorado changed that, demonstrating that low seeded teams could loft the trophy. That muddled the expectations, once again pushing the idea that any playoff spot means a successful season.
Gary Smith no longer in charge at Colorado should have two clear consequences for the rest of MLS. One is that making the playoffs might not be good enough even for a team like the Rapids. This plays to Smith's public statements about being disrespected. He took a team that could've easily been just out of the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and led them to a championship and the Conference semifinals. Sure, it was the Eastern Conference semifinals, but for two years that was the route to a championship for lower seeded Western Conference teams.
For Colorado, now what? It's going to be tough to convince anybody that both Smith and Plush weren't crucial to what the Rapids accomplished. Again, there were those glimpses of a much better Rapids team during the 2011 regular season. A bit of health, a bit of luck, and they're not in a playoff scenario that requires them beating the top team in the East over two games. With that in mind, it becomes very hard to tell a story where the Rapids are better off minus Smith.
About that other consequence? It's also straightforward. Every other MLS coach just got a working example of what public criticism of a club can do. Smith had reportedly agreed to at least some terms of a new contract. The Rapids apparently wanted him back. Yet he felt he needed the public pressure to have enough control to do his job his way. That didn't work for Rapids management, and weeks later management itself has a key role to fill.
Once again, that leaves the Rapids needing a bit of luck and circumstances to go their way in order not to end up with less than what they had after losing in the playoffs to Kansas City. 2012 becomes about making the playoffs. It also becomes about not looking like a team caught in a transition.
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