(ColoradoRapids.com) - Today ColoradoRapids.com sat down with Rapids Managing Director Jeff Plush to analyze the 2007 season and get his inside insights into the overall state of the Rapids club going into 2008 in this exclusive interview.
ColoradoRapids.com: What do you see as the positives from this year?
Jeff Plush: "Obviously opening Dick’s Sporting Goods Park both the stadium and the sports complex were great achievements. When comparing this year to previous years take out all the one-off events like 60000+ fireworks games and USA v Mexico and we hosted more people to see Rapids games than any time in the history of our franchise.
"In addition to that it was great to see over 500000 kids and adults play on our field complex over the course of the year. It sets us up for the long term growth of our sport. We brought in a total of six international teams from all over the world in 2007 for our fans to experience that's more than any other season in our club history and it was great to bring the world's game to Colorado in the truest sense of the word this year."
CRC:What do you see as the areas that need improvement?
JP: "Clearly the biggest need for improvement is on the pitch. We failed against every goal we put in front of ourselves from the team side this year. It is time for reflection and time for us to figure out how to improve in virtually every area on the team side. We cobbled together some points anyway this year but it certainly wasn’t with any real sense of purpose...there was no real system or a vision of what we want to be. Most importantly we need to fix the first team right now.
"Certainly there are also still other areas for growth for the club with selling more tickets and sponsorships and getting more media coverage and exposure. On balance though I am pleased with where we are as a business and am confident in the future of our club and our league."
CRC: Going into 2007 the club had some distinct goals and objectives. How do you think those were fulfilled this year? What will change for ’08?
JP: "They were not fulfilled. We put out a clear goal that we wanted to make the playoffs advance to the MLS Cup and win the MLS Cup. We didn’t get any of those done. We also didn’t qualify for SuperLiga next year. We have to be honest with ourselves and our fan base that we didn’t get it done. We will come back next year with the same goals because the reality is that we are not a bad team and we don’t have a lack of talent.
"Off the field our organizational goals included the successful launch of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park the re-branding of our team and our new corporate identity and consolidating our front office into a successful and soccer-focused business staff.
"We need to put lofty goals in front of this group and demand more of ourselves and we will do that. It starts with me demanding more of our coaching staff our players and our front office. The objectives are the same as they have always been but we have to work that much harder because we didn’t get it done this year."
CRC:What is the status of the Rapids' coaching situation?
JP: "Fernando will be back for 2008. He has one more year left in his contract. We know that it is a controversial decision and that some people don’t agree with it at all. We respect everyone’s opinion on the subject but at the end of the day Mr. Kroenke believes in honoring the contracts that we sign and he believes in honoring his word. I think there are some positives to be learned by that.
"Clearly there is some work to do to recover some of our fan base that we may have lost with this decision. We will work diligently to do that and that work has already started. However the reality is that this organization can win with this coaching staff and this current team. We did make it to the Western Conference Championship game in both 2005 and ’06. I’m confident that if we can get some things shored up demand more of ourselves train more effectively and add a little bit of talent then we can make steps forward next year for sure.
"As far of the rest of the coaching staff goes John Murphy has been doing a great job for us had led the Rapids Reserves to back-to-back championship titles this year and is helping build the future of this club with all the work he is doing with the Rapids Academy. On the other hand a couple of subordinates on the staff have been let go. We will move forward next year without Goalkeeping Coach Leo Percovich and Fitness Coach Hector Ifran. We are in the process developing a plan on how to fill those positions now."
CRC:How have the Colorado Rapids stacked up against other MLS teams this year? How do you think we fared both on and off the field?
JP: "You go back to how we didn’t hit any of our objectives but when you look at some of the specific games and how we stacked up it makes it that much more frustrating. If you look at it we split the points with the East. We beat DC New England and New York tied all four games with Chicago and Kansas City. So all the playoff teams from that conference we split the points with.
"Where I think we really struggled was against Dallas and Houston two of our main rivals in the West. We beat some good teams; in a five day period we beat both of the Cup finalists in Houston and New England. Clearly we have the ability to compete at the highest level in this league. It made it difficult to be a bystander at MLS Cup this weekend. I also think that when you start looking at 2008 we know we have the ability and the talent.
"Off the field I think we did very well. We are right where we need to be. We are in the upper middle tier in the league in revenues and merchandise sales for a bottom four market in the league. I think we are performing well and even outperforming other teams in some of the metrics. However there is still a lot of room for growth. I’m still amazed at the quality of the marketplace of Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. This marketplace will support us more as we give them something that is truly worthy of their future support."
CRC: There are two camps currently divided about the importance of signing a designated player. What is your vision?
JP: "Our vision remains the same. The success of the designated player is still very much in doubt. David Beckham had a tremendous effect off the pitch but played only 252 minutes for L.A. (Cuauhtémoc) Blanco had a very positive effect for Chicago as did Juan Pablo Angel with New York. I think Denilson was a miss in Dallas...Dallas took a team that was doing quite well and was never the same after signing Denilson and Claudio Reyna was a non-factor in New York.
"At MLS Cup we saw two teams playing in the championship match that not only don’t have a designated player on their rosters they both have a couple of the lower payrolls in the league. At the end of the day it is 11 v. 11 it is 18 players on the senior roster and 28 players on the total roster...all pulling in the same direction. You can’t lose sight of that. There is a reason Houston and New England win over and over again. They do it with continuity and they do it with a team.
"We are very interested in a designated player but it has to be the right player at the right time and in the right position. They have to want to be a part of this community and be a part of this team. We aren’t in the market to sign a designated player just to say we did."
CRC: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park now has its first season under its belt. What have you and the rest of the front office learned from the process of building what’s considered one of the premier soccer-specific stadium and complexes on Earth? How will you keep fans coming back once the newness has worn off?
JP: "We learned a lot. It was a tremendous challenge and a tremendous amount of fun. It is just the beginning of what it can be. We have learned how to run a stadium and sports complex which we had never done before. We have a soccer-specific stadium to be proud of and we can provide more soccer content not just Rapids but other events.
"We went through some hurdles early on relative to traffic management and concessions. We tweaked some things and re-oriented some things to make it a better experience for people. We tried to listen to some of the fan feedback and make some changes there as well. We will always have that dialogue with our fan base so that we are always trying to get better.
"As far as keeping it new we will always invest more money into it. You never think the building is done. You are always trying to add things to add value but we will continue to aggressively market the building. We spent more time and money in marketing this team and stadium in 2007 than we have in the history of the franchise. We will continue to reach out to people both in the soccer community and in the macro sports community."
CRC:What is the status of the Rapids’ youth development programs? How is the Rapids Academy progressing?
JP: "We are excited about how the Academy is progressing. We have hired two Rapids youth team coaches in Brian Crookham and Brett Jacobs who were previously the directors of coaching for respectively the states of Colorado and Michigan. They are coaches who love spending time teaching kids.
"We have already launched the Rapids Academy U-17 and U-16 teams and they will play in US Soccer’s Development Academy. We are excited about that and it is the first step in providing a fully-integrated youth development system for this club. It will be a real pyramid system based on learning and getting better at the game. It will be about technical skills and bettering yourself to play at whatever level you aspire to not winning and losing.
"Overall the Rapids Academy is progressing well it will ultimately lead to a true club system that our first team can only benefit from and we are excited about how it can tie in with our friends at Arsenal and Pachuca as well. We will share coaches and share ideology."
CRC:The Rapids have been accused of being content with mediocrity...how do you respond to that?
JP: "Nothing could be further from the truth but I also acknowledge that it is just rhetoric unless the results change. We have made mistakes and we will set out to change them. At the end of the day I take responsiblity for our failings. If anything I have been too deferential to others but no longer.
"We will change the way we conduct our soccer business effective immediately. If we make changes on our roster it will be based on character and integrity in addition to technical skills. I no longer will tolerate people who do not want to be here. We will move forward with a 'Club First' mentality and with a group who wants to play for the shield on the front of our jersey not the name on the back."
CRC: What do fans most have to look forward to for next year?
JP: "Our fans right now are needing to know they can look forward to a quality product next year one they can be proud of. A product we believed we would put in front of them this year be we didn’t do it. We need to make it happen there are no excuses.
"We have a platform to be proud of. We have a fan base that wants us to be successful and will support us. We have players who want to play in Denver and other players who aren’t here but would love to come play here.
"We can be very successful. We have made the playoffs most years in this organization. Since KSE has owned the Rapids we have made the playoffs three of the four years and have made it to the conference final twice. That should be the expectation and not the goal.
"I have met with the coaching staff and players and my expectation is that we will play an attacking pressing brand of soccer in 2008 especially at home. We want to take advantage of the altitude the big pitch a fun and raucous crowd to make teams dread playing here at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. That is our responsibility to ourselves and to our fans. That is what we will set out to achieve in 2008."