Commentary: Why Oscar Pareja is Major League Soccer's Coach of the Year
This is going to come across as a homer story, and I'm okay with that. You see, I'm not writing anything that numerous media outside the organization haven't already written about - I'm just pointing out a few different things.
So here goes...
Colorado Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja should be the 2013 Major League Soccer Coach of the Year.
But before I get any further, let me just acknowledge that I get that this year is one of the toughest to pick who's most deserving:
- First-year coach Caleb Porter up in Portland, whose team has played some fun soccer, even if they've tied 15 games.
- Another first-year coach in Mike Petke in New York, bringing the Red Bulls to the brink of the MLS Supporters' Shield.
- Jason Kreis in Utah, keeping his team atop the table despite numerous off-season changes.
Really, you can't discredit any MLS coach - some for the consistancy year-in-year-out, others for their own successes relative to hardships. You can make a case for many others.
But for me, no other coach has done what Oscar has done this year. That is, confront the campaign with the boldness and bravery to give young, inexperienced, and journeyman players a chance to show what they could do - and winning.
None had as much offseason personnel turnover as Pareja's Rapids had. And, while every team has dealt with injuries and suspensions, few - if any - can say they came even close to the situation that the Rapids faced to start the season.
I get that it's not easy to win with an inherited team, as Porter and Petke had to do, for the most part. We saw last year the challenge Pareja faced when he took over a Rapids side on the day before the 2012 Draft that didn't fit the style he wanted to play. Salary cap and time constraints prevented much room for adjustment for a coach trying to convince a core of players two years removed from a championship to buy into his ideas.
And it's not easy maintaining a high level after replacing key veterans, like Kreis did (though it was not enough to win the season series versus Colorado).
But this year, with a proper offseason - and year under his belt - Pareja was able to get the most from his players.
It wasn't easy, and it wasn't smooth. Among the difficult moves - after releasing eight players following 2012, including Conor Casey - the team traded Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz.
They were replaced by question marks: Atiba Harris, Nathan Sturgis, Edson Buddle, and Nick LaBrocca were acquired in trades. Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers were chosen in the SuperDraft. Unknown Ecuadorian international defender Diego Calderon and Chilean winger Kevin Harbottle were the only foreign signings.
But then preseason happened. And the start of the season.
By the fifth week, having yet to win a game, this is the situation Pareja and the Rapids were in:
- Returning Golden Boot winner, Jaime Castrillon, was out until summer following knee surgery.
- Returning Young Player of the Year, Martin Rivero, was out until summer with a broken foot.
- Returning team MVP, Matt Pickens, was out until summer with a broken arm.
- Buddle, who injured his knee while with the U.S. National Team in January, was still out.
- Returning captain, Pablo Mastroeni, had missed the bulk of three games with injuries.
- Top defender, Drew Moor, was suspended for two games.
- Calderon had knee surgery and would be out for another five months.
- Harbottle was out for another month with a knee injury.
Pareja was starting the two rookies, Brown and Powers. He was on his third string goalkeeper, Clint Irwin, after backup, Stew Ceus, fell out of form. He had no choice but to give defenders Chris Klute (22) and Shane O'Neill (19) their second career starts. Harris, who played all of three games in 2012 with Vancouver, was starting on the wing. Brian Mullan, was moved from left back to right back, and Marvell Wynne, from right back to center back.
The team tied Portland in that fifth match and stopped the bleeding. They lost only once in the next ten games, posting a 5-1-4 record.
Mastroeni had missed a number of those games with a quad strain. Fellow holding midfielder, Hendry Thomas, had also missed games with a hamstring injury. So Pareja filled the hole with Sturgis, who had started just four games in Houston the year before.
It was a situation forced upon the team - but one that Pareja was clearly ready for with the roster he had built.
How many of the coaches above do you think could have dealt with that situation - and came out of it smelling like roses?
But then came another hurdle - the trade of long-time team captain and the face of the franchise, Mastroeni, to the LA Galaxy in June. The team stumbled to three straight losses to close out the first half of the season.
And then came the turning point, in the most unexpected place. On a three-game losing streak and heading into Montreal, who were on top of the East and undefeated at home, the Rapids twice came from behind before eventually winning in stoppage time, 4-3.
That win was the start of the best second half record in MLS, as Colorado's 31 points over the final 16 games is matched only by New York, now atop the East.
For the year, the Rapids have accumulated the most points ever with 51. The 45 goals are the most since the team scored 62 in 1997. The 34 home points are most ever. They done it, for the most part, with the group that 'filled in' when they weren't expected to.
Pareja accomplished this with a team that has bought in to his philosophy, to his approach.
He's done it by having accomplished veterans go along for the ride without playing time (or disruption), such as Jamie Smith, Brian Mullan, and Matt Pickens.
He's done it without succumbing to the pressure of giving a player his position back once healthy.
He's done it by coaching - no All-Stars, just hard-working MLS veterans, rookies, minor-league castoffs, and MLS jouneymen.
He's done it by adjusting his style and learning from his mistakes.
He's done it better than any other coach this year.