Two years ago, the Rapids’ scouting department’s eye was caught by a certain Brazilian striker, playing in Serie B and scoring goal after goal for Botafogo. Last month, Colorado opened its doors to Rafael Navarro, the club’s newest nine, in a potentially record-breaking loan deal.
Out of a pool of target players, Navarro stood out over the others. At the time, Navarro was making waves in Brazil’s second tier, scoring the third-most goals in the league that year. A deal for the striker seemed well within reach, but a different game plan started to unfold when Navarro was signed to S.E. Palmeiras.
Palmeiras is one of the most highly-respected and followed clubs in Brazil, having won a record 11 Serie A titles, including the 2022 iteration that Navarro contributed to. Navarro made 65 appearances for Palmeiras in 2022 and 2023, scoring 11 goals and providing four assists across all competitions—including eight goals and two assists across 13 Copa Libertadores appearances.
The parameters of the deal no longer looked the same as when Chief Scout Chris Zitterbart first brought him to the scouting department's attention. Navarro had moved up from Serie B to A and was a third or fourth choice off the bench for an already strong attacking team. While he wasn’t getting the regular minutes he wanted, he was still a strong asset Palmeiras didn't want to give up in a busy season. The idea of signing on a loan with the option to buy versus outright buying depends on each player, in each window of time. While Navarro’s on-field performance didn't pose questions to the scouting department, the negotiations between agents, clubs, and general managers did.
Photo: Navarro celebrates his fourth goal scored for Palmeiras against Independiente Petrolero in Copa Libertadores group stage play
A misconception around deals such as Navarro’s often takes shape in questioning why a loan with an option to buy is the more common deal to make. For Sporting Director Fran Taylor, this deal was the hardest he’s ever had to make with the club.
“We have consistently left ourselves in positions where we can continue to maneuver, we always have flexibility, whether it's the [salary] cap, whether it's way we structure deals; like with both (midfielder Sidnei) Tavares and Navarro, they are loans with option to buy that we feel like if the players are who we think they are, we are very happy to pay those.”
That’s where the character of the player and the vision the Rapids have for the locker room come into play. The shared “soccer Rolodex” of connections from the scouting department, the technical staff, Rapids President Pádraig Smith, and more at the club exemplifies that the coach of an ex-teammate from 15 years ago can give greater insight into a player’s attitude than film shows his impact on the pitch.
Part of the Rapids’ intensive scouting process is character witness evaluation--conversing with teammates and coaches of the player to get a read on who they are.
“We spoke to a number of teammates of [Navarro’s]–one in particular–who gave great insight that we knew very well,” said Smith. “That was important for us to gain a better understanding of exactly who he was, and how we felt he would fit into the team. Sometimes it's small things that give you a sense of the players commitment to this, but his desire to start learning English as quickly as he did was very important. We know how much he was pushing for this, and him wanting to be here as well was very important.”
Navarro is not shy to disclose his eagerness to come to the U.S. and begin his journey with the Rapids. Since he knew of his eventual move to Colorado and MLS he began watching games and getting himself familiar with the league, and as a basketball fan, has kept tabs on recent NBA champions, the Denver Nuggets.
"It's really sad, leaving family and friends behind but it's the profession I chose and I'm really happy about it," Navarro said.
“They're not things that just happen overnight,” said Smith of the multiple deals the Rapids made this transfer window. “It is one of those things where you get a little bit more insight and looking behind the curtain, so to speak. This has been in the works for a long, long time with both the club, in terms of Palmeiras and then Navarro himself.
“It's something that when you're looking at the potential to invest that kind of a transfer fee in the player, you want to do as much due diligence work as you can possibly do. So it's not just about the analytics. It's not just about the scouting. It's about actually going in trying to learn more about the player.”
Photo: Navarro's first training session in Colorado
If you’ve ever waited for three hours at the DMV just for the clerk to tell you you’re missing a necessary document, imagine the process of approving a passport, a P-1 visa, and transferring your entire life to a new country. That’s where Ruth Fahy, Gabbie Pelloni and the soccer operations department come into play.
Fahy, the Rapids’ Vice President of Club Administration & Compliance, has seen the game from both sides. Fahy played in the League of Ireland and the UEFA Women’s Champions League, including stints with Castlebar Celtic, Galway WFC and Wexford Youths WFC, before beginning her foray into the business side of football, a profession that would take her off the pitch.
Her experience as a former player gives Fahy unique insight into what a player could be going through while a deal is being done and as they move through the challenges of moving their lives away from home.
“What I try to do is always place myself in the player's shoes first and foremost, or maybe in the coach's shoes or in the shoes of someone who spends the majority of their time in the locker room or on the pitch. You view the organization from a different lens,” she said. “To look through one lens as a player and one lens as a member of the front office staff can be challenging. But it is incredibly important to operate like this. It is my job to be player-centric and I take this privilege very seriously."
Thanks to the assistance of the US embassy in Rio, the club was able to obtain Navarro’s P-1 visa in an expedited fashion, with the consulate acknowledging the urgency of getting the Brazilian star to Denver as quickly as possible to integrate into the squad.
A major component to ensuring Navarro’s move to the States was Andre Hilf. On top of being a team administrator, Hilf uses his multilingual talents to act as a Club Language Specialist, mainly translating between Portuguese and English in the locker room between coaches and players, and in this case, making sure a deal gets done right. He connected Robin Fraser, Navarro’s agent Carlos Costa, and the striker himself over the phone to make introductions before Navarro arrived and has since been an invaluable asset to Navarro’s day to day in Colorado.
“It's essential,” Navarro said through Hilf’s translation. “All the support that [Hilf] has been giving me was essential for me to adapt the best way possible here. So all the support has been an essential ingredient.”
Upon completion of the operational pieces prior to player arrival in market, the task is passed to Director of Team Administration and Operations Pelloni, who brings a wealth of experience in operational management and strategy in multiple elite level sports. Pelloni has been integral in the sophistication of the club’s operational structures since her arrival in February. Pelloni directs the soccer ops traffic and provides the green lights to Team Administrators Hilf and Boyd Kirk, along with player onboarding specialist Brian Reed.
Photo: Reed, Navarro and Hilf during Navarro's initial tour of the Rapids' facilities
Reed knows the process inside and out by now. Since coming onto the Rapids’ staff in late 2021, the Rapids’ Player Welfare Officer has welcomed numerous players to Colorado, tasked with introducing them to the Denver area, organizing appointments with government offices, finding housing and more. The position’s responsibilities include the big tasks, like getting a Social Security number but also the small ones like making sure they know what grocery store to go to.
Navarro, along with other international signings, was a unique case for Reed to navigate but not one he didn’t feel prepared for. In just the last transfer window alone, the Rapids welcomed three international players to its roster: Andreas Maxsø, Connor Ronan and Marko Ilić. The three transactions saw a varying level of ease into transition based on language, culture and general knowledge of the United States, but all led Reed, Hilf, Kirk, Fahy, Pelloni and Director of Soccer Development James Roeling to a more developed formula for welcoming players to Colorado.
By the end of June, the front office knew the deal with Navarro was close, giving Reed the go-ahead on arranging the details of his arrival. Appointments with banks, leasing offices, research on the Brazilian community in Colorado; they all added up to the solution Navarro and Reed would use together upon the striker’s touchdown at Denver International Airport.
A day after Navarro’s arrival, he and Reed navigated the various appointments scheduled for Navarro’s livelihood in Colorado but with one special stop fit in the busy day: a meal at an authentic Brazilian restaurant. In less than 48 hours, the striker was able to find a taste of home, remarking on the authenticity of the food and the dialect of the employees, the same from his hometown in Rio.
To some, that detail might seem small. To Reed, it’s the first building block of trust between not only himself and Navarro but also the club and Navarro. Reed recalls a player from his past that was traded overseas that didn’t have the support system that the Rapids and much of MLS has. The player admitted that it took a toll on him on and off the field.
As a father, Reed imagines what a situation like the player’s would be like for his kids and thus aims to ensure that anyone coming into the Rapids feels prepared and taken care of.
“It's so massive, and it could be almost debilitating trying to figure out something as simple as what grocery store to go to. How does the washing machine work here? Little stuff like that,” he said. “[Nothing] is too little, so you're just trying to be as considerate as possible, and really trying to try to walk in their shoes.”
The building blocks have been arranged; visas approved, housing secured, language barriers navigated. Now, it’s time to see what Navarro can do on the pitch.