MLS has witnessed a great deal of change since launching in 1996, and as we look forward to a bright and healthy future, let’s not forget those who have gone before. With this in mind, we present our ‘Where are they now?’ series, featuring some of your favorite former players talking about their MLS memories, and how they’ve spent their time since leaving the Rapids.
Goalkeeper Paul Grafer made just 13 appearances for the Colorado Rapids during a three-year spell, but he was in at the very beginning of MLS and played in at least one historical encounter.
Grafer emerged from the 1996 MLS College Draft but did not join up with the Rapids until May of that year, as he finished his education at The College of William & Mary in Virginia.
“When I arrived, they already had three established goalkeepers (Dusty Hudock, Chris Woods and Khalil Azmi),” Grafer recalls. “So, right off the bat it was a difficult transition, as a fourth goalkeeper.”
- INTERVIEW: Paul Grafer (taken from the Rapids Podcast)
The big draw-back for the likes of Grafer was that, if you were not involved with the first team, then playing time was extremely limited.
“They just didn’t have the roster space, coaching staff or reserve league in order to sustain that roster depth at the one position,” Grafer added.
Not only did Port Washington-born Grafer have three keepers ahead of him in the pecking order, but he also required knee surgery soon after arriving in Colorado. Once fit again, the club sent him on a season-long loan to the Long Island Rough Riders, who played in what is today known as the USL.
“That (move to the Rough Riders) kinda turned everything around in the right direction,” said Grafer. “I had a great time spending the entire season with the Long Island Rough Riders, before returning to Colorado the following year.”
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Grafer’s chance with the Rapids came at the start of the 1997 season. He made his MLS debut on March 29 in a 1-1 tie at Columbus Crew, and would start the next four games of the campaign. He kept one shutout in that period, while conceding 12 goals, and was substituted for Marcus Hahnemann with eight minutes to go of the 4-1 loss at Dallas Burn on April 20.
“We had some struggles as a team early on,” Grafer explained. “And as a young goalkeeper, there was a bit of a crisis in confidence, and I think it was a good coaching decision at the time, probably, to make the switch.”
Grafer was kept out by Hahnemann for the next seven games, before making a sub appearance for the last 11 minutes of a 5-0 defeat at DC United in early June. Hahnemann returned in the following match, and would not relinquish his position until September 10, whereupon Grafer played three games in a row – all defeats.
“Throughout my experience in Colorado, there were a lot of great experiences.” Grafer said. “Fantastic people, a lot of learning, but then professionally – if you look at the statistics – it was a pretty challenging period for me.
"I didn’t play that much, and when I did we weren’t very successful, but I look back on that time as part of a great life-lesson for me. I’d been fairly successful throughout my entire youth and college and youth national team career, and this was the first major hurdle thrown in my way and I have to admit it was very difficult.”
Hahnemann played the final regular season game of 1997, and kept his place for the playoffs and MLS Cup. Grafer was again forced to watch from the sidelines.
His final season with the Rapids, 1998, was equally challenging, with opportunities at a premium. Hahnemann started the first seven games of the ’98 season, at which point Grafer was handed four starts in a row … and an experience which he’s been unable to forget.
Grafer, now aged 39, was just 23 years of age when the Rapids suffered a 7-4 loss at LA Galaxy on May 6. This score line remains the greatest aggregate of goals scored (11) in MLS history, and is the only time that the Rapids have leaked seven in one match.
“For a while, that seemed to be the indelible statistic of my career,” Grafer laughed. “I was very fortunate that a few weeks later, Mark Dodd gave up eight to the LA Galaxy when with Dallas Burn, and Mark was a great goalkeeper. So, at least the record for most goals allowed in the league was relinquished very quickly.
“To this day, when I stand in front of student athletes, club teams and young soccer players, I often tell that story because – sure it was quite humbling and a major challenge in my career – but it was one where I had to learn a lot about perseverance.”
Another three defeats followed, including a 5-0 defeat at Chicago on May 23, 1998. This turned out to be Grafer’s last game in Rapids colors.
Injury ended Grafer’s playing career prematurely. The man, who became known for his long black pants when at the Metrostars (as understudy to Tim Howard), endured surgery seven times to his knee and decided to turn his hand to coaching, but not before being part of the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
He then spent four years as the goalkeeper coach for the US U-17s, alongside Wilmer Cabrera and Paul Caffrey. These days the former Rapids goalkeeper is extremely busy, working as a FIFA instructor - running goalkeeping courses around the world for coaches - and working with various clubs and student athletes, but the Rapids remain close to his heart.
“I’ve been a huge fan, so therefore with the Rapids, those three years mean a lot to me, and I always look back fondly on it and watch the team very closely as well,” he said.
YEAR TEAM GP GS MIN SOG SV SHO GA GAA PK PKA W L T
1997 Colorado 9 8 723 63 40 1 22 2.74 1 1 1 8 0
1998 Colorado 4 4 360 39 20 0 17 4.25 0 0 0 4 0
2000 MetroStars 2 2 180 17 12 0 5 2.50 1 1 1 1 0
2002 MetroStars 2 1 91 7 3 0 3 2.97 1 1 0 1 0
2003 MetroStars 3 3 270 24 14 1 8 2.67 0 0 1 2 0
Totals 20 18 1624 150 89 2 55 3.05 3 3 3 16 0
YEAR POSTSEASON GP GS MIN SOG SV SHO GA GAA PK PKA W L T
2000 MetroStars 3 3 280 14 8 0 5 1.61 1 2 2 1 0