After multiple questions from Rapids fans regarding their frustrations with the current form of the 2017 season, Rapids Sporting Director Pádraig Smith sat down with Richard Fleming to shed some light on trades, targets and what to expect for the remainder of the 2017 season. Listen to the full interview here.
RF: Pádraig, a few questions for you. We all know the Rapids current form, and there have been frustrations internally, we know, and frustrations externally as well with regards to the fans. Can you understand the fans venting their frustration?
PS: Absolutely. We share those frustrations as you said internally as well, as those expressed by the fans. This game and this business is all about winning. Ultimately, we’re not doing that at the moment, and we need to rectify that and make the necessary changes to insure we recapture the form that saw us compete last year and go deep into the playoffs. That’s what we want to do. That’s our aim. Absolutely we understand and share those frustrations.
RF: Some of that has come about through early season form - trades in, trades out. Obviously, injuries and suspensions play a part. How do you think the Rapids fared in that Minnesota trade?
PS: In every trade, I think you have to look at how it is going to affect the team in the long term. The way we look at this is, will this make us better? Does this enable us to continue forward with the plan that we have? In that regard, we really feel like it does. It’s never easy to lose good people, and people that have played a role in helping us build the club and move it forward in the last number of years. You need to be able to take a step back, understand what you are trying to achieve, what the club’s trying to achieve, and then make the tough decisions when they arise. The key thing for us is that we brought in Nana Boateng. Obviously, we saw the impact that Jermaine Jones was able to have on the group last year. What we wanted to do was replicate the positive elements that Jermaine brought to the group. He may have only played a small number of games, but when he was on the field he was hugely effective for us, and we really had our best results when he was out there. That kind of forward momentum, the physicality, the drive, the desire to get forward and move forward, move lines with both your passing and your own ability to drive the ball – that was something we went down and looked for in the offseason. We spent a lot of time scouting Nana Boateng, and were thrilled to come to an agreement with Man City to bring him in. While we felt it would take some time to adjust to life here in the US- the altitude, the travel, new teammates – he did so very, very quickly. We felt that now was the time, and we needed to get him into the team. We felt that he was going to be the number eight that would allow us to best succeed. I think that was a huge part of our thinking when looking at this trade. Another element was (Mohammed) Saeid. Again, there’s no doubt when you look at our performance from last year, that it was built on this very solid historically good defensive performance that we had. That is our foundation, but we need to be more attacking. We need to be more balanced in what we do. You can’t rely on being historically good defensively year-in and year-out. A player like Saeid is somebody we’ve tracked for a long time. His passing ability to find passes between the lines and move teams forward is very, very strong. That was a key part of it. It’s a difficult trade, it’s a difficult thing to do. We were doing this with an eye on what the future would bring – making us better immediately in terms of Nana Boateng, and also the future in terms of building increased cap space which would allow us to turn around and get the attacking assets we need to help us become a more balanced team.
RF: One supplemental of that, you mentioned cap space. Without giving too much away, what does that put the Rapids in a position to do now? Is it something they can do now, or do they have to wait for the next window?
PS: I think the window opens on July 10th. We’ve been over in Europe scouting quite extensively on a number of our targets making sure we watch them on multiple occasions so we have a sense of who and what they are. That’s a crucial thing, because one of the things Pablo and the players have done very well is built a strong locker room mentality down there. It’s important that we bring people in with the right mentality to fit in, so they can contribute right from the start. That’s hugely important for us. What we’re looking to do is obviously improve on the attacking side. We always want to make our team better in every area of the field, and we continuously look at that, but there’s no doubt we haven’t scored enough goals and we haven’t been good enough on the attacking side where we want to improve.
RF: As fans, we look towards the next game, to the next game, to the next game. As Sporting Director, that is your role, but also looking a little bit more long term. We’ve checked that box. Short term, what can we expect next half a dozen games, or so?
PS: There’s certainly a number of things we can do short term. One of the key things we can do is to become a little bit more consistent. Obviously, the injuries, the suspensions have led to a high turnover in the starting 11. I think we'll certainly look to get more continuity there, look to put those same players in those positions, so they can start to build partnerships and build relationships. I think we'll see certain tweaks to try and ensure that we're getting more players to attacking positions, more players into the box, and again continuing that evolution towards balancing an attack-minded team.
RF: People would say goals were tough to come by in 2016. Why not in the off-season go out and get a proven goal scorer?
PS: That's something we spent a lot of time looking at. Again, the fact that the seasons crossover the way they do with Europe is a challenge there. I think everybody's aware that we had a deal in place to bring in another Ghanaian international in from Norway. Unfortunately, that deal fell through. That was disappointing because we felt he would have had a positive impact on the attacking side. Our next target ultimately chose not to come here. He wanted to leave himself open to going to China. I think things are disappointing, but we have our targets in mind. We understand who we want to bring in, but the key thing is to not panic. We need to make sure we get the right player in - the right fit for the club - and not just do something for the sake of doing something. It has to keep with the overall plan.
RF: And part of the frustration, part of the fan’s frustration is that after a wonderful 2016 there are some saying well ‘was that the anomaly? Is this now the norm?’ Is this what Rapids fans have to expect?'
PS: No, absolutely not. We obviously want to build on the wonderful performance that the team showed in 2016, and we want to do that consistently. We want to be a playoff team year-in and year-out and that’s what we’re trying to build here. I think ultimately as I mentioned before, last year was built on a historically strong defense, and while that’s something that will be our foundation piece it’s very difficult to rely on that year-in and year-out, so you need to be a balanced outfit. You need to be as strong attacking-wise as you are defensively so that you’re not simply reliant on one element of play. And I think with that come some challenges. The transition period is challenging and I think it’s been made a little bit more-so with some of the little injuries we’ve had. Obviously at the start of the year (Shkelzen) Gashi and (Alan) Gordon were dealing with issues, then as soon as Nana comes in to the team he gets two starts and then unfortunately breaks three vertebrae, Axel (Sjoberg) as well. Axel was a big part of what we did last year, really leading that defensive unit. I think his consistency, his communication, his leadership skills have really been missed. On the attacking side these individual elements and these individual players were missed and are missed at the moment. But you know we feel comfortable with the group that we’re building and pulling together, with the additions we’re looking to make over the coming windows. And I think ultimately the aim is to ensure we’re a balanced team that can consistently compete for MLS Cups and be consistently in the playoffs.
RF: So if the club is tweaking as opposed to rebuilding – is there a timeline, that little element to say ‘this is going to be in place by then’ or are there too many moving parts?
PS: Well we expect to compete in 2017. I mean that’s the bottom line here. There’s no reason that with the roster that we have in place that we can’t get ourselves in to playoff position and put ourselves in a position to challenge this year. It’s obviously been a disappointing start. After the first three games, we’re 1-1-1 and we were disappointed to our fixture with FC Dallas was cancelled. It left us with almost a second mini preseason. 24 days without a game which is challenging and obviously the injuries and the suspensions as well which we can’t forget about which came thick and fast after that. So that was a challenge but we’re only eight games in, there’s no reason why with this group of players and with some of the additions we’re looking at in the July window that we can’t put ourselves in a position to be competitive this year. And that’s our aim, to be competitive year-in and year-out.
RF: John Metgod, John Spencer, Conor Casey. The assistant coach. Has that impacted on the consistency of the coaching method, the coaching approach and why the inconsistency there? Why the turnover?
PS: Well I think first of all we’re thrilled to have Conor Casey in. I think Conor Casey is somebody that means a lot to club, remains the club’s all-time record goal scorer and I think he’s someone that is very much in keeping with Pablo’s mindset and Pablo’s mentality. And I think we have a nice balance downstairs at the moment with obviously Pablo helping everything up. Chris Sharpe is one of the best goalkeeping coaches in the league, Steve Cooke on the defensive side and now Conor on the offensive side. We can see it just in the camaraderie amongst the group the way the players have reacted to him and to the group as whole. It’s a very nicely balance group at the moment. You don’t want inconsistency but what I would say is that it’s important to get the right people and I think now at this moment in time we have four very, very good coaches as well as a strong backroom staff with Miguel as a strength and conditioning coach as well and so we’re in good shape now to move forward.
RF: Some have suggested that the Rapids can often or tend to lag behind in terms of getting their ducks in a row for that first game of the season. The chopping and changing, the bringing in players after the season has started. How do the Rapids compare to other teams in Major League Soccer and is that a fair assessment?
PS: I think it’s very similar. You only have to look at the mid-season windows over the last couple of years and seen the type of additions that have been made, whether it’s a Dos Santos or Lodeiro players need to come in during that July window because that’s when the European season ends and that’s when a huge number of players become available for transfer. I think it’s something that we all deal with. I know speaking to the other Sporting Directors and General Managers around the league it’s issues that they face as well. I think we’ll continue to see that while the seasons are not aligned.
RF: One of the suggestions from fans is that as a club we don’t communicate with our fans enough. And how tough is it to get that balance? To give a little that they’ll be able to gobble up but not giving too much that all of the other competitors will reap from?
PS: Absolutely, it’s a very, very fine line. While we want our fans to feel engaged and to feel a part of the club and to be connected emotionally to the club, we have to be careful that we don’t give away too much to our opponents as well because they’re obviously looking for every marginal advantage they can gain as they compete with us. So, in terms of things like injuries, it’s important that you kind of keep a certain amount of that to yourself so that the opposition can’t predict with great certainty what team is going out at the weekend or can’t get ahead of the curve on certain things. But yes, we do want our fans to feel engaged and we do want them to feel a part of the club. That’s very important to us.
RF: So, if I was to throw out to you a little bone that maybe once a month you come on to the podcast and you bring fans up to date with areas that you’re able to. Again, without giving away too many trade secrets or without throwing a bone to the opposition is that something you’d be up for?
PS: Absolutely, always good to have a chat with you Rich and obviously to make sure our fans feel as engaged as we want them to with the club.