John A. Babiak – @Photog_JohnB
Organization reboots and focusing energy on earning a playoff berth.
After a hot start to their season, the Colorado Rapids’ high hopes came to an abrupt halt when the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its ruthless ways. When play restarted in the summer, a poor showing at the MLS is Back Tournament brought the Burgundy Boys home in a flash. After the regular season restart, they struggled to get a win, but earned some points here and there from draws.
Then Colorado destroyed rivals Real Salt Lake 5-0 in Sandy, Utah to bring home the Rocky Mountain Cup. Things were starting to look up.
But in late September, a COVID-19 outbreak began to sweep through the organization, forcing MLS to postpone matches. Eventually, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shut down all Rapids’ games for 10 days.
After several consecutive weeks of positive cases, an investigation, and an intensive all-out effort to stop the outbreak, no positive results were reported to the CDPHE as of Wednesday, October 21.
Fingers crossed, the team is now full steam ahead to play in Kansas City this Saturday, the first time the Rapids have taken to the pitch in a month.
With the MLS playoffs on the horizon and four postponed matches still to be sorted out before the playoffs next month, only MLS Commissioner Don Garber knows how this most-irregular season will end for the Rapids.
Currently, with 13 of 18 possible matches played, the Rapids sit in 11th place with 19 points, but rank fourth in Western Conference in points per game. The top eight teams in the West will qualify for MLS Cup Playoffs and the Rapids are a single win away from the playoff line. There are also rumors that the playoffs will be based on points per game, not total season points, with the theory that it would be a more fair way to determine ranking for clubs who have had covid-related postponements.
Earlier this week, Sam Stejskal reported in The Athletic that head coach Robin Fraser had contracted the coronavirus during the outbreak. He experienced a couple of days of feeling as if he had a bad cold, followed by two to three days of very bad body aches.
Fraser praised Rapids Executive Vice President and General Manager Padraig Smith for his “vigilance’ and “diligence” throughout the Club’s process to remedy the outbreak. In total, 18 members of the organization were infected from the time the outbreak was first reported to CDPHE on September 29 (five players and 13 staff members).
Players who were not affected by the virus, and those who recovered, the cub’s Development Academy Technical Director Chris Cartlidge and Brian Crookham, Senior Director of Soccer Development and the General Manager for Colorado Springs Switchbacks suited up to help out while Fraser was sidelined. It was reported that even veteran defenseman Drew Moor stepped up to assist in directing and executing training activities and would have been in a player/coach role if needed.
Instead of the team viewing technical videos in their back stadium education lounge, they sat in the fresh air, socially distanced, wearing masks, on the pitch in the stadium, and studied video on the oversized scoreboard screen. Fraser led some meetings via Zoom from home. Players were spread out in four lockers rooms and most activities were held outside in order to mitigate crowding within the player’s facilities.
In the pre-game press conference on Thursday, Fraser fielded several questions about the outbreak and bouncing back. “I know we did a really good job establishing these protocols. In terms of what sorts of things we had to deal with, when the outbreak started to happen, we got tighter and tighter in the restrictions to allow for less time in the building, and less actual face-to-face interaction. So it’s been hugely different than it has been in the past… to be honest, the players and staff have been really compliant, and are sticking to the protocols,” he said.
Fraser added that “you can do everything right and you’re not necessarily immune—there is some luck involved, but you just have to do as much as you can to mitigate the chances of getting, of having the virus come in.”
One of the policies that Fraser was adamant about was wearing masks. “Everyone has to wear a mask at all times, except when they’re not playing. Period,” he said. “We’ve talked about what conduct needs to be like away from the facility in order to make sure we all can remain healthy and continue to play games.”
The schedule changes were tough on the group, as well. Staff wondered if there would be enough players to play a match and the last-minute postponement of games is no small task.
“Being close to playing a number of times and having games postponed late, I think is difficult because there’s a lot of preparation that goes into getting ready for each game. There is a lot of meticulous details that we go into, and the players have to absorb and get ready for a game. Then to have that go away at the last second and then three days later, you do it again, and get yourself ready for that game. And then obviously, a number of them were last minute. It’s tough to continue to keep going,” Fraser explained.
Taking on Sporting Kansas City on the Road
With all of the players and staff covid-free, focus has shifted back to the regular season and preparing for their match against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday.
“It’ll be certainly exciting to be playing games again,” Fraser said. “It has been a long stretch for us, obviously with several interruptions. It will be good to get back in the swing of things. Games at Kansas City are always tough. They’re a very good team, very well-organized, and they play very well at home. So for us, it’s just been a matter of getting back into a rhythm as quickly as possible.”
Without regular training sessions, that rhythm may be difficult to find and the head coach is under no illusion that the odds are stacked against Colorado this weekend. “We have to go into this understanding that this game is going to be an absolute battle because they’re in a rhythm, they’ve been playing—we haven’t been. And it’s going to be an absolute struggle to get up to speed quickly and adapt quickly. I think we’d be fooling ourselves to say we’re going to go into this game and in the first minute, be as good as we were in the last minute, a month ago.”
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going in looking for a result. When asked how realistic that might be, Fraser responded: “We don’t really know and we don’t really care whether it’s realistic or not. It’s what our goal is.”