I caught the initial trickle in 1995 along with 180 other guys at a Major League Soccer talent search in Colorado. No one in the group advanced toward the payroll for that inaugural season. After I handed in my bib, I wrote a 1,000-word description of the weekend and have been writing about MLS and the Colorado Rapids ever since.

Now I’m getting some help. At the close of the 2014 MLS season, Brian Jennings adds the perspective of an MLS veteran reporter. Jennings covered the Wiz/Wizards before moving to Colorado for more than a decade of Rapids coverage for Soccer365.com (now 365.worldsoccershop.com) and Coloradorapids.com.

John Babiak captures photos at Rapids games and training sessions, and I’m grateful for the chance to use his images on this site as well.

By Brian Jennings

Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said the club needs to supplement the wealth of young talent on the field with veterans so the scramble for late-season points doesn’t become one of desperation and exasperation.

“From a roster perspective we were really young, so young to the point that you had no options at certain positions,” Mastroeni said. “The players that you have available weren’t ready to step on the field, so I think that was a bit of a hindrance to the group.”

Colorado had issues in central defense when their captain and his fellow center back got hurt.

Mastroeni said, “I think losing Shane [O’Neill] and Drew [Moor] in those center back positions really compromised the integrity of the group from a leadership perspective that I need to make sure is in place before the season begins so that if those guys go down we still have that intact on the field.”

Mastroeni described a pattern that developed in the void O’Neill and Moor left behind. “We were down 1-0 before the first 15 minutes in a lot of games,” Mastroeni said. “If you can’t defend the right way in the early parts of games, it’s hard to win when you’re down and on the road. It’s almost like you’re just waiting for something bad to happen, as opposed to having guys go, ‘this is not a problem. Get on my back and let’s do it.’”

During the 14-match winless streak to end 2014, Colorado had to constantly rotate outside defenders Marvell Wynne, Thomas Piermayr, and Marc Burch into central defense until O’Neill returned or Zat Knight was available. As Mastroeni prepares for 2015, he explained what looks like an offseason plan for strengthening the depth in defense. “It’s critical to have those experienced pieces that will influence [young] players on a day-to-day basis, both on and off the field,” Mastroeni said. He would like veterans “to really protect them and raise them the right way. This year when we did go through a tough time — we lost Drew, we lost Shane, we lost [Jared] Wattsy as center backs — as opposed to putting center backs in there that were available, I moved pieces of experience in there at a detriment.”

Mastroeni said he doesn’t want to be in that position again.

“From my chair I tried everything,” Mastroeni said, “but I realized how important it is to make sure all that stuff is in place at the start of the season so that even if you do lose two center backs, the important thing is to have guys in the queue that have a little bit of experience that you trust, as opposed to having to move people around because you didn’t do your homework before the season started. That will alleviate a lot of the doubt. You have guys playing out of position. Those guys coming in have a little bit of doubt; guys in front don’t really trust the guys in back, so it becomes a big question mark everywhere.”

Mastroeni said he is wary of asking too much of his younger players. For “guys like [Dillon] Serna, Shane, Deshorn [Brown], [Dillon] Powers, [Marlon] Hairston, Watts, and younger players, you have to make sure you have experienced pieces around them to protect them so they don’t take the brunt of the losses. The older guys can absorb it and lead by example. When you’re going through really tough times and you’re asking the really young players to get you out of that, they haven’t experienced that, so how do they know?”

Heading into waves of drafts, Mastroeni said they can make decisions so they can start strong and sustain it throughout 2015.

“Just the organization of the roster will lead itself to a bit more stability in the group,” Mastroeni said. “That’s the responsibility that I take, that we take as a technical staff, to make sure we get right before we get on the field.”

By Brian Jennings

Looking back on the 2014 Colorado Rapids season, it’s tough to find many bright spots, especially when the team hadn’t won on the road since early April and will carry the string of 14 winless results into 2015.

A thoughtful and reflective ex-player, head coach Pablo Mastroeni listed a few items in the “pro” column, despite the woeful numbers in the column of cons.

“I liked that the guys from Day One wanted to think about the game differently,” Mastroeni calmly explained in his office early in November. “The amount of education for both the players and myself was tremendous.”

Roll back to the end of last year and you’ll remember a Rapids team that was scrambling to replace their entire coaching staff prior to the drafts. New coaches would have to hit the ground running in order to convey their message to the team.

That message was different from the norm but one that explained how Mastroeni has played the game. “I came and asked them to change the way they thought about the game and take more responsibility for their own careers. With that, take more responsibility for the decisions they make on the field and do that within the tactics we’re looking to employ. Make this your livelihood; make this your craft. Study it, learn it, and love it. From that perspective, it was really positive.”

Mastroeni’s lengthy bout with post-concussion symptoms during his final season as a player set this self-reflection in motion for him. He had to look at his own life in depth while recovering, and he shared this approach with the players while following his own advice.

“Understanding who you are is a big part of everything in life,” Mastroeni said. “After games that didn’t go our way I wouldn’t look at players. I’d look at myself and analyze myself from the tactical perspective, the way I communicated, and the way I got them ready through the week. The great thing is I always ask the players to do the same thing from their perspective and accept responsibility in their own way. The reason I know that is because the following Tuesday everyone was tuned in and ready to go. You have a bunch of guys who are committed to winning for the team.”

Mastroeni admitted that “what we’ve been able to do is go through some very difficult times as a group.” For all the disappointments during the back half of 2014, this will be a silver lining going forward. “The guys that will be here next year will have a bond that will be unlike any other group around the league — to come through such a tough time and now see the light, have a whole pre-season to prepare, and get on the same page and move forward. I think there’s a lot of optimism that lies ahead.”

Nasco

Marv    Gale    Grant   Piermayr

Carlos   Nicky   Davy  Kamani

Edson   Danny

Snow covered the Pride Soccer Complex at the start of Day Two for Switchbacks FC trialists. But after three 35-minute games, the fields of battle were almost completely clear. The thermometer showed mid-20s during warm-ups while the wicked wind chill was much lower.

“Like I told the players, I thought the quality was better today,” head coach Steve Trittschuh said. “I don’t know if it had to do with the weather or if they were more familiar with the players around them. There was some good soccer today. I was happy about it.”

On Saturday, assistant coach Wolde Harris said tryout situations eventually show cream rising to the top.

“In a group like this,” Harris said, “you have some people playing at a higher level and some people lower. So it’s difficult to judge teamwork. We can see if they’re communicating or providing instruction to help teammates with positioning. That in turn helps you judge the players that set themselves apart with leadership and game intelligence.”

All 10 teams received instructions to line up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. On Sunday, some of the teams shifted players and made adjustments. The weaker players had a chance to shine on Saturday, and they filled new roles on Sunday (or sat on the sidelines longer).

After the final whistle, Trittschuh gathered the group to thank the players and tell them that one of three things will happen. They’ll receive a contract offer. They’ll receive an invitation to come back in February. Or they won’t hear anything at all.

In addition to USL Pro veteran Luke Vercollone, the Switchbacks already signed a few players and are on track for the opening game in March. Although the USL Pro schedule isn’t settled, Trittschuh said the first home game at the new Sand Creek Stadium won’t be until April.

In the meantime, Trittschuh said he will finalize input from his coaches, offer contracts to the top talent from the weekend, invite six or seven from the tryout to preseason, and finalize the schedule at the USL Pro AGM in December.

The first day of tryouts for Switchbacks FC showcased players from all over the world. Some grew up learning the game not far from the Pride Soccer Complex. Others came from different states, Spain, the United Kingdom, Holland, Denmark, Germany, France, El Salvador, Panama, Mexico, Ghana, Australia, and Iran. They played almost five hours of full-throttle soccer.

Head coach Steve Trittschuh said he was pleased to see all 140 players on Saturday. Unlike other tryouts with multiple cuts before the final decisions, Trittschuh invited all the players back for Sunday.

“If they had a bad day,” Trittschuh said, “they can come back and show us more, if they’re not dead and can get out of bed.”

Trittschuh had assistant Wolde Harris run the show, and he assembled 15 other coaches to help evaluate talent and give input throughout the day.

“I needed more eyes,” Trittschuh explained. “Most of these guys played professionally, so they know what to look for. And I totally trust them. Tomorrow we’ll meet after the last game and put all our notes together. There were a couple kids who I can probably offer a contract to. And there probably will be a handful that I can ask to come back in February when we get together again.”

The day started with players assigned to teams for a number of possession games on small fields, some with goalkeepers. Harris explained that “small-sided games give us a chance to see their technical abilities and decision-making in tight spaces.”

Players wore reversible jerseys with their assigned number. One coach asked a goalkeeper to put his number on the front. “Otherwise, I’ll only see your number when you’re digging the ball out of the back of the net.”

At 11:00, they jumped into 11v11 games on three fields. Some teams rested while others battled for 25-minute contests.

“I gave them a shape I wanted, a 4-2-3-1 for all the teams,” Trittschuh said. “I wanted to see how players stand out in that shape. You can get your outside backs into the attack. You can see movement from the guys up top, and you can see who wins the ball in the middle.”

Harris said the teams didn’t necessarily improve throughout the day, but he noticed one or two players starting to make connections and find a rhythm in the game.

“We’re looking at the talent level and the decision-making,” Harris said. “But we’re also looking to see who really wants it more than anyone else. A big part of our team will be commitment because we’re a new club coming new into a league. We’re looking for people who know what they’re doing with the ball and can make things happen. Also, we’re looking for mental toughness. If you can perform in the sixth game as well as you did in the first game, then that shows us something special.”

Day two will be another test. If players can return from the grueling day of games and perform just as well for the finale on Sunday, they might be wearing Switchbacks FC colors in 2015.

A few days ahead of the team’s open tryout on November 22-23, Switchbacks FC announced head coach Steve Trittschuh’s chief assistant, Wolde Harris.

Harris and Trittschuh were Colorado Rapids teammates from 1997 to 1999. Trittschuh went to the Tampa Bay Mutiny and retired in 2001. In 2000, Harris moved to the New England Revolution for three seasons, but he was not ready to retire. The Jamaican striker played with the Kansas City Wizards in 2003. In 2004, he scored two goals in eight games for the Charleston Battery before scoring four goals in 17 games for Boden BK in Sweden. Harris returned to the Rapids in 2005 and scored a goal in 10 appearances. From 2006 to 2009, he played for C.D. FAS in El Salvador.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Harris played for the University of Connecticut and Clemson University while remaining part of the Jamaican national team pool. Harris played 25 games for his country throughout his career and has always tended to his Jamaican roots. With the help of his father and brothers, Harris founded the Jamaican Grassroots Football Company.

As a coach, Harris was on staff for Lorne Donaldson’s Real Colorado. Since then, he has been an assistant coach at Kingston College with his father in Jamaica, as well as his alma mater, Clemson University. As a player, Harris performed at a high level all over the world, coordinating in multiple languages and systems. Combined with Trittschuh’s playing and coaching experience, the Jamaican can offer attacking expertise to balance Trittschuh’s defensive perspective.

The announcement on Switchbacksfc.com includes a highlight reel of Wolde’s MLS goals.

By Brian Jennings

Pablo Mastroeni and the Rapids players put in the work hours in 2014. That was never an issue with this group. The challenge for Mastroeni and his staff was thinking less like players and more as teachers and communicators during the weekly build-up.

“The whole experience for me was new,” admitted Mastroeni succinctly. “What I did was spend endless hours prior to any meetings that we had, any of the video sessions that we had, any of the sessions on the field that we had to make sure that we were very organized and buttoned-up from a staff perspective.”

Mastroeni explained how his communication style changed during the season. “The information that was given was, for the most part, received in a way that can actually be applied on the field. Initially I was very black-and-white in the way I delivered messages. Communicating as a captain in the locker room is a lot different than communicating as a coach. The nuances there — when you say things and have the trust of a group from a ‘you’re on the field with us, you’re going to battle with us’ perspective — it’s a lot different from saying the same exact words in the same tone now as a coach with a shirt and tie on.”

Pablo admits he still occasionally gets pulled between the player mindset and the coaching role, and he has taken an interesting approach to reminding himself on a daily basis what his new career must focus on. In fact, if you looked closely at the Colorado bench you may have noticed it but not given much thought to the small transformation on his face. “My dad gave me the idea. He said you need to differentiate the Pablo that played and your new career path. It still is a work in progress, which is why I’m growing this mustache: So when I look in the mirror I realize I’m not the guy that was in the locker room.

“As a player I’d always say, ‘Get your head out of your (rear). Let’s go!’ and they were used to that,” Mastroeni recalled of his playing days. “There’s a lot of new players. If I say those things, they don’t know Pablo as a player. They just know me as a coach, and it comes off as abrasive — ‘he’s nuts.’ I have to communicate in a different way to the players than I was accustomed to.” The mustache is a daily reminder of this transformation.

However, the 12-year MLS veteran still has moments when he’d almost rather “catch the fish” instead of “teach to fish,” as the old saying goes. “There’s times with injuries I thought to myself, ‘I might want to suit up,’ but I talked to myself about do I want to be a good player or do I want to be a great coach? So if I want to be a great coach, I have to use my knowledge that I gained in my experience as a player and communicate to the best of my abilities.”

Pablo’s message to himself? “Do the best you can and learn from it. Don’t run and hide and try to put on (boots) and get away from that role you were asked to be.”

Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Pablo coming soon as we discuss the takeaways from the 2014 season and what changes may come about in 2015.

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