Colorado Rapids are investing big in rejoining Major League Soccer's elite
In terms of sheer star power, Sunday's match between D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) can't match the wattage that was on display in last week's New York City-Toronto tilt. With three World Cup winners wearing NYCFC colors (midfielder Andrea Pirlo, forward David Villa and coach Patrick Vieira) and two Italian internationals (Pirlo and TFC's Sebastian Giovinco, the 2015 MLS MVP) on the field alongside Reds and U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley, the 2-2 tie was a shining monument to what those around the league's Manhattan headquarters like to call MLS 3.0: relevant, big-spending clubs that demand attention.
Historically, the Rapids have never been that. MLS is in its third decade, but while Colorado is one of the league's charter members, the team has always struggled to attract fans and corporate sponsorships. Despite winning an unlikely MLS Cup in 2010, not only have the Rapids never been able to move the needle, but also they've never really tried to ... until now. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons (and three of the past four) while finishing dead last in league attendance in 2015, owners Kroenke Sports determined their franchise had to spend money to make money, both on and off the field.
"We actually missed out on MLS 2.0, and it's time for us as an organization to step up," technical director Paul Bravo said this week in a phone interview. He was referring to the spending trend that began with David Beckham's 2007 arrival via the designated player rule.
"We need to put our flag in the ground and show we aren't this small market team that always talks about a lack of resources. That's behind us. We're excited about where we're going. We have one or two more additions that we still need to make that I think will make a huge difference."
U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones was introduced last week, though he is suspended and won't play this weekend. Jones, who was banned six games for an incident that occurred during last year's playoffs with the New England Revolution, is eligible to return April 16. Jones' international teammate, 2014 World Cup hero Tim Howard, is expected to arrive this summer and will immediately become the best goalkeeper -- and most well-known name among mainstream Americans -- in MLS.
Complementary pieces, such as Irish striker Kevin Doyle and Swiss midfielder Shkelzen Gashi (both designated players) arrived via the transfer market, while others, such as Guatemalan playmaker and proven MLS performer Marco Pappa, were acquired via trade.
"Without people knowing, I think ownership has been slowly investing, and I think this year you can actually see the level of investment with the players on the pitch," coach Pablo Mastroeni told ESPN FC. "I feel like we're on the cusp of something good this year because we've always had a great mentality.
"Sometimes we lacked talent or a bit of skill, but if you couple our grittiness and ability to work hard for each other and then sprinkle in quality players like Marco or Jermaine Jones, that helps you win games."
The grittiness Mastroeni referenced was evident last weekend, when Pappa's 95th-minute goal helped the Rapids stun the star-studded LA Galaxy in a 1-0 victory.
"Given where we've been the last 18 months, a result like that, at home, at the beginning of the year, is something we believe can give us confidence going forward," Bravo said.
Winning with recognizable names in the lineup can transform Colorado's off-field fortunes too. The club is in the final year of its shirt sponsorship deal with financial services firm Transamerica, and a good season fronted by Howard and Jones would significantly boost the Rapids' bargaining position when the time comes to renegotiate.
"If you have success on the field, that opens the door to everything," said Jones, who signed a one-year contract.
Bravo wouldn't comment on Howard specifically, but he did say that he has been selling the quality of life in Colorado, along with the club's ambition, to all potential recruits. He also mentioned that if all goes to plan, he hopes the 34-year-old Jones will stay beyond this season.
"Jermaine pretty much put New England on his back and took them to the 2014 MLS Cup final after they had some huge struggles during the regular season," he said. "We believe he can do the same types of things with us."
Jones better. Bravo is now in his seventh season as the Rapids technical director, and he knows that if this season goes south on the field or in the stands, his job could be on the line.
"Ownership has been behind us 100 percent, and now it's up to us to produce results on the field," Bravo said. "There's no doubt it's on us as a technical staff to deliver."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.