It isn't easy to find a replacement for Pablo Mastroeni. Just ask Colorado coach Oscar Pareja.
Pareja has sifted through a number of different arrangements to try to fill the void created by the former U.S. international midfielder's concussion concerns. None of those potential solutions has quite struck the balance required to give Jeff Larentowicz the necessary support in central midfield and sustain the Rapids' ardent commitment to possession.
The arrival of Honduran international midfielder Hendry Thomas on Tuesday represents the latest and the most plausible bid yet to plug that significant gap.
“He's going to bring some athleticism,” Pareja told the club's official website on Tuesday. “He is a player who has experience and knows the game. He's at a good age, I think 27 years old is pretty ideal for what we're looking for at that position, someone who is young, but also someone who has been around and can bring experience.”
Players with those sorts of qualities do not often fall into MLS' price range. Thomas now presents a rare exception to that rule after falling out of Roberto Martinez's plans at Wigan and watching his contract expire at the end of the season. Pareja and Rapids technical director Paul Bravo monitored Thomas' situation as the midfielder attempted to secure a deal during the summer and pushed to see whether the World Cup veteran might consider a move to MLS in the prime of his career. Thomas' decision to reciprocate that interest constitutes something of a coup for the Rapids.
“We had followed him for a month, knowing that he was coming from Wigan and trying to see what was the possibility to bring him to Major League Soccer,” Pareja said. “MLS has tracked him as well. Now the possibility became real because he was out of contract. Most importantly, he was willing to come and be a part of the project.”
How long and how much Thomas will contribute to the cause remains uncertain. A source close to the player told the Denver Post on Tuesday that Thomas and the Rapids will assess his long-term future with the club at the end of the campaign. Such pragmatism makes perfect sense for both sides if it is indeed the case, but the arrangement leaves Thomas with little time to return to full fitness (he told the Post through a translator that he felt 70 to 80 percent fit) after more than a year away from regular first-team action and show the type of sharpness required to make an impact at this stage of the season.
Even if Thomas merely spends the final nine games edging the in-form but limited Joseph Nane out of the starting XI and surveying the lay of the land for a Rapids team likely to miss the postseason, his signing represents a smart piece of business for the club and the league.
Thomas possesses the ability, the deportment and the experience to thrive in MLS if he chooses to remain in the league beyond this season. His style of play – a fairly rugged approach driven by his ample physical gifts and his significant work rate and supplemented with enough technical ability to excel in his preferred holding midfield role at this standard – suits the league nicely. The favorable terms of the deal (MLS tends to limit its exposure and maintain contractual options in these sorts of endeavors, even when a player arrives on a free) and the paucity of risk for a proposition with significant upside make this signing a sensible one even if Thomas departs during the winter.
Thomas may or may not supply the necessary replacement for Mastroeni's varied talents on and off the field, but he makes the Rapids better and offers a plausible long-term solution to a significant problem. Now the onus falls on Thomas to recapture his Premier League form, spark a debate about where his future lies at the end of the campaign and try to fill the chasm left by Mastroeni's continued absence. It isn't an easy brief given the circumstances, but it is one that Thomas can fulfill as the Rapids continue their evolution under Pareja.
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