Óscar Pareja arrived in Commerce City last year with a carefully constructed brief. He spent much of his first season in charge laying the groundwork necessary to fulfill it.
Pareja assumed control in the wake of Gary Smith's messy departure at the end of the 2011 campaign. His new bosses hired him to implement an aesthetically-pleasing, possession-oriented style capable of producing results on a regular basis. And they understood it might take a bit of time to acquire the necessary pieces to facilitate the transition.
The past year-and-a-half reflects the enormity of the task at hand. Colorado did not make the playoffs last season. It faces an almighty tussle to reach the postseason this year in the congested Western Conference postseason picture, even with its recent stretch of good form. But the steady progress toward the overarching objective during that period is both noticeable and substantial.
“The mentality of the group has changed,” Pareja said. “We have a group of players now that have molded into our project and our philosophy. Adversity was part of our journey during this first semester – injuries, adversity with players coming back from injuries and returning back to (the training room) and the foreign players – but that makes you stronger. Now we believe that the team needs to feel that we're a better team and we're deeper. For sure, it will make us a better team.”
One glance at the roster reveals it is a different team, certainly.
Clint Irwin operates between the sticks after stringing together a series of fine displays in the wake of Matt Pickens' ghastly left forearm fracture in March. Drew Moor continues as the lynchpin in defense with U.S. under-20 starter Shane O'Neill standing out as a potential cog for the present and the future and left back Chris Klute warranting special praise for his consistent displays. Hendry Thomas anchors a midfield still yearning for the creativity and guile provided by Martin Rívero. And rookie forward Deshorn Brown – one of two first-year standouts alongside midfielder Dillon Powers – shoulders the weight up front by using his searing pace on the counter.
Injuries and poor performances have stripped away some of the more familiar faces and left Pareja to lean on this mix of wily veterans and untested players. The results – including a five-game winless streak to start the season, a six-match unbeaten run from late April to early June and the current five-game stretch without a defeat – reflect the adjustments required and underscored this nascent side's ability to muddle through some fairly significant upheaval.
“It's our mentality,” Moor said. “It's the characters that Óscar has brought in. Everybody's pushing, everybody's stepping up when it's their turn. You look at some of the young guys who have played significant minutes this season. Not just significant minutes. They've been fantastic. Anybody can say at this point in the season that we've had injuries, we've had suspensions, we've been missing players. It's how you mentally get through it, push through it and make sure you're not making excuses. Come the end of the season, that's not going to count.”
Patching up the holes with younger, unproven players offers the additional bonus of creating precious depth. Pareja now possesses ample choices throughout the ranks with emerging contributors like Brown, O'Neill and Powers providing suitable alternatives to more established figures like Edson Buddle, Pablo Mastroeni (traded to Los Angeles last month) and Marvell Wynne. And those new options adhere more strictly to the grand vision Pareja continues to implement from the run of play.
Pareja, by and large, wants his players to keep the ball and move it neatly and quickly. He prefers to play in a 4-3-3 setup, but he tinkers with his formation to compensate for the available personnel and the situation presented by the game at hand. At the moment, the structure is more of a 4-2-3-1 with Powers playing ahead of Thomas and the resurgent Nathan Sturgis in central midfield. Brown's deployment – either as the lone striker or as one of the wide players – provides ample flexibility to revise the calculus if required.
Although the formation and its pieces may change, the philosophy does not. Colorado cherishes possession and forces the opposition to disrupt its rhythm in order to obtain a foothold in the game. A lack of creativity and sharpness in the final third deprive those efforts of some purpose from time to time, but the ethos remains constant nonetheless. And the recent uptick in form suggests it is starting to yield some payoff.
“We're starting to impose his style on opponents a lot better than we were at the beginning of the season,” Irwin said prior to the 2-1 victory over New England last week. “Now it's just turning that style into results. I think – with maybe one exception – in this last stretch, we've been on top of the game in most cases and not necessarily gotten the three points we need.”
Another extra layer of quality could bridge that gap. Rívero's protracted absence deprives the side of its primary source of ingenuity. His impending return provides hope that the group will soon benefit from his ability to pick the right passes and retain the ball effortlessly. The need for a reliable center forward lingers to bring the entire side together with decent target play and supply the predatory instincts to finish off the tidy moves through midfield.
“There is some building still,” Pareja said. “I would like to join it with good results, for sure. But we needed to (address) this club on the personnel side first, so we can have the right players with the right mentality. That's the only way you can put your philosophy into their minds so they can execute it. I'm in still in the building process here with the personnel, trying to get the players that I want.”
More and more of those players have found their way to suburban Denver over the past 18 months or so, but work still remains to reach the desired objective. A playoff berth remains firmly in the Rapids' sights for the remainder of the campaign. The overall success of the project does not hinge on it, though. This is still a club and a team in the midst of transition. The early signs – and, yes, a year-and-a-half still counts as early on this scale – offer encouragement for the future. Now it is just a matter of carrying them through and seeing whether the final results will ultimately satisfy the original directive.