The MLS Wrap: Pareja tenure ends in Colorado, but tug-of-war just beginning

Oscar Pareja's sudden resignation as head coach of the Colorado Rapids has one team left without a coach, and another ready to fight for his services.
When the 2013 season ended for the Colorado Rapids, there was an underlying sense of positivity and confidence in a team stacked with young talent, and an impressive young coach coming off the type of season that had boosted his profile and reputation as a leader. A run to the playoffs after a plethora of injuries had Rapids fans feeling great about the future.

Then the talk about Pareja and FC Dallas started, eventually leading to a messy divorce that has the Rapids now without a coach and Pareja, for the time being, without a job.

What do we know at this point depends on what you want to believe. Conveniently floated stories out of Colorado say the Rapids did everything in their power to make Pareja happy, while stories likely emanating from Texas paint the picture of an unhappy Pareja deciding to leave the Rapids after not being properly compensated as an in-demand coach.

What had been known even before the 2013 season ended was that FC Dallas needed a new coach after deciding to part ways with Schellas Hyndman. As much as his departure was painted as a resignation, Hyndman was forced out, which might explain why, according to sources, FC Dallas is paying Hyndman’s contract beyond 2013.

Which brings us to Pareja, who had long been considered a clear successor to Hyndman. Pareja’s ties to Dallas run deep, the product of spending most of his eight-year MLS playing career in the city, followed by seven seasons as an assistant. He helped build the foundation for FC Dallas’ successful youth academy, and when it seemed like he had hit a wall in his development as a coach, Pareja took a chance by taking the Colorado Rapids job.

After a rough first season in charge, Pareja found his groove in 2013, combining young players with a group of solid veterans to put together a team with considerable talent and promise. The Rapids struggled late in the year, in part because of the absence of MLS Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers, but even Colorado’s first-round playoff exit wasn’t enough to diminish the fact that Pareja had done a solid job leading the Rapids.

FC Dallas had every opportunity to buy out the remaining year of Pareja’s contract but chose not to, and Colorado looked like it just might hold onto its promising coach. FC Dallas interviewed a laundry list of candidates, looking every bit like a team that had moved on from its first choice, but talk of renewed interest in Pareja surfaced in December, which kicked off a plethora of planted rumors from both sides in the growing battle for the Colombian coach’s services.

What changed between November and December to lead FC Dallas back to the coach the team wanted in the first place? Was it the realization that the team might just be better off paying a steep price to secure Pareja rather than settling for someone not as pefectly suited? Did FCD decide that although the club is still paying Hyndman in 2014, it shouldn't deter the club from paying to land his replacement?

Or maybe it was really about Pareja deciding that, as much fun as he had in Colorado, and as promising as the future might be with the Rapids, that his heart was still in Dallas. Fifteen years spent with one club isn’t something suddenly forgotten because of two years in another city.

Whatever the reason, we are now left with a messy situation that is only going to be resolved peacefully if the Rapids and FC Dallas reach an agreement that suits Colorado, and even then such a deal isn’t likely to keep people in Colorado from feeling violated by FC Dallas, and betrayed by Pareja.

That may be the case, but can anybody seriously blame Pareja if he wanted to go back to Texas, to the city he called home for 15 years of his life? A city his family never actually moved from even after he started coaching the Rapids? Perhaps this is something Colorado should have anticipated when it hired Pareja, and when the team included a buyout clause in his contract in the first place.

The interesting thing about a situation that has become so messy for Colorado is that might actually leave the Rapids better off. Colorado is believed to be leaning toward hiring Robin Fraser as Pareja’s replacement, and Fraser just might be the perfect person to pick up where Pareja left off. Fraser was the lead assistant at Real Salt Lake when it won the 2009 MLS Cup, and he most recently served as Mike Petke’s lead assistant in a Supporters' Shield-winning campaign with the New York Red Bulls.

In both cases, Fraser helped young coaches win trophies, and now he will have a chance to lead a talented team with depth and the pieces to potentially be a champion one day. Yes, Fraser has been a head coach before, but holding his unsuccessful two-year tenure with Chivas USA against him would ignore the reality that he coached the team under impossible circumstances, and Chivas USA’s failures since his departure have only served to magnify that fact.

Perhaps the bigger selling point that Fraser brings is the fact that not only was he a Rapids player from 2001 to 2003, he isn’t someone who is synonymous with any one team. He has played for or coached six different teams in MLS. There is no one team, or city, that will be a home that beckons for his return. No place he simply can’t forget about. No other team that has his heart.

That’s the harsh reality folks in Colorado are going to have to come to grips with about Pareja. He may have left FC Dallas two years ago, and may have coached the Rapids for two full seasons, but he never stopped bleeding FC Dallas colors. He never stopped caring about the place he called home for 15 years, which is probably why as tough as it was for him to walk away from Colorado, having a chance to return to FC Dallas was always going to be too tough to pass up.

The Rapids deserve better. They deserve a coach who is going to commit long term. Someone who can make the most of all that talent, and ideally someone who has put in years playing for the Rapids. Fraser fits that description, as does John Spencer, and it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two former Rapids players are leading candidates to replace Pareja.

If the Rapids learned anything from Pareja, it is that sometimes loyalty is something that can’t simply be earned with a contract, but it can be earned by having history.