Not many expected the Colorado Rapids to win much this season. For coach Robin Fraser, success lies in the collective
Colorado Rapids Head Coach Robin Fraser had a straightforward answer when asked how his squad achieved historic milestones on the way to securing the top seed in the Western Conference in the upcoming Major League Soccer playoffs.
“Collectively,” he told Colorado Matters’ host Ryan Warner.
The Rapids host a playoff game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City on Thanksgiving Day. It’ll be the first time the highest professional soccer league in America has had a game on that day. And the Rapids are vying for their second league championship, after winning the MLS Cup in 2010. Since the team won its first MLS championship, however, it’s not always been easy to find success for the club that was founded in 1996 and used to play its games at the old Mile High Stadium.
Fraser said that while a lot of MLS teams spend big bucks, perhaps $6 million to $9 million a year to lure that special player, that hasn’t been the Rapids’ approach. The team does have a U.S. national team player in Kellyn Acosta and a Canadian national team player in Mark-Anthony Kaye, but it also has one of the lowest total payrolls for players in the entire league.
“We don't have anyone with that kind of price tag. I think we have very good players, but we don't have players that have that sort of pedigree,” he said. “We feel like if we do things collectively, then the sum of the parts can be greater. And as of now we've had a decent year and we've had a decent run with that.”
That would be an understatement.
Before the 2021 season, national soccer pundits predicted the Rapids might be mediocre at best. Instead, the state's top professional soccer club built a campaign for the record books: most points and wins in franchise history, and for the first time, the squad finished first in the Western Conference.
And Fraser was also named a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year.
Sounds like a great underdog story?
“That's probably fair because it's such a neat talking point right now,” he said. “I like the fact that it seems to be such a bamboozling topic for everyone.” Fraser said his main focus now is on “having good players, good people, unselfish players. And the team really is a product of that, a very unselfish group.”
And it’s a group that celebrates the now-ubiquitous Ted Lasso axiom that “Football is life!”
Fraser said he’d only just recently watched the show, which has become a cultural touchstone for not just soccer players but all Americans. “I find a lot of what they do to be, while comical and somewhat corny, to be not that far from home,” he said. “It's more than just a comedy to me, but I love it. I think it's great.”
He spotlighted one Rapids player, Nicolás Mezquida, a Uruguayan midfielder, who “has the most unbelievable, bright light inside him.” Not unlike the Apple TV show’s character Dani Rojas, Fraser said.
“It's actually become a thing on our team. We'll be going through a training session and Nico will do something well, and everybody goes, ‘Football is life!’”
Still, Fraser acknowledged that football life can be hard. He admits sometimes before a game “I don't sleep a wink because I'm bound and determined to figure out the best way to play against the upcoming opponent and the best defending scheme, the best attacking scheme, and then to figure out what players fit.” Asked when he does sleep, Fraser said, with a chuckle, “December to January. Off season, off season.”
He credits his “unbelievable” coaching staff, putting the time in and having many conversations to flesh out game plans. “It's a very collaborative effort,” he said.
The Colorado head coach job is a comeback story for Fraser; it’s his second time around in a top job in MLS. He managed former club Chivas USA for a couple of years — the team no longer plays — and also served as assistant coach for MLS squads in Salt Lake, New York and Toronto.
The team in Utah, Real Salt Lake, was reminiscent of this year’s Rapids team, Fraser said. “No big superstars, very collective in how they went about things, very humble team. And we ended up winning a championship in 2009.” (Real Salt Lake are the Rapids main rivals in MLS — the teams compete for the Rocky Mountain Cup each year — and they are coached by former Rapids great Pablo Mastroeni.)
But the Chivas job had a number of challenges, Fraser said. And that helped him develop his own soccer axiom: “Everyone is not you.”
“You think you know what everyone wants because you know what you liked as a player and the things that motivated you. And you go in naively thinking, ‘I'll just do the things that I like to do and this is a reason and for sure they're going to all be on board,’” he said. “And I quickly came to realize that every group is different and every group has its own unique challenges. And the bottom line is that, as I said, everyone is not you, you need to find out how to motivate players. You need to find out what sort of environment you've got and what sort of environment you want to create.”
At one point, when Fraser was an assistant coach in New York, he coached the French national player Thierry Henry, one of the all-time greats. He said that was a “fantastic” learning experience that made him a better coach.
“You have to learn to deal with those personalities, you have to be sharp and clear, you have to be in your own vision,” he said, “because players like that, they smell BS so quickly, and in order to get them and keep them on your side and on your page, you have to show competence and confidence.”
Before coaching, Fraser had an illustrious playing career himself, including with the Colorado Foxes, a pro team that played in a league that predated MLS. He was a tenacious defender and was honored last year as one of the ‘25 Greatest’ MLS players of all-time by the league. On the international level, Fraser earned more than two dozen caps, appearances, playing for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Fraser said it all started as an elementary and prep school kid. “I was on one of the two best teams in Kingston and we probably had, and I could be wrong, but I think probably around 2,000 people at our games. It was lined three or four rows deep, and that's how avidly it was followed,” he said. “So my initial soccer experience was certainly one with a lot of fanfare and a lot of excitement.”
He remembers his dad taking him to the national arena in Jamaica 1974 to watch World Cup matches on the large screen that were happening half a world away in Germany.
“I left those games so wide-eyed, loving every single thing about playing, every single thing about high-level soccer, international soccer, the World Cup. And I was absolutely hooked at that point. My mom says she remembers me saying I wanted to be a professional soccer player one day. She patted me on the head and said, “‘Oh, that's such a nice dream for a young boy to have.’”
A few years later the family moved to Miami where his dad started the region’s first chapter of a national recreational soccer organization. Fraser called it “incredibly thoughtful and kind of him to do that. And then he coached me and I made his life miserable for about two years because I was the precocious kid who thought I knew everything. But it certainly set me on a path of playing.”
Later he got recruited to play at Florida International University, but only “because my best friend wanted to go to FIU. And, this was a coach's insurance policy to get him. That's how sought after I was.”
But Fraser discovered the passion and dedication it would take to succeed. He soon became a star and later joined the pool of players vying for a spot in the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Fast forward to 2022 and Fraser is leading a team competing for the MLS title and as part of a small fraternity of black head coaches.
“If you're a black coach who has aspirations to go to higher levels, one of the biggest things is I think, where society is today, the attention that's being cast on this, now there are going to be opportunities available. And the biggest thing you can do is really dive deep into your craft and become very proficient at what it is you do,” he said, noting a coach must understand formations, tactics, systems, the fundamentals.
Fraser said he’s been interviewed for a number of jobs, over many years.
“At times I felt like it was about filling a quota and I could have been turned off and not taking the interviews,” he said. “But for me, it was an opportunity to work on the craft of delivering my vision.”
As a result he got better and better at presenting and “eventually I ended up getting the job. So the key for me is to be prepared, be prepared and certainly sniff out every every opportunity that you can.”
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