Once you’ve reached the ninth game of a losing streak - eighth loss in MLS but ninth if you’re counting the US Open Cup loss, too - there’s no point to discussing tactics or team selection. This level of misery demands an approach that is more philosophical.
And as much as I’d like to explore various philosophies of the human condition and why man suffers in this life, I doubt any of you come to read me because you seek my take on existentialism or theodicy. These are not the droids that you, or anybody, are looking for. I’m not here to muse on the meaning of life.
I will, however, muse on the meaning of fandom, and soccer fandom. The question I will ask is: as a fan of a frequently struggling team, when is enough enough?
Many soccer fans use the acronymical hashtag ‘XTID’ - ‘My Team til I die’ - and mean it. They believe you pick a team, and you stay with that team forever; no take-backs, no exchanges. That assumes that fandom transcends winning and losing; that it’s a tribe and a set of colors based on a geographic area that you probably live in, and that results are not the central determinant in your fandom.
This is an interesting premise. Imagine if you attended a soccer game to see your friends, chant some chants, enjoy the sunshine, and be entertained for 90 minutes. And when I say ‘be entertained’, I mean that in an expansive definition: that you like watching beautiful soccer, even if it’s the other team that’s doing it.
There is something to be said for this approach. I got a heart-stopping thrill when Samuel Armenteros had that flick-and-round-the-cow on Danny Wilson. I was dumbstruck when Obafemi Martins spun 270 degrees to posterize Drew Moor and Bobby Burling for a goal at a game in 2015. You know DSGP will be full of El Tri fans on October 6th to go see Carlos Vela and Los Angeles FC. In the good years, you pull for Colorado, and in the bad years, you just enjoy soccer. This approach probably carries through fans of teams like the Chicago Cubs, who went 108 years without a championship, or the Cleveland Browns, who are as deep a pit of misery as exists in the sporting world.
Others would say that fandom is constantly temporary and transferable. If players can switch teams, and coaches can switch teams, and teams can even switch cities*, then why the hell can’t I? Lots of folks bandwagon an exciting sports team when they are dominant or winning. The Chicago Bulls and Real Madrid are not just popular with local fans.
With the Rapids being terrible four of the past five seasons, some fans have regularly lit up message boards and social media to proclaim that they had given up their season tickets or quit supporting the team entirely.
It’s not an irrational thought. If fandom is akin to being in a relationship, then being a Rapids fan for the past five years is akin to being in an awful relationship: we love the team, and it returns our affection with unending heartbreak and misery. And if you think of fandom as being in an toxic relationship, there comes a time at which you write a Dear John letter, take the dog, and get the hell outta Dodge.
Another point at which a fan might elect to renounce their team is if they came to the conclusion that the team’s management is systemically incompetent: that mediocrity or mismanagement are hard-wired into the very fabric of the team’s culture. Nothing will ever change because the team, from ownership to front office and on down are built on a foundation of sand. That is the conclusion of many fans, including Burgundy Wave commenter TiesUBetcha, who had an epic ( and really thoughtful) comment in which he put forth the theory that the Rapids are a terrible and hopelessly run organization, at least from an organizational management perspective.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know the results haven’t been there for Colorado, year after year. And I think it’s perfectly acceptable for a fan to say ‘I’ve had enough: I want off now.’ Fandom is earned. Nobody has a right to your ticket dollars. And the Rapids haven’t really proven themselves worth of support lately.
I’m not quitting this team yet. Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I’m stubborn. Maybe I want to reap the proverbial rewards in 5 or 10 or 50 years when they win a trophy and I can say ‘I was a fan when things were bleak.’
That all said, as a survival technique, I think it would be prudent for fans to find a coping mechanism through the rest of this season, especially as we get late on in the season and will likely be outside of the playoffs once again. Follow the Rapids U23 team in PDL play. Support Denver University Men’s Soccer. Go check out the Colorado Premier League Championship game at 1pm this Sunday. Watch this little event coming up called the World Cup. Renew your love of soccer as needed.
I wouldn’t blame you, though, if you decided to quit the Rapids. Everybody’s tolerance for pain is different, and there are even some people that think that soccer shouldn’t be painful at all. I know, I totally don’t get it either.
Anthony Hudson addresses the fansI expressed the frustration of the fans to Head Coach Anthony Hudson and asked him what he would say to you, the fan that is sick to death of losing and ready to quit the Rapids entirely. Here’s Coach Hudson’s response:
“Nothing excuses the run that we’re on. None of us are happy with it. … One thing’s for sure. I don’t know too many teams that have been a run like this and still have a group of players that are fully committed and fighting. That doesn’t always happen.
Firstly, deeply, we apologize. One-hundred percent. This is hurting, this is painful. But we’re big enough and we’re strong enough to face this challenge.
The club has done an unbelievable job on the back of last year in freeing up space on the squad and making change. You’re never going to get all of those right when you’re making so many changes, and still we know there’s more change needed.
All I would say to the fans is please stick with it. Please keep backing us. Your support has been amazing. The home games we’ve had, the fans, the support has been incredible and at the moment we not giving them anything, but there’s still cheering us, they’re still showing up. The players are giving their everything. We know the changes we need to make. It’s going to take a couple of transfer windows. It’s going to take more time on the training pitch. We will get there. We will deliver a team that the fans are proud of. I’m not wavering. At all.
I totally understand if fans hear everything I’ve said and say ‘You need to start winning games. It’s down to results.’ I understand that, and that’s the business we’re in.”
Parsing his answer more carefully, the essence of the response is fourfold.
1) We are sorry. Please stick with us.
2) The players are showing resilience and commitment.
3) The process of building a winning team takes time. Be patient.
4) I know that the only thing that ultimately matters is results.
Just to spend a little bit more time on answer #3, it’s clear that the team is trying to honestly face some of the issues that Bobby Warshaw brought up after the MLS salary data was released: the Rapids are spending a lot of money for very little return. Specifically, Shkelzen Gashi, Stefan Aigner, and Joe Mason together cost the team $3.2 million. Gashi occupies one of the team’s DP slots, while Mason and Aigner cost the team at least $523,000 in TAM, plus a cap hit of up to $1.01 million on a total payroll of $4 million.** Those three players have collectively played 762 minutes with 3 goals, 0 assists. For comparison, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi of NYCFC has 644 minutes, 7 goals, 1 assist. He is earning $350,004 this year.
So Colorado has spent some money poorly. They don’t quite have the players to accomplish the task at hand. But of course, even the players on hand should be capable of better than they’ve produced, and the coach knows that.
It is very hard to say to a fan base that had to start over in the middle of 2017 after Pablo Mastroeni was fired in August of 2017 to ‘be patient’ once more. That means that Rapids supporters will have been in limbo waiting for this team to get it together from August 2017 to perhaps March of 2019. That’s… a long time. Also, Hudson’s answer implies the team got it wrong at the transfer window, but they can fix it… if they get another transfer window or two. Some will say that this team has had several transfer windows with Padraig Smith at the helm. Patience may be wearing thin.
Aignergate: The Final ChapterStefan Aigner is gone. So is the money that was spent on him for the 2018 season, unfortunately. The term ‘termination by mutual agreement’ is a nice phrase, but according to MLS salary rules, a player’s salary and/or buyout clause counts against the cap. Aigner takes a bunch of Uncle Stan's money with him on his flight to Frankfurt, and don't get it freed up for a replacement player until 2019.***
For a while, we got only Anthony Hudson’s very patient and cautious explanations of what happened: he wasn’t quite fit, he needed additional work, he knows what he needs to do, etcetera.
Training on Tuesday was the first opportunity to ask about the situation in the past tense, not only to Coach Hudson, but to Tim Howard and Tommy Smith. Here's what they had to say.
‘Ultimately, when you’re trying to build a culture around a club, you want people who want to be here. You want people who are pushing in the same direction as the rest of the team. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, which is fine. That happens. Football’s not an easy game. It’s better that Stefan moves on and that we move on. Hopefully in the right direction.’
‘Obviously, a player of his ability, if he had bought into the way we were going to do things and was impacting our performances on the pitch that would have helped us, but he didn’t want to do that unfortunately, and he and the club have come to that agreement and I wish him all the best for the future.’
‘I don’t think I’ve done as much for a single player as I’ve done in that situation. I even offered to change the system, change the shape, change his position. It’s a shame, it’s a shame because that level of player in terms of money and that sort of thing is really important to us and we haven’t had him. The reality is we’ve done the right thing. I can go to bed at night knowing that we did the right thing, not by me, but by the club, by the rest of the players. Because what we’re building, and we are building it, and we will get there. We want to do it the right way. And one of those things is building the right culture where people want to play for the club, play for each other and fight for the club.’
We still don’t fully understand what the row was over, beyond the statements from Coach Hudson that it was about fitness and his role in the team. But the comments from Tuesday show a new facet to this puzzle: Howard, Smith, and Hudson were all quite clear in separate interviews that Aigner did not want to be here, did not buy into the plan, did not have the same level of commitment to the club or the coach or the plan as the other players. Maybe he wanted to be the star, and getting benched rankled him. Maybe he was homesick. Maybe he wasn’t happy with the team’s performance. Maybe he didn’t like his new role. Maybe he didn’t like the coach. It seems like Aigner was unable to put the club’s needs above his own needs, and it ultimately led to his departure.
Soccer isn’t just about the fastest players or the best players or the smartest players: there are also emotions and attitudes and chemistry issues. These guys have their egos bruised. They get homesick. Distractions or problems in their personal lives affect their play. Guys don’t click in the locker room and ultimately it affects everything. Aigner didn’t work out. It was an expensive mistake. It is over. Let’s hope the club can find the right player, and the right attitude, for the system going forward.
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*Teams shouldn’t switch cities. There are very few circumstances (like when Major League Baseball didn’t have any teams west of the Mississippi and baseball was too stupid to understand that ‘expansion’ was a thing they could do) when a team switching cities is acceptable. The Columbus Crew potentially moving to Austin is not one of those situations. Just thinking about it makes me super angry.
** If the team had a need to get under the cap, they could spend more TAM to pay that $1.01 million down further. I could do the math of how much our rostered players spots 1-20 contribute to the cap and so forth in an effort to figure out if the Rapids have much TAM left to spend this year, but undisclosed numbers like transfer fees and such make it really hard. Suffice it to say that the Rapids have likely spend almost all of their allocated GAM and TAM this year, according to Matt Pollard and Marco Cummings.
*** A small silver lining: Aigner was signed through 2020, which was an unreasonably long time for a 32-year-old player. So at least we didn't limp along with him on the roster eating into the team's TAM until then.