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According to multiple MLS sources, the Colorado Rapids are set to name Gary Smith as the team’s new head coach in a press conference later today. The hiring doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but it raises the question of whether the Rapids are making their second poor coaching hire in a row.
Smith took over for Fernando Clavijo, who left the team for personal reasons, and compiled a 4-4-2 record as interim head coach (he also won a game as coach in Clavijo’s absence the week before Clavijo stepped down). Players commended Smith’s approach to the game and credited him for the team’s improved late-season form.
What remains to be seen whether that improvement had more to do with Clavijo’s departure than Smith taking over the team.
It was an open secret that several Rapids players hated playing for Clavijo and the change in attitude and improved play after Clavijo’s departure could have been driven as much by a sense of relief among Colorado players as it was by Smith’s player-friendly coaching style.
Clavijo spent four years with Colorado, and while he did lead the Rapids to a pair of Western Conference finals thanks to two first-round series upset wins over FC Dallas, Clavijo failed to post a winning regular season record in any of his four seasons in Colorado (or any of his parts of three seasons as New England head coach either).
For all his struggles, Clavijo was also handcuffed by a Rapids front office with a reputation for being cheap and pretty clueless when it comes to handling player contract negotiations and on-field soccer issues in general.
In selecting Smith, the Rapids passed on at least two quality candidates with much stronger ties to MLS in former Rapids star and current Houston assistant John Spencer, as well as former Rapids standout defender and current Real Salt Lake assistant Robin Fraser.
To his credit, Smith did win over a Rapids locker room in turmoil, and helped bring the best out of a team that had struggled badly for much of the season. Players such as Conor Casey, Mike Petke and Mehdi Ballouchy enjoyed considerable improvement under his watch, and only a last-minute goal in the regular season finale kept the Rapids out of the playoffs.
Will Smith become the latest European coach to struggle and ultimately fail in MLS because of a lack of experience and knowledge of MLS, or will his year on the bench for the Rapids be enough experience to help him adjust and become a quality head coach?
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