The Colorado Rapids' 2021 season came to a heartbreaking end with a 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference semi-finals on Sunday, but there's still a lot to be proud of.
It's now a regularly-made point that Robin Fraser oversaw the team with the lowest salary spend in the entire league, but still managed to guide them all the way to the top of the Western Conference.
The Rapids didn't have a DP striker like Chicharito. There was no international quality No.10 like Nico Lodeiro. Heck, not one single Colorado player even made the All-Star team. And yet, they still outstripped every single challenger in the West during the regular season.
Fraser used team spirit, togetherness, and no small amount of tactical acumen to drag the very best out of what is, in essence, a rag-tag band of misfits and overlooked talents. And on Playoff day, when the Rapids had the honor of hosting MLS' first-ever Thanksgiving match, the supporters showed out in force. A stadium that has seen far too many seats go empty throughout this season was filled and the atmosphere was electric.
“Absolutely fantastic. [I am] trying to think how many times I’ve been at this stadium, even with other teams, and I’ve never seen our stadium look like that," Fraser told reporters of the atmosphere after the match.
"Big, big thank you to our entire front office for being able to produce an effect like that and a big thank you to the fans. They were phenomenal; we heard them the whole way. We would’ve loved to have given them something more to cheer about, but it was the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen inside the stadium.
"Again, just so many people I’m so proud of and proud to work with and happy to have these fans in front of them. I know for the players it was a big boon."
In the end, Fraser's biggest mistake of the season, and one of very few, arguably came at the worst possible time. The introductions of Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis just came too late for either to have a tangible impact in the Rapids' biggest game of the season. Perhaps their biggest since the 2016 Western Conference final.
Barrios failed to attempt a shot, create a chance, or complete a dribble during his 15 minutes on the pitch. Lewis was introduced at the same time and didn't touch the ball at all. Not once.
As the Timbers grew in confidence and started to push forward after the break, the game was crying out for someone with the speed and direct running of Barrios or Lewis to keep the opposing full-backs pinned and offer a threat in transition. You could even make the case for at least one of them starting.
And then the issue of Colorado having no DP striker finally came home to roost. The Rapids have shared the goals around this season with 18 players scoring at least once, but with no individual managing more than eight.
Dom Badji is a threat but is an inconsistent goalscorer at best. He represents about the closest thing the Rapids have to an out-and-out striker and missed a great opportunity in the 38th minute. You wonder how many of their first-half chances would have found the net if they'd fallen to a natural striker. They were punished to the fullest by Larrys Mabiala in the 90th minute.
Of course, none of this is to hold Fraser to any serious account. He's among the most intelligent head coaches in MLS right now and will learn from this setback.
That they achieved what they did should be a source of immense pride. Just think what the Colorado Rapids could do with a full complement of Designated Players.