There's an old saying that goes around: 'be so good, they can't ignore you'.
With the lowest salary spend in the league, one Designated Player who is only on loan and missed a chunk of the season through injury, and an average crowd of just over 11,000, you'd be forgiven for not noticing the Colorado Rapids.
But on the pitch, Robin Fraser has created a juggernaut that's hard to beat and fiercely loyal to each other - enough to finish top of the West in 2021. As the MLS Cup Playoffs approach, the Rapids still won't get the recognition they deserve. Even in their own conference, the likes of Sporting Kansas City and Seattle Sounders are more fancied. But to the players, this only serves to make them stronger.
“If they don’t want to talk about us, that’s fine. As long as we’re champions at the end of the season, I don’t really care," midfielder and team captain Jack Price told 90min in an exclusive interview.
For such a consistent team, it's a travesty that the Rapids haven't received more recognition with individual awards. After being snubbed completely for the MLS All-Star roster in the summer, Colorado's only award finalist is Fraser himself, up against Bruce Arena and Brian Schmetzer for Coach of the Year.
Scaling back a little, Price - himself a worthy candidate for this year's MVP award - admits the Rapids do get a little irked at the way they're overlooked. But once again, he doubles down on the fact he and his teammates will use that to their advantage.
“It does bother us a little bit, we talk about it in the changing room," he added. "We discuss players deserving recognition for how well we’ve done this year. As does Robin, the gaffer has been fantastic and deserves the [Manager of the Year] award in my opinion.
“But I just think it’s something we use against other teams. We notice in our games that they don’t recognize us as a big team, or me personally as an MVP or whatever. That’s fine, we just use that. We have a fire in our bellies. And we remember that every time we do a team talk or a huddle before the game, we just put that in there, to say ‘remember lads, they don’t really care about us, so we have nothing to lose’.
"We can just go out there and perform and, at the end of the day, if we win MLS Cup, they’re going to have to talk about us. So we just continue to do what we do best."
The subject of actually winning MLS Cup comes up a lot speaking to Price. As it should do, given the regular season the Rapids enjoyed. But it's a dream that's only started to become a reality now thanks to Fraser, who has worked wonders at Dick's Sporting Goods Park since taking over from interim head coach Conor Casey in August 2019.
Fraser boasts a 50% win record and has lost just 16 of his 60 matches in charge so far. It didn't take him long to earn the trust of his players.
“I remember when the gaffer came in for his first session and he had a lot of talk about respect and respecting each other as people," Price said of his head coach. "You can have arguments on the field, but always be respectful.
“He’s been here over two years now and it’s still all about respect. This is why I think we go out there every week and play for each other, because we respect each other. I’ve been on teams where maybe players don’t have that and it doesn’t work out.
“Thankfully, the bunch we have in the changing room, you see the bond on the pitch. We fight for each other and we never quit, because we know we need to have our teammates' backs. The bond we have off the field is just as strong. We have a great laugh in the changing room then when it’s time to be serious, we’re serious. If someone picks somebody out in a game or in training, we know it’s not personal. We’re doing it to better ourselves and better the team.
Price, who says this Rapids locker room is the best he's been a part of through his career so far, adds: "I think for me, Robin has been such a great leader. Obviously, for me personally, him giving me the captaincy was so huge, he showed great trust in me to lead the boys on and off the field. But the way he is, it’s all about respect. When he talks, everybody listens. He talks so well.
“To me, that’s the sign of a great manager, when he can lead a team and everyone who goes out there, including myself, on a matchday wants to win and fight for him. Ultimately, if you don’t have that for a manager, then what are you going out there for?”
Big names and high salaries certainly write good headlines, but they don't always win soccer matches. Colorado's spend on guaranteed salaries in 2021 is just $9,890,085, less than half that of the highest spenders, the LA Galaxy, who finished seven places and 13 points back in the table, failing to make the Playoffs.
For further context, according to the MLSPA, the league's highest-paid players, Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez, earn in excess of $6m per year each. Vela's LAFC also failed to make the post season.
Price has seen first-hand the value of team ethic and togetherness over star names and flashy contracts.
“It’s easy to say we don’t have any big names. Younes [Namli] is a DP but unfortunately, he’s missed a big part of this season," he said. "We don’t have that full line-up of DPs that can be difference-makers. But that’s why we’re so good as a team; because we are a team. We go out there and the way Robin and the coaching staff drill us, we’re well prepared before every game, with and without the ball."
Just because the Rapids are a little sparse on DPs, doesn't mean there's a lack of quality. Price ended the season on 12 primary assists - only Djordje Mihailovic (14) and Carles Gil (13) had more - center-back Auston Trusty figured high in a number of key defensive metrics, and Cole Bassett is one of the most exciting youngsters in the league.
"I’ve heard the gaffer say, we have good players, really good players," Price added. "But it’s just easy to overlook us because of the low budget. We’re not making $6m a year or whatever like some players do. It’s easy to overlook that because unfortunately, the experts do look at that sort of stuff and think ‘oh, he must be a good player, he’s earning $6m a year’.
“But we have a really good group of players, young and old with plenty of experience in there. That’s served us well. We have game plans when we go out there. We can outplay people if that’s how the game looks, or we can dig in and fight. We’ve had to do that many times this season and I think that’s what most winning teams have. That combination of good football when it’s needed, but when you have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in, we have that in abundance. Too."
Price says winning MLS Cup with this group of players would be a 'special' moment. But what about for the wider Denver and Colorado soccer community?
“I hope so," he replied when asked if the trophy could act as a launchpad for the game in Colorado.
Price continued: "If we go and win the whole thing, it makes a huge difference. It doesn’t matter where you play, even someone like Seattle, they win every year, but that’s why they get so many fans.
“Unfortunately, Colorado hasn’t been in this place too often. I feel like it would bring more people in. If you go and win MLS Cup, I’m sure people would turn up to the final if it was hosted at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
“Looking ahead to the World Cup in 2026, Denver wants to be one of the host cities. I think we can elevate it and make people think when they look around the city, ‘you know what, soccer is growing and we enjoy it’. Say for example, when people came out and watched that last game of the regular season against LAFC and it was a 5-2 win, they’ll really enjoy that and maybe more people will turn out afterwards.
“It has been tough with the attendances. Obviously, playing at Wolves back in the day, you expect people to turn out because they live and breathe it. But unfortunately, you have so many sports in this country that are big, like NFL and the NBA. Soccer and this league specifically has been around for about 26 years.
“It’s growing. It’s been tremendous during the four years I’ve been here, the growth in the game across the country. So I think if we went on to win the whole thing, it would definitely help boost our attendances.”
So, with the Playoffs about to get underway, Colorado's attention will turn to the Round One clash between the Portland Timbers and Minnesota United, the winner travelling to Denver in the Western Conference semi-finals.
But ultimately, it doesn't matter who wins. The Rapids are ready for anyone.
As Price confidently declares: "Whoever we play, we play. We fancy beating anyone, at home or away."