Be thankful, and hopeful, Thursday for the Colorado Rapids.
The true-life equivalent of fictional AFC Richmond, Ted Lasso’s team, is playing in the first Major League Soccer Thanksgiving Game with a genuine chance of advancing to the Western Conference Finals and ultimately winning the MLS championship Cup.
Commerce City FC, or the Rapids, is the best of the bunch of Denver professional franchises.
Don’t laugh — although the soccer universe did just three years ago.
The rapid rise from pathetic to prominent is an extraordinary Colorado sports achievement.
The Little (Literally) Team That Can features a star player either 5-foot-2 or, including his blonde or gray mohawk, 5-4. The winger from Columbia weighs 135 pounds.
Michael Barrios! Michael Barrios! He’s here, he’s there, he’s flipping everywhere!
This collection of ragamuffins, rejects, hand-me-downs, over-the-hillers and wannabes interconnected as the Rapids finished first in the West for the first season in franchise history, were the No. 1 seed and earned a first-round bye. Their 61 points beat out the likes of such famous and formidable franchises as the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy.
The Rapids wound up second overall in points to the New England Revolution, which could be the opponent in the MLS Cup. New England? Why is it New England, or Boston, that Denver teams seem to have to confront in the postseason?
First, though, the other CR team from the Denver environs must play Thursday at the Commerce City stadium against the Portland Whatsits? Blaze Trailers? Tree-Huggers? Oh, the Timbers, the fourth seed that defeated Minnesota United FAC Sunday.
The Rapids, with a 17-7-10 regular-season record, are favored by one goal against the Timbers, who are now 18-14-4. The over-under is 2.5.
The Rapids — as the Nuggets, the Avalanche and the Mammoth — are owned by Stan Kroenke, which means that most people in Colorado don’t see them on TV, although the Thanksgiving Day extravaganza will avoid a local blackout by being televised nationally at 2:30 p.m.
It’s not shocking that Stan’s soccer squad has the lowest payroll in the league — at $9.8 million, half of the Los Angeles and Atlanta franchises at $20 million — and 13 of the Rapids players receive under $100,000 this season. Only one makes a mil. In comparison, Stan also owns Arsenal in Great Britain’s Premier League, and player salaries total, in dollars, $132 million.
MLS allows clubs to sign up to three international quality players outside the salary cap, according to the designated player rule. The Rapids had one DP in Younes Namli, from Denmark, but he suffered an ankle injury in the 11th game, underwent surgery and is yet to play a full 90 minutes since returning in September.
So the No-Name Rapids rely on a core group of MLS veterans including Barrios, who was acquired in January from Dallas, and team captain and midfielder Jack Price, who spent 2011-2018 with the Wolverhampton Wanderers before coming to Colorado. Barrios scored a team-high 8 goals, and Jonathan Lewis contributed 7. Cole Bassett has 5 goals and 5 assists, and Price was among the MLS assist leaders with 12.
The Rapids do have outstanding depth and defense, the stingiest goalkeeper in the league and a head coach who was among the top 25 players in MLS history and should be coach of the year.
Colorado allowed only 35 goals, ranking fourth, and William Yarbrough, who started 33 games (all but one), had more victories (17) than any other goalkeeper and tied for first with 13 shutouts (clean sheets). Yarbrough, who has played three games for the U.S. national team, was loaned to the Rapids in 2020, then signed a three-year contract.
However, the most influential Rapid is coach Robin Fraser, who completely turned around the team after taking over in August of 2019. Coach Anthony Hudson was fired in May after blasting management, ownership and what he called “a bottom group of players.’’ The Rapids won only eight games the year before.
Fraser, who played for the Rapids from 2001-03, has been a godsend, guiding the team to back-to-back playoffs.
In an interview with Colorado Springs TV station KKTV, Fraser said he usually spends Thanksgiving watching football with his daughter.
This Thanksgiving he will prefer to be coaching another type of football.