The Interview: Colorado Rapids Coach Robin Fraser
MLS's biggest surprise team owes a lot to its preternaturally calm coach
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Our guest now is Colorado Rapids coach Robin Fraser. The Rapids have the fourth-most points in MLS and third-most points per game in the league. As a player, Fraser was a two-time MLS Defender of the Year and last year was named one of the 25 Greatest Players in MLS history. Robin, it's great to see you. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thanks Grant. My pleasure. It's been a long time, so it's nice to catch up again.
I remember doing interviews with you back in the '90s, my friend, with the LA Galaxy and you may not remember this, but I do because I think it was '98 or something, and I came out and we did our interview. You guys were training in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl in a grassy area. Is that true? Is my memory failing me?
That is 100% correct. We would actually go to training after UCLA games, where they would park cars on that grassy area and we would have to walk around and remove broken bottles and bottletops and chicken bones and things like that before we started training. That's where MLS goes, way back when.
“We would actually go to training [for the LA Galaxy in the Rose Bowl parking lot in the ‘90s] after UCLA games, where they would park cars on that grassy area and we would have to walk around and remove broken bottles and bottletops and chicken bones and things like that before we started training. That's where MLS goes, way back when.” — Robin Fraser
I try and remember that when I look at the $60 million training facilities in some places around the league, and everyone thankfully is in a much better situation these days, but it's good to remember where we all came from.
Without a doubt, right? If you think about where we were 25 years ago, we've all come a long way. When I think about how many soccer-specific stadiums exist now ... So I retired [as a player] after 10 years in the league. I had played in one, which was Columbus, and then I happened to play in Pizza Hut Park [in Frisco, Tex.] before it was really finished.
And we had to take golf carts to and from the makeshift locker rooms. So we go from those days, where there was one soccer-specific stadium, and that stadium has now been updated, and every other stadium in the league now is new. So times have changed.
It's pretty incredible. I think it's fair to say that your Colorado Rapids are exceeding a lot of people's expectations this year in MLS. Maybe not yours. You'll have to tell me on that. What have been the keys in your mind to how this team has come together and performed well so far?
Well, I think when I first got here, which is almost a two-year anniversary now, the team had done poorly in the beginning of the year and under Conor Casey, as an interim, they had started to get some results and were actually turning it around a bit. But I came in and spoke to the assistant coaches immediately and said, "These are my plans, these are my thoughts, but I don't want to inundate the team with a lot because they're actually starting to do okay and get some results."
And the feedback I got from the coaches was they're looking for something, they're starving for information. And so really the first day of training, we dove into the way that we want to play. And we had four days, and then we went and played a game against the Red Bulls.
Again, there we were fortunate to win 2-0. Even in that game, we saw little tiny snippets of what we worked on throughout the week. And just over time, the team has embraced everything that's been asked of them and the coordination and the understanding between them has grown to the point where we've become a decent team.
And really the basis of that is we have a lot of good players who're very unselfish and they just do what is asked of them and they've seen results. And now they've developed this identity where they know what we want to do offensively, what we want to do defensively, and they've really embraced it. And as a result, we've been able to get some decent results.
The Rapids don't spend a lot of money on players, yet here you are. And Sam Stejskal had a good story in The Athletic recently about how the Rapids have put this team together. What's the best way to describe that approach from your perspective and the role that you've had in that with the other members of the technical staff?
Well, I think [EVP and GM] Padraig Smith has done a really good job. And when he took charge of the team some years back, before I got here, he had a plan as to how he was going to hopefully start to turn the team over, and [for] the players who had long-term contracts, he had to figure out ways to write those out.
And so he's done a good job of being able to sign good MLS players who became available for whatever reason and started to put together a group of players that were good players that, as I said, for whatever reason became available. And as he started bringing good MLS players, he was trying to unload players and unload existing contracts, and all of that took time.
But in the meantime, I think he did a really good job of putting together a combination of some experienced MLS veterans and bringing along some youth players through the academy system. And so I came two years ago in the middle of that changeover happening, and we had some good players and some guys that moved on.
“I'm a huge Pep Guardiola fan, and Man City is very structured in what they do, and their positional discipline is absolutely fantastic. And because of their discipline, they create certain responses in the opponents, and that's the whole purpose of the structure is to try to unbalance teams and give yourself advantages in certain parts of the field.” — Robin Fraser
Sam Vines obviously really grew in that time period, and now he's gone to Belgium. And we're starting to have interest in our players overseas, which certainly speaks to their development. In terms of what I've been able to add is probably just my outlook in the game and how I think the game should look, and we try to play with a certain amount of structure.
I think people when they hear structure, they think soccer is this flowing game. It can't be all structured. Well, for me, I'm a huge Pep Guardiola fan, and Man City is very structured in what they do, and their positional discipline is absolutely fantastic. And because of their discipline, they create certain responses in the opponents, and that's the whole purpose of the structure is to try to unbalance teams and give yourself advantages in certain parts of the field.
And this team has done a really, really good job of embracing what's been asked of them. And I think for a lot of us that didn't grow up in structured play, we were all just good players and did our thing and over time we got into more and more structure and realized how that fit in. I think the same thing has happened here.
We have some talented players who have probably all been in varying levels of structure in their history, and now we have pretty specific roles and pretty specific requirements for each role. And the players have really embraced that. And as a result, I think all the players are getting better, the team has gotten better and it's been a really fun process taking this group. It's a really fun group because as I said, they're so unselfish.
And how would you describe that process of developing your coaching philosophy over the years? How did that come together? And I know sometimes people assume, "Oh, this guy played as a central defender his entire career. He's going to be all about defense as a coach," and that's not always a correct assumption.
Absolutely not. I mean, for me, the game is a big chess match, and that's what I like about it. It's the tactics, it's the X's and the O's, and what can you do to create advantages and defensively what can you do to negate some of what other teams do? And for me, that's the most fun.
I've always had a pretty specific outlook on the game that I think had snippets of structure, but over time it's been able to put it all together in a way that makes sense and a lot of the time that I spent with Greg. So Greg Vanney and I have been talking about soccer since, gosh, probably the second year, maybe the first year at LA Galaxy, when he was 21, I was 29.
We ended up living pretty close to each other. So we would ride to training to and from every day. And we just talked soccer all the time. We played next to each other for five years and we've just remained very, very close since. And I feel that through our experiences, we had similar thoughts—not exactly the same, but similar—and bounced a lot of ideas off each other.
And when we got back together in Toronto some years ago, we together were able to come up with ways that we think are really effective about attacking and defending. And I've certainly learned a lot from being with Greg, and I think that we share similar ideas, and we're different enough, but we're similar enough that a lot of what we do is quite similar, though not exactly the same.
And it's been a really fun process to go through that with Greg and watch both of us come up with what we think now the final product should look like. And then obviously being able to implement it together and then now doing it separately. We still talk all the time, and we still talk tactics.
“[Greg Vanney and I] took on coaching the Santa Anita Under-11 girls team … It was right at the end of 2000 … it was just validating a lot of the ideas that we were thinking and it didn't really matter what the level or the venue was. It was about trying to experiment and see if what we thought was right.” — Robin Fraser
I mean, obviously you and Vanney had a ton of success in Toronto. You've coached together for a long time. You recently beat his Galaxy team. He's had a big impact on the Galaxy as you've had on the Rapids. Is it true that in the '90s, when you and Vanney were still playing together, that you coached a girls soccer team together?
Yeah. So we had become very close to a woman who was the president of the Santa Anita Soccer Club and her youngest daughter who was nine years old, who was a good player. And we took on coaching the Santa Anita Under-11 girls team. And I feel like we did a lot of it together. It was right at the end of 2000, and I had a number of injuries and Greg was with the national team.
So I actually spent more time with them probably over that time period, but for maybe a year prior to that, we were doing it together. And again, it was honing your ideas, how you think the game should look. And it was not a great team at all, but by the end, I remember one day where they really put together this unbelievable game, moving the ball side to side, finding numerical advantages and attacking with speed.
And at the end of that game, we just sat back like, "Oh my God, I can't believe that this team just did that." And again, it was just validating a lot of the ideas that we were thinking and it didn't really matter what the level or the venue was. It was about trying to experiment and see if what we thought was right. A lot of it turned out to be very good.
Well, I hope the girls who were 11 years old and under on that team, I guess they're in their 30s now, understand that two of the best coaches in MLS today coached them back in the day, because I think that's an amazing story.
Yeah. It was really fun.
And you and Vanney were on the same staff at Chivas USA at one point. You were the head coach, he was the assistant. Later on it reversed. Was that weird for you guys to have that reversal of roles?
I don't think so. We are close enough and easygoing enough and supportive enough of each other, that it was a pretty easy transition going from Greg being the assistant to the head coach, though you see some differences, you see... And he was really, really involved at Chivas as well.
But when the buck stops with you, then you see a little more intensity, a little more bite, a little more than I had seen before, but not that it was ever an issue. And certainly I'm always a supporter of Greg, as he's always a supporter of me and whatever the roles were, we were just there to help each other.
After your head coaching tenure at Chivas USA, you spent a lot of years as an assistant coach in MLS with some good teams. Did you ever wonder if you were going to get another chance to be a head coach at some point?
I honestly didn't. After Chivas, I was so happy to be an assistant for a couple of years. And that whole experience scarred me for a bit. And then once I got back with Toronto, again, ideas started to grow and flourish and you start thinking about, "Well, maybe I will do this a little bit differently, do that a little bit differently."
The desire and the real yearning came back to be a head coach and, naively or not, I never really thought that it wouldn't happen again, but certainly you go through a number of interviews, and it doesn’t happen, and then you start to think, "Is this really in the cards for me?" And I never really lost faith, but I certainly started to have that desire more and more after having been with Toronto for almost five years.
“I had many interviews. I'm not sure how many of them were actually legitimate interviews, but at the end of the day, I used to say I would rather be the Black guy who's getting interviewed, whether it's legit or not, than the Black guy who is not getting interviewed … For me, it was an opportunity to work on delivering my thoughts and delivering how I would like to play and to present myself.” — Robin Fraser
We've talked a lot in this league about what to me is a pretty frankly shameful record of hiring American Black head coaches. And we've said that there still has not been a U.S.-born Black head coach in MLS history, which I think is a bit unfair to you. You're an American citizen who happened to be born in Jamaica. But what's your opinion of how the league has approached all of this over the years and in the present day now?
I think there have been efforts made, I think certain hiring requirements, you have to interview a minority. I certainly understand how some of that has gone and why that's been the case. And as a result, like I said, I had many interviews. I'm not sure how many of them were actually legitimate interviews, but at the end of the day, I used to say I would rather be the Black guy who's getting interviewed, whether it's legit or not, than the Black guy who is not getting interviewed.
The interview process for me is an interesting one because how you present yourself is certainly a big part of it and how you present your ideas is a big part of it. There were times when I didn't think interviews were really serious or legit, but for me, it was an opportunity to work on delivering my thoughts and delivering how I would like to play and to present myself.
And so for me, I didn't look at it as, "This is a complete waste of time." I looked at it as, "This is an opportunity to work on my presentation." And over the years, I think it's gotten better and better as my vision for the game has gotten clearer and clearer.. So I've certainly been someone who has benefited from this just in terms of being granted interviews.
What I do think, and I sincerely believe is that what needs to happen, is that people who are in the seats of those who are doing the hiring, they just need to really look beyond what is safe and comfortable and just expand searches. And you may find that there's a diamond in the rough somewhere that may not be exactly what you thought when you started the process.
The more open-minded you are and the more you're willing to actually look and truthfully look at candidates, I think a wider search will yield more minorities, because I think there are a lot of good coaches around the country and some are minority, some are not. But I think if people expand their searches, then I think it would be a beneficial thing.
Am I right, and I thought I read at one point a few years ago that you had started telling people doing the interviews that you wanted to be looked at as a real candidate. Did you ever get to a point where you were straight up with interviewers about stuff like that?
No, I never said that. I certainly, in my own mind, suspected some were not legitimate interviews. In fact, the last one I did before Colorado, I thought it was not a legitimate interview. And there were some things I found out prior to that and I didn't care. I felt like my vision for the game had really tightened and it was much clearer than it had been in years past.
And I wanted to do the interview because it gave me the opportunity to present it and I wanted to see how it came out. That's how I looked at it. I didn't take any of these really as sour grapes. I was happy to be in a position where I could present my thoughts and my ideas. I was never as brash as coming out and saying that.
But certainly some I thought were legit and some I didn't. And it didn't matter to me. I wanted to have the opportunity to get in front of somebody and present to them what I thought my vision was. And if they didn't want it, then so be it. But I knew it was making me better every time I had the opportunity to do it.
“Here we find ourselves in the spot where we are better than last year. We're certainly not perfect. We're certainly not saying we're the best in the league, but we're better than last year, which is the trajectory that we wanted to be on.” — Robin Fraser
What are you hoping to learn about your team in the weeks ahead?
It's a nonstop process, meaning you could probably ask me that question every single week. And what is happening, I mean, there are a couple of different things. I've seen this so many times now with teams that are rising. I saw it with Real Salt Lake, I saw it with Toronto, that you start to get some results, you start to become a decent team, but can you take the jump to become an elite team?
And there are certain benchmark games throughout each season that give you an idea that you're making progress. And the progress that teams make, I've never seen a team start at the bottom and go straight to the top. I've seen where you take five steps forward, two steps back, another five steps forward, two steps back. And I've been through it enough times now that I've seen it.
I feel like we've done some of that and every week it's a different challenge. And how do we respond? Last week it was a three-game week. Two very tough road games and then home against a rival. And it was a big testing week for us. And at the end of the day, at the last game of the week, we didn't play particularly well, but we were resilient and we found ways to hang in there and then produce some moments of quality and won the game.
So in the weeks ahead, it's can we sustain this level of concentration? Because at the end of the day, that's one of the biggest things for us, meaning we know our roles, we know the things we have to do. Can we concentrate as the games get tougher and tougher and against more and more difficult opponents? As you get closer to the playoffs, things just become more heightened and it's really, can we continue to grow? And can we continue to improve as a team? Those are the biggest things I'm looking for.
Toronto FC, where you spent a lot of years as an assistant coach, has an interim coach right now. Is that a job you would be interested in?
I mean, I have a contract here, and this is where my future is set to be for the next couple of years. Toronto is in a tough situation. They've obviously had a tough year so far, and we'll see how the interim coach does, but certainly my focus right now is this team. And it's no secret that I have a great affinity for Toronto the city and Toronto, TFC, the organization. They were absolutely fantastic to me. I really, really enjoyed my time there. But as I said, right now, my focus is this team.
And this gets a little bit into the question I had asked you before this, which was just what you're looking to learn from your team in the coming weeks. But you know this, you've experienced this. The playoffs in MLS are a bit of a different beast than the regular season. We see the standings right now, and there's Colorado with the third-best points per game in the league. Can you make a deep playoff run? Can you put yourself in a position to, who knows? Win this thing?
Well, that goes back to the question you were asking me, right? And for me, it goes back to the answer I gave, which is we are constantly learning about ourselves and what we're learning is, are we ready for that? Have we improved? Do we have enough confidence? Do we have enough discipline?
When we'd gotten to the playoffs last year and we went and played Minnesota, we had a number of chances early in the game. We didn't take them well and they were able to expose us a bit. There was a point in the second half we may have been down 2-0l at the time. I think we ended 3-0 and we still had a number of chances in the second half, but there was a point in the second half, late in the second half, where I really wasn't upset anymore.
I was just like, "We're just not ready." And I've seen it before. I've seen it with Real Salt Lake, I saw it with Toronto, teams that are in their ascendancy. They're rising, they're going from being a not great team to being a great team. But that is the process that you get to the playoffs, and sometimes you get in and you're ready and your team is completely ready.
And maybe you've made that jump early. But as I looked at that game in the middle of the second half, I just said, "We're just not quite ready yet. We have a lot of young players. They don't have a lot of playoff experience." As you said, it's a different animal. We had just played in Minnesota about three weeks prior to that, I think, and we had lost 2-1 on an own goal where we certainly played well and had a number of good chances.
We go back to the exact same venue. We started off the same, created a number of chances. But I think the occasion ended up being a little bit big for us. Minnesota had a few more experienced players, maybe, than we did and I just felt like we weren't ready. But I came out of it very, very encouraged thinking, "Next year is going to be better."
And again, this is just based on my history and the experience of the teams I've been with. So here we find ourselves in the spot where we are better than last year. We're certainly not perfect. We're certainly not saying we're the best in the league, but we're better than last year, which is the trajectory that we wanted to be on.
So as we approach the playoffs and we're still not in it, obviously, the first goal is to get into the playoffs. And the second goal is, in this time period, can we continue to build our confidence and our understanding and our discipline and our focus? Because these are the things that are going to be really tested if we get to the playoffs.
Robin Fraser's Colorado Rapids have the fourth-best record in MLS. Robin, congratulations on everything. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Grant, thank you so much for having me. It's been a long time. It's really good to see you and chat with you.
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