Being tasked with taking over for a close, personal friend who has just been fired by the club they worked at together is what Steve Cooke was given. He was trusted enough by the current front office of the Rapids to be the caretaker of Pablo Mastroeni’s team and try to reverse the trend and the path the squad had been traveling for the remainder of 2017.
Looking back, this wasn’t an easy endeavor for Steve, who had been by Mastroeni’s side for the duration of his time as manager of the Rapids. He acknowledged their first conversation had nothing to do with soccer or the club, but rather two friends relating on a personal level. “Initially I spoke to him immediately. I then called him a day later not anything about soccer, only about how are you doing, how’s your family, how’s your mom and dad taking it, are you alright? We didn’t talk about soccer or the club.”
However, Cooke knew he had to rally the players and get them back to trusting each other, as well as themselves, if there was to be any positives taken away from the end of the campaign. He admitted that he didn’t seek his predecessor’s advice going forward, instead choosing to go the route he thought was best for this group of players in this particular season.
“In terms of asking (Mastroeni) his advice as to how I should go forward, no I never asked that question or none of it was offered either. There was no need. We’re different people, we have different styles of playing that we prefer, we were a great balance for each other in our roles.”
“My position then was to turn to Conor (Casey), to Danny (Stone), to Chris Sharpe and say what do you guys think?” said Cooke, belying his mantra of having others involved and utilizing the staff as a whole rather than a dictatorship. “Me being in that leadership role asking others for their opinions as opposed to going outside the organization. It was really leaning on these guys inside the group.”
“You’re taking over for a good friend so it was a different dynamic,” Cooke acknowledged as he stepped into the Head Coaching role from lead Assistant. “My goal at the time, because I felt that as a playing group we were very lacking in confidence, we needed to raise the spirits of the group, raise the confidence level of the players.”
That began with adjusting how the Rapids ran through training sessions in order to shake things up, realize the situation needed changing, and coming together as a unit going forward. “They weren’t really training in the way I wanted in the intensity, the pace, the length of time, the thinking about the game as well. Once we implemented that I felt like it was my group at that point.”
“Doing that through engaging training sessions, the way we work with players, giving them a reason to take personal pride in themselves, and really making certain everybody was pulling in the same direction.”
“Some of that took more time than we would’ve wanted,” Cooke bluntly admitted to The Voice of C38. “Part of that was some relatively poor choices of mine in the initial couple of weeks-being way too respectful of Pablo and his role with the group and his way of working. It took me too long. That’s my responsibility.”
However, after seeing the team battle for much of the match on their last trip to Salt Lake City in August, only to see the scoreline balloon against them in the final minutes, Cooke realized the time for action was then. “Right after the Salt Lake game I said, ‘enough is enough. It’s going to be the way I want it to go and that’s how we’re going to go’: Pace going forward, high energy, let’s make certain we’re intense enough to cope with it. That takes time. The last 7(and 8) games it is more of a group that I put out there.”
Rapids fans can see the difference in the way Cooke’s team played on the field even if results didn’t begin going their way immediately. “I believe we’ve started something here in the last eight weeks that has been really positive. People can notice a change in how energetic it is and a bit more attacking-focused, high tempo, a bit more paced to what we’re doing.”
“What you’ll definitely see is that the players generally feel invested because you can see that effort, that commitment, the investment the players have made and that doesn’t happen by accident. It becomes that way because it is a way of working they feel highly invested and connected in the organization and what they are working towards.”
That has also begun to show in the results as the Rapids have gone 3W-3L-2D since the coaching change in mid-August, and Steve says that is the most telling think about the talent and resolve of this group of players regardless of who’s in a suit coat on the bench. “I’m proud of a group of people who could have been given every single reason in the world not to continue to work at a high level. They have all taken those levels even higher. What am I most proud of?……..that is probably it.”