Golden Gashi: Colorado’s international star scores goals galore and more

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This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Whether it’s the fast cars, exotic locales, finely tailored suits or deadly laser beams, a day in the life of Colorado Rapids forward Shkëlzen Gashi has all the workings of the latest James Bond film.

Deadly laser beams? Anyone who’s seen the goals from Gashi’s debut season in Colorado would be hard-pressed to find words that could more accurately describe the precision of his strikes. Whether it was the swerving free kick on the road at Vancouver, or the 40-yard bomb in Colorado’s playoff series against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Rapids’ Swiss-Albanian striker consistently made a case for the highlight reel in 2016.

Off the field, Gashi provides fans with a glimpse into the life of a big name European footballer. His social media feeds give a look into his jet-setting adventures, bespoke clothing, fine time pieces from his native Switzerland and clever banter – content which earned him Major League Soccer’s award for “Most Social Player.”

How did the Rapids land this international man of intrigue? It was part luck, perhaps a little bit of fate and a lot of hard selling from Rapids sporting director Padraig Smith and head coach Pablo Mastroeni.

“I think coaches are salesmen,” Mastroeni smirks. “You have to sell a philosophy. You have to sell a lot of things.”

It was a hard sell. Following the Rapids’ bottom of the table finishes in back-to-back campaigns in 2014 and ’15, Colorado was looking for instant improvement to achieve a club-wide goal of returning to the playoffs. The plan to rebuild required the recruitment of top-tier players.

Gashi fit the bill. The 27-year-old was a winner of the Swiss Super League’s Golden Boot (most goals scored) over his last two seasons playing for FC Basel – a perennial representative of the Swiss League in UEFA Champions League.

His quality didn’t stop at the club level, either. The son of Kosovar Albanian-Swiss immigrants, Gashi represented the country of his birth internationally at the youth levels, before moving to represent the Albanian National Team at the senior level.

In the offseason, persistent media rumors linked Colorado with Mexican internationals Carlos Vela and Alan Pulido. But behind closed doors, the Rapids recruitment efforts had already begun with Gashi.

“We were actually involved in a lot of different negotiations simultaneously,” Smith recalls. “You can’t go down a road where you’re only targeting one player, because if you fail at recruiting that player, it’s very difficult to transition and get another. Signing players of that level and that caliber is tricky. It’s not an easy thing to do. We did a lot of groundwork, a lot of background check and our due diligence on these players. In the end, we ended up with Gashi, which is something we’re very happy with.”

For Gashi, the phone call was unexpected.

“[Smith] called me and said, ‘Gashi, can you please come to help the team.’ It was so funny because I didn’t think the call would come from these guys,” he recalls.

Before that phone call, Gashi knew little about Colorado other than what he saw on the television show “South Park.” But he also recalled a moment he now looks at as destiny reaching out to him.

Several months prior, a friend had visited a World Cup event, not the more famed World Cup that is synonymous with the sport of soccer, but the International Ski Federation (FIS) Alpine World Cup, which Colorado’s ski resorts often host. As a souvenir, the friend brought back a Denver Broncos hat with Gashi’s name and No. 11 printed on it. As he mulled over his decision to move to Colorado, the hat served as talisman – a sign from the soccer gods that he was about to make the right decision.

“I don’t know how many weeks or months passed, but I kept looking at that Broncos cap. I said, ‘Yeah! This is destiny!’” he recalls.

But it would take more than just a hat to put the seal on a major career decision. Gashi did his homework on Colorado, the Rapids and their coach before getting on the phone with Mastroeni.

In that subsequent phone call, Mastroeni was a straight shooter, acknowledging the failures of the past and requiring a full commitment from every new player coming in, as part of his plan in turning the Rapids’ fortunes for the better.

“There was no BS’ing,” explains Mastroeni. “It was very transparent. I said, ‘This is going to take a lot of effort for you to come over. It may not be the best situation for you as far as coming into a situation where there’s been a lot of disappointments.’”

The head coach then laid out his ground rules.

“I need hard work every day. There are no freebies here,” Mastroeni explains. “He said to me: ‘Coach I want to work very hard and I want to build something. I want to be there, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make this team win.’”

Mastroeni’s need for hard work wasn’t a tall order for Gashi. It was simply a continuation of the dedication he’d shown since childhood. Gashi started his soccer career like many Europeans, playing in a youth academy system for his hometown club, FC Zurich.

“It was my dream and I’ve worked a lot for this dream,” Gashi remembers. “When I was young, my friends would go do other things and I had to tell them I’d rather stay home. If they were at the cinema, I would be at home because the next day I’d have a game. This was not easy, but for me it was always what I wanted to be – a professional football player. Now I’m happy that I can enjoy this beautiful job.”

In Europe, MLS is still often viewed as the place where the best players’ careers go to die.

“Everybody that watched me asked why Gashi would move to MLS, because they thought I could move to England, Italy, Spain or Germany,” he says. “I also had offers in those places.”

Whether indicative of the league’s trend towards signing younger international stars in their prime, or simply a reflection of Gashi’s individualistic style and flair, the Albanian shirked the preconceived notion that American soccer is a lesser counterpart to the various iterations of the sport worldwide.

“I wanted to go to America, because I like this country,” he explains. “Now other players say, ‘Wow!’ and want to go to MLS also, because they see how great it is. You see that everything they do is so professional, the stadiums, the fans, it’s great. The fans here love soccer and they fly the flag together.”

While the sport was second nature to the 28-year-old, adapting to life in a new country was not. In his first meeting with local media, Gashi was much different from the relaxed, fun-loving, joke-cracking man his teammates now encounter on a day-to-day basis. During those first days, his demeanor was part steely-eyed professional mixed with a little bit of the jitters one would experience on the first day at a new school.

“In the first two months after I came here, everything was new,” he says of those first days in Commerce City. “You need to be constrained because it’s a new country for you. But all the people around me, they helped me a lot, so that made it easy.”

Outsiders no doubt see his meticulous nature come through when observe his precisely groomed hairstyle, finely tailored clothing and offseason yacht trips to Dubai. But maintaining a serious face was no doubt a challenge for Gashi, a player who’s otherwise known for his jokes and pranks inside the locker room.

Perhaps his best hijinks occurred while on national team duty, when he pranked teammate Taulant Xhaka with a Halloween mask and gave the fellow Albanian the scare of his life.

“I don’t want to try that here [in Colorado], because maybe someone might have a heart attack and we won’t have him for the next game,” Gashi laughs.

His teammates are no doubt keeping on their toes, but his bright outlook on life has been otherwise welcome since coming to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

“I love Gashi, he’s a really funny guy,” says Rapids striker Kevin Doyle. “He takes things serious and sometimes there’s some miscommunication, but we get along very well and he’s a very nice guy. He’s quirky and different and I like that. He’s always joking and always has got a smile on his face.”

The Rapids locker room was a welcoming environment from the start, but like all foreign players moving to MLS, Gashi was faced with the league’s unique challenges, such as climate and long-distance travel. He also experienced one unique to Colorado: Altitude.

Even after acclimating to playing at elevation and in widely varying weather, Gashi also had to adjust his game to the more physical style of play in MLS.

The challenges were welcomed by Gashi and provided validation that he had chosen a competitive destination in which to showcase his abilities.

“It was hard when I first came here because the players are very physical,” he explains. “In the preseason, there’s also a lot of running, so I said ‘This is good.’ The players are hungry to win something. They will go and they will fight; it’s intense. They have a good mentality.”

Colorado took that hard-nosed mentality into the regular season, slowly building and defying expectations in the team’s first four games, defeating MLS favorites LA Galaxy and Toronto FC along the way. By the team’s sixth game of the season, Gashi too had finally found his rhythm, scoring his first MLS goal in a 2-1 road win against Sporting KC.

“In the beginning, I told myself, the first thing you need to do is to give a good performance on the pitch,” he says. “When you have good performances, it makes things easy. I came here with the focus on hard work and that we would win multiple games. After that, it was easier for me to integrate.”

That early part of the season wasn’t all smooth sailing. Controversy erupted among fans when they witnessed Gashi and Jermaine Jones argue over who would take a penalty kick in Colorado’s eighth game of the 2016 season against the Seattle Sounders.

Both players had self-serving reasons to want the spot-kick; Gashi aspired to put his name in the running for the team’s Golden Boot, while Jones, in his second appearance for the Rapids, hoped to bag a goal for each of his twin sons on their birthday. Ultimately, Gashi took (and missed) the kick. But by the end of the match – a 3-1 win – all wounds were healed.

It’s perhaps indicative of the type of relationship Jones and Gashi shared; one which Jones described as “like brothers.” Squabbles were going to happen. Penalty kicks aside, Jones and Gashi got along from the start, sharing the common tongue of the German language and love for intense competition.

“I helped Jermaine a lot; because it was his first time in Colorado he didn’t know a lot of people here, and his English was not so good.” Gashi jokes.

The reality was that once Jones arrived, Gashi found even more comfort in having a teammate who shared similar playing experiences, as well as a similar transition phase when moving to MLS a couple of seasons prior.

“Jermaine was good,” Gashi explains. “He shared my mentality of coming from Europe, playing good games at an international level and in the Champions League. When we saw each other for the first time, getting along was so easy.”

Following the Seattle game, Gashi would go on to start six more games for the Rapids while splitting time with the Albanian National Team; simultaneously, his Colorado Rapids were in the midst of a 15-game unbeaten run.

July proved to be trying, however. Jones suffered an LCL tear which nearly ripped the ligament from the bone. Later that month, the Rapids would see their worst loss of the season, falling 5-1 on the road at Yankee Stadium to NYCFC.

With Jones out for an unforeseeable future, and the Rapids falling back from a high brought on by a historic run, the locker room needed to dig deep for leadership and standout performances.

Gashi was up to the challenge.

From August to October, the Albanian chipped in six of his team-high nine goals for the season, including a brace against Vancouver which included a physics-defying swerving free kick that was eventually chosen as MLS Goal of the Year for 2016.  The Rapids only lost one game in which Gashi was able to find the back of the net, and Colorado had accomplished its preseason goal – a playoff berth that secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

“He was probably our most dynamic player in the attack and his link play was very good,” praises Mastroeni. “There were times in the season when it was a bit long with the travel and all that; there’s definitely an acclimation phase. But I think he got over the hump and finished the season the right way.”

Gashi carried the momentum into the postseason. With the Rapids down 1-0 on aggregate in their opening playoff series against the Galaxy, the team needed a big goal in the series’ return to Colorado and the striker delivered.

In the 39th minute, he ripped a 40-yard missile which pinged off the crossbar and into LA’s net. The goal against Vancouver may have been Goal of the Year, but this one was a “shot in a million” as announced live by ESPN’s Jon Champion.

That goal pushed the series to penalties and with Tim Howard in net, the Rapids survived, advancing to their first Western Conference Championship since winning the MLS Cup in 2010.

But Colorado would enter its next series riddled with injuries. The LA series left Gashi hobbled with an ankle injury, and the Rapids would also be without Tim Howard, who suffered a season-ending groin injury while on duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team. In the ensuing Western Conference Championship, the Rapids fell to eventual MLS Cup winners Seattle, marking a disappointing end to Colorado’s 2016 season.

“The end was not so happy, but it was a great year,” reflects Gashi. “I came here to help the team and the goal was to make the playoffs. I was so proud of my first year here.”

Regardless, Shkëlzen Gashi’s debut season for the Rapids in MLS can still be graded as a success. He earned both team and league awards for Goal of the Year and bagged another Golden Boot award as the Rapids’ leading scorer in his first year with the club. He also quickly became a fan favorite in Colorado, and was chosen as such at the team’s end of season awards dinner.

He’s quick to deflect the credit.

“I’m very proud of my first year, but without teammates you can’t do anything,” Gashi says. “It’s easy to say that, but it’s true. We had the right people here to make it a good year.”

The next step? Turning the hard work and on-field successes to silverware in 2017.

“It was a great year, but the end was hard on my heart. But this is football. If we do better, we’ll have our trophy because last year we were in a semifinal. But this year is a new team with new teammates. First, we have to get the first two or three steps out of the way and make the playoffs again.”

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