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

Who knew that so many umlauts and z’s could ever dot the pages of a local sports publication? This is Colorado, home of sports figures with surnames like Manning and Miller, Harris and Nelson, Blackmon and Chatwood, Johnson and Winchester.

Sure, sports in America have a more international feel than they used to – and that’s a great thing. Look no further than Chopper or Blake to find plenty of examples: Gallinari, Jokic, Mudiay, Varlamov, Landeskog, Grigorenko, Gonzalez and De La Rosa.

But the game of soccer is on an entirely different level. There are no borders. There’s no such thing as “the norm” when it comes to the talent pool. From the Rapids and the Switchbacks, to locally-born players who have gone on to play abroad, Colorado has hundreds – maybe thousands – of global touch points.

And while this issue is most likely read right here in the Centennial State, its contents were sourced all over the planet. It’s the international feel that brings intrigue – perhaps mystery to the season that lies ahead.

Through social media and the Internet, Planet Earth is indisputably shrinking. Ironically, the World’s Game just keeps getting bigger.

As the game expands here stateside, the Rapids have expanded their reach for players they believe will return them to the MLS playoffs after two disappointing years at or near the bottom of the standings.

Their backgrounds span the globe, just like the game. Now their task is to get the Rapids back atop of America’s top league.


Kevin Doyle

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Colorado RapidsWhen the Rapids needed a boost to their scoring, they looked to the boot of Kevin Doyle. Colorado signed the Irish Premier League forward midway through the 2015 campaign as their third ever Designated Player. Doyle delivered as hoped, helping the Rapids to seven wins during the last half of the season after the club earned just two in the first half. Doyle finished with a team-high five goals, four of which were game-winning scores, earning the team’s Golden Boot award in the process.

Doyle’s professional career began in 2001 with St. Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin. Over the years has Doyle played for the Republic of Ireland internationally and worked his way through the League of Ireland Premier Division. Doyle played for Cork City, Reading and Wolverhampton, winning numerous awards before signing with the Colorado Rapids.

When presented with the opportunity to move to Colorado, the 32-year-old was initially hesitant to uproot his wife, who was pregnant at the time with their second child. One visit to Denver and the team’s facilities convinced him otherwise. He signed with the Rapids on March 20, 2015 and even worked out an early settlement to his old contract so he could make the move earlier.

“Everyone here was quite adamant: Just come out here and have a look. I did and I really loved the place. I knew my wife and kids would, as well.” – Kevin Doyle


Shkëlzen Gashi

gashiThe Rapids described forward Shkëlzen Gashi as their number one attacking target during this offseason. A quick look at the 27-year-old Albanian’s statistics provides evidence as to why.

Gashi scored 19 goals for Grasshopper Club Zurich in the 2013-14 season and 22 goals in 31 appearances for FC Basel in 2014-15. He was the 2014 Swiss Player of the Year and has won back-to-back Golden Boot awards for scoring the most goals in the Swiss Super League for the past two seasons.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland to refugee parents originally from Kosovo, Gashi made his professional debut in 2007 and has since played his way up through the Swiss leagues.

Gashi joins Kevin Doyle as Colorado’s second Designated Player as the team continues to invest heavily in offense.

“I think it’s great for us. Good for the league, but more importantly for us it’s really good. He is, from what I’ve seen, a really good player. He’s been a top player in Switzerland. It’s just nice that we’re able to attract that type of player. I hope he can keep it up.” – Kevin Doyle 


Marco Pappa

Pappa Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders FCThe Rapids were looking to add an element of creativity following the loss of veteran midfielder Vicente Sanchez; they found it in Marco Pappa.

The Guatemalan joined his first professional soccer club at the young age of 16, making his professional debut two years later for CSD Municipal in 2006. It didn’t take long for him to get snatched up by Major League Soccer when, just a year later, he made several appearances on loan from Municipal for the Chicago Fire. Pappa joined the Fire full time in 2009 and, aside from a year-plus European stint beginning in 2012, has played in MLS ever since.

During his time with Chicago, Pappa earned the Golden Boot award once and become only the fifth player in team history to record a hat trick. After returning from Europe, Pappa played for the Seattle Sounders FC where he would earn Premios Univision Deportes’ MLS Player of the Year Award and’s 2014 Latino del Año award.

Pappa will look to gel with a brand new attack as the Colorado Rapids look for a fresh start in 2016.

“I think one of my first starts for the Rapids was in Seattle and he scored. So I’ve seen what he can do. He’s got all the ability.” – Kevin Doyle

Sean St. Ledger

St. Ledger Houston Dynamo at Colorado RapidsSoon after signing Irish defender Sean St. Ledger late in the 2015 season the Rapids rattled off three consecutive wins. If there was any question as to whether it was a smart move, it was answered during the 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo where St. Ledger connected with teammate, and fellow Irish National Team veteran, Kevin Doyle twice for scores.

St. Ledger’s extensive professional experience began in 2002 with Peterborough United, where he played for four seasons before transferring to Preston North End Football Club for the next five. By the time the Rapids acquired St. Ledger, he had played in 190 professional matches in England, made 30 appearances for the Irish National Team and played 15 matches for Orlando City SC.

Now, with half a season in Commerce City under his belt, and having reestablished his chemistry with Doyle, Colorado has high expectations for St. Ledger in 2016.

“Coming here, I knew it was a big country, but I probably didn’t realize how big it was and how much the traveling takes its toll on your body.” – Sean St. Ledger


Luis Solignac

While the Rapids patiently awaited the arrival of Kevin Doyle last season, they were not content to wait for the Designated Player to add more scoring potential. Argentinian forward Luis Solignac was signed in May and expected to add firepower on the Colorado front end.

Solignac made his Major League Soccer debut in a 1-0 win at home over Vancouver White Caps FC. He appeared in 15 games for the Rapids lending his offensive acumen to his teammates managing two assists.

The Argentine is no stranger to international play; his career has led him to Portugal, Sweden, Finland and now the United States. He scored 23 goals in 47 matches for his Finnish team and two goals in 10 games for Nueva-Chicago in Argentina before getting joining the Rapids.

Solignac was born to a large family living in village just outside Buenos Aires and though he is an experienced international player, the decision to leave his family again was a difficult one. In the end though, he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play in MLS.

“I always played with Brazilians, and [players] from U.S. also, but it never happened to me – to go abroad and play with Argentinean players or Uruguayan players. So it’s a really good help to me to have them here.” – Luis Solignac


Axel Sjöberg

At 6-foot-7, Swedish defender Axel Sjöberg was quite literally a big addition to the Colorado Rapids 2015 rookie class. Along with 6-foot-5 defender Bobby Burling, Sjöberg gives the Rapids the tallest central defending duo in MLS history.

Acquired on January 15, 2015 as the 14th overall pick of the MLS SuperDraft, Sjöberg became the only rookie of his class to play more than 1,000 minutes for the Rapids. He started 14 games of 34 games and didn’t hesitate to leverage his size and strength against the best players in the league.

Sjöberg’s size set him apart in the Swedish youth leagues before moving to the U.S. to play for Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2011. He played four seasons with Marquette and was named to the All-Big East first team and won Marquette’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2014. Sjöberg’s aggressive, physical play caught the attention of the referees a bit too often in his rookie campaign, something he’s been working to improve in 2016.

“I absolutely love Colorado as a state and Denver as a city and I love this team and the people here, so I couldn’t be happier.” – Axel Sjöberg


Dominique Badji

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Colorado RapidsDominique Badji’s path to Major League Soccer was a long and winding one. He was born in Senegal, then moved to Tanzania at age six, then Zimbabwe at 11 until finally moving to the U.S. at age 16 with a guardian. He then attended a boarding school in Virginia and went on to play for Boston University.

Badji balanced athletics, school and a job and still managed to graduate a semester early while leading BU to their first conference championship since 2009, earning Offensive Player of the Year during his final season. All that effort culminated in the Colorado Rapids acquiring him as the 67th pick in the MLS SuperDraft.

The young forward was impressive during the 2015 preseason, scoring goals against UNLV and Sporting Kansas City, earning him a spot on the Rapids roster. Badji opened the 2015 regular season with a bang, scoring the Rapids’ first goal of the year in a 4-0 win over FC Dallas.

Badji is primed to have a productive year in 2016 with a revamped Rapids attack full of veterans and explosive young players.

“I left my mom when I was pretty young and she’s had to sacrifice a lot, having me and my dad and my little brother leave her, and she told me to never forget where I came from and not to forget about her or my family, my upbringing, my roots and all the morals she instilled in me.” – Dominique Badji


Mekeil Williams

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Even with the 2016 preseason underway, the Rapids continued to strengthen their backline by acquiring 25-year-old Trinidadian defender Mekeil Williams from Guatemalan side Antigua GFC.

Williams was born in Port-of-Spain and started his career in 2009 playing for Trinidadian clubs Ma Pau and W Connection. He quickly took his career overseas by joining Polish club Pogon Szczecin on loan. Williams spent the next season playing for Danish club FC Fyn before returning to W Connection in 2013.

Williams has also been a regular starter on the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago national team since 2012. During last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup he started every match and completed a very impressive 80 percent of his passes.

Williams now joins fellow international players Axel Sjöberg and Sean St. Ledger on the backline. The mixture of youth and experience now present on the Rapids defense should be fun to watch.

“My father always wanted to play football and never had the chance, so I try to live his dream through me.” – Mekeil Williams


Micheal Azira

The Rapids looked to add some defensive strength when they acquired 28-year-old Ugandan midfielder Micheal Azira off the 2015 Waiver Draft in December. The former Seattle Sounders player has 30 Major League Soccer appearances in two seasons and is mostly known for his ability to defend skilled ball carriers.

Azira’s career, like his life, is a study in blue-collar work ethic and persistence. Growing up in Kampala, Uganda, he spent his childhood playing soccer in the streets with a ball made of plastic bags. As a teenager, he played for his hometown team, SC Villa, and his experience traveling for the club inspired him to make the move overseas.

At 19 Azira made the move to the U.S. and played for three years at Lindsey Wilson College where he helped the team earn a NAIA championship. After spending his senior year at the University of Mobile, he entered the United Soccer League combine where Charleston Battery picked him up. Azira put in two years of work with the Battery before the Seattle Sounders acquired him.

Now 28, and with two seasons of MLS experience under his belt, Azira brings a welcome toughness and strong work ethic to the Colorado defense in 2016.

“My parents would only just pay for your school, then you get a pair of shoes and then a uniform and two sets of clothes. That’s it. You have to find a way to buy your own boots. Mom or dad couldn’t give you money.” – Micheal Azira

*Doug Ottewill, Casey Light and Robert Kemp contributed to this story.