By Marco Cummings

To say the least, the 2014 season was a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows for the Colorado Rapids. Following the hiring of club legend Pablo Mastroeni as the team’s head coach, the club raced to an upper-mid table start, only to lose team captain Drew Moor for the season (ACL). They eventually tumbled out of playoff contention, as the club went winless in its final 14 games of the season.

The underlying problem certainly wasn’t an issue of talent. Colorado still had the likes of 2013 Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers and runner-up Deshorn Brown, as well as U.S. National Team hopefuls Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna on its roster.
While the Rapids’ cupboard may have been stocked with young talent, the team may have been lacking the veteran “glue” holding its parts together.

“Last year, our group demographic was a bit out of balance as far as youth to experienced players,” Mastroeni says. “On numerous occasions, our starting team was 23 years old. We were playing teams like L.A. and Seattle, where the average age was 29, 30, and 31. So when you cede seven to eight years of experience at the professional level, it takes a lot of things to go right in order to have a successful season.”

At the conclusion of the 2014 campaign, the Los Angeles Galaxy, a club where Mastroeni spent his final nine games as a player, took home its second MLS Cup of the past three seasons. Hardware aside, the Galaxy also had an important piece that the Rapids head coach thought could make his club better – a former teammate.

In 33-year-old Marcelo Sarvas, the Galaxy possessed a fluid and dynamic box-to-box midfielder, a true No. 10 and an integral piece to its championship teams.

It was the need for that kind of veteran that prompted Mastroeni and the Rapids front office to give the MLS Cup winners a call. After trading away allocation money and the third allocation ranking to L.A., the Rapids had acquired their man. Sarvas was headed to Colorado.

“When they finished winning the cup, we reached out to L.A. to see if it was even possible to grab him. I felt like he could be the centerpiece of everything we want to do here. I felt like he could be a piece that could speak volumes without having to say a whole lot,” Mastroeni recalls. “Marcelo is a winner. He takes the responsibility of winning on his shoulders. He’s willing to go the extra mile to make sure everything is right whether it’s having conversations with the coaching staff or the players. It’s something I had the opportunity to witness when I was in L.A.”

Now that Sarvas has landed in Colorado, the respect he and Mastroeni once shared as teammates has now evolved to one between player and coach.

“He’s always been a very good teammate,” Sarvas says, citing the days the two spent in L.A. “Every time we spoke about soccer, our ideas about the game matched.”

Now that the pair has reunited under a different crest, the dynamics of the relationship have changed, but the goal of winning remains the same.

“He’s my coach, so I have to respect him in a different way now.” Sarvas explains. “(The players) are open to hear new ideas and I hope he can find his way and his style of soccer. I see him as a person that has the will to win. That’s very important.”

The trade for Sarvas was just the tip of the iceberg in the Rapids’ larger strategy of bringing on proven MLS veterans this offseason, which has included the additions of midfielder Sam Cronin and defenders Michael Harrington and Bobby Burling.

“Players like Marcelo, Sam and Bobby are experienced leaders, but more importantly, they’re great people, as well,” says Mastroeni.

The intent is that these new faces will help set locker room examples for the Rapids’ current stable of young talent.

“We wanted to bring in guys you want the young guys to model themselves after –like Vicente Sanchez, Marc Burch, Nick LaBrocca or Drew Moor,” Mastroeni says. “These are experienced guys that now have other guys around them to help facilitate the overall mentality of the group.”

Sarvas refers to the Rapids’ second-year skipper as a “new generation” coach compared to Bruce Arena, the pair’s previous mentor in L.A.

“Bruce has done everything in this country. He’s been a successful college coach, a World Cup coach and has MLS championships. He’s a coach who already knows how to be a champion on every stage,” Sarvas says. “For Pablo, everything is new. I think Bruce is a model and a mirror for him, someone who he wants to follow down a successful path in his career. As a new coach, you are building your character, this is what makes you special and unique.”

Mastroeni may be open to new methods of training and new ideas when it comes to the game, but in regards to Sarvas, he isn’t looking to fix what isn’t broken.

“Marcelo is best in the middle of the field. His position in midfield is where he’s had the most success – especially in this league,” he says. “Watching his games in L.A., he was catalyst in what they did on both sides of the ball.”

As Sarvas explains: “I play my position how the game changes. Every game is different. I like to move around and help the forwards, but my first obligation is to defend.”

Coaching a player with Sarvas’ experience is simply easier on the coaching staff. Vets of his caliber are almost like having a coach on the field.

“You just kind of let them do their thing,” Maestroeni says. “There’s obviously a team tactic, but these guys figure out what the game needs in a certain moment.”

While Sarvas only managed three goals during the regular season last year, he was the engine of the Galaxy’s attack, tallying 11 assists in 28 games played. In the playoffs, he proved to be even more vital, recording two goals and two assists in five games, including the game winner in the first leg of the Western Conference Final against Seattle.

Making the most of key moments has been a common theme for Sarvas both on and off the pitch. In fact, his path to MLS came about much like his debut with the Rapids does now: At the recommendation of a friend.

In a CONCACAF Champions League match in September of 2011, Sarvas helped lead Costa Rican club L.D. Alajuelense to a 1-0 win over the L.A. Galaxy. Shortly after the win, fellow Brazilian and future Galaxy teammate Juninho introduced him to the coaching staff and members of the team’s front office. Months later, Sarvas was signed by L.A.

“Juninho was a friend throughout my three years with the Galaxy.” Sarvas says of the relationship. “We have a great relationship off the field and I consider him part of my family today.”

Faith and family are what’s most important to Sarvas outside of the game he calls a career; it’s a sport that most Brazilians follow and play as if it’s a religion in itself. When he’s not playing soccer, Marcelo Sarvas says his favorite activities include “anything” spent with his son and his wife, who is expecting a newborn daughter.

In late January, Sarvas left his family behind in L.A. to join the Rapids in preseason. It was that kind of dedication and sacrifice that impresses his new head coach the most.

“Everyone makes sacrifices, and that’s the kind of mentality we need here in Colorado,” Mastroeni says.

A new club, a new locale and a new chapter of his career aren’t the only unknown territories into which Sarvas embarks. With his signing, he becomes only the fifth Brazilian to wear a Colorado Rapids uniform.

Despite what Brazilian legend Pelé did to popularize the game of soccer in the United States during the 1970s, fewer than 100 Brazilians have played in Major League Soccer since its founding in 1996. In that sense, Sarvas also serves as a pioneer and ambassador of sorts.

“I feel happy to represent Brazil, if that is the word for it,” he expresses. “Today in MLS, there is a good level of players from everywhere, whether it’s Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica or Panama. You have players from all over the world and they’re all good players. From this point forward, there will be better players and the league will be better and better.”

It’s just one of the reasons Sarvas is grateful to still be a part of the growth of MLS.

As for the Rapids?

“The most important thing for me is my commitment to the club,” he says. “I expect big things for the upcoming season.”

Marcelo Sarvas’ departure from the L.A. Galaxy had many of its fans saying “Obrigado Marcelo” – meaning “Thank You, Marcelo” in his native tongue of Portuguese – following the announcement relaying the trade of the Brazilian to Colorado.

If the midfielder is able to muster the same kind of big-game performances in burgundy and white, Rapids fans will be saying those exact same words this season, for different reasons.

Obrigado Marcelo. Obrigado Marcelo.