Danny Wilson's Redemption Arc Personifies Keep Fighting And The Rapids Way
How Colorado's Scotsman in the Arena went from MLS Twitter punching bag to leader at the back to "going Scottish Salmon!?"
May 26, 2018. Colorado Rapids are hosting Portland Timbers. 29th minute. Samuel Armenteros tekkers a ball around his marker, who swings a foot unsuccessfully. The Portland striker goes on to score his first of two goals in a 3-2 win. Colorado loses their sixth in a row. MLS Twitter proceeds to share the video and make Golden Cone jokes about the defender.
May 8, 2021. Colorado are hosting Minnesota United. After going down 2-0 in the first half, it’s a tie game in the 82nd minute. Jack Price serves a cross into the box on a set piece. A player, almost instinctively, finds the pocket of space where the ball is going, rises up, and smashes it into the net. Colorado wins the game 3-2, as part of a four wins in five game stretch. Rapids Twitter goes full Simon Critchley insanity.
Two games almost three years apart. Both a microcosm of the state of the club at the time. Both plays a snapshot of the player involved.
In 2018, Danny Wilson symbolized the failings of the Rapids under Anthony Hudson. In 2021, he embodies what’s made Robin Fraser’s side competitive and compelling.
For three years, he’s swam upstream and kept fighting. He’s finally gotten his head above water. One poor performance or a tweet from some ginger in the press box ain’t stopping him now.
Rangers to Rapids: Experience meets opportunity
Wilson was brought in the offseason of Hudson’s appointment. Padraig Smith told me the club had been scouting Danny “for quite some time” prior to approaching him and his representation.
The Rangers academy product had returned to Ibrox for a three year stint from Heart of Midlothian. He wasn’t starting every game but he’d developed as a professional. His passing ability was evident.
At Hearts, he was named captain at just 21-years-old. They won promotion from the second division by 21 point, losing just three league games.
“I’d just come back from Liverpool where I hadn’t played much. I was thrust into a difficult situation. We’d gone into administration. The team had a 15-point dedication before the season started,” said Wilson.
“We went down. We came straight back up. We won the league ahead of Rangers and Hibernian. To win the league as captain is something I look back on very fondly of. It made me grow up as a player and a person.”
Smith and Hudson spoke several times with Danny before signing him. They pitched the project as a long term adventure outside his comfort zone.
“I wasn’t in a situation where I was desperate to leave Rangers. But when this opportunity came up, both from professional and personal point of view, it ticked a lot of boxes.”
In learning about these conversations, I was surprised to find out he expected the start to be so challenging.
“I was told at the time it wasn’t going to be straight into a successful period. There was going to be a lot of tough days to get through. That was proven to be correct. When I had the conversation, I was told it was going to be a two or three year process.”
Certainly Hudson wasn’t promising an eight game losing streak, so reality probably exceeded expectations. Still, Danny talked about this in a very matter of fact kind of way. He almost looks back on his rough first year in MLS with fondness, with Diego Simeone Cholismo energy.
*Insert Simeone quote about all success and joy beginning with suffering*
Fighting for playing time at a big club like Rangers and his time at Hearts had prepared him for what lied ahead.
Why 2018 “didn’t go well for anybody,” Wilson included:
“There was a lot of new faces. There was problems in terms of consistency of what we were trying to be as a team. One week, we would play one formation and one personnel. Then the next week it would be completely different,” said Wilson.
Outside of Jack Price as the No. 6, midfield roles and responsibilities were poorly defined and/or executed. That made it tough to build an attack up the pitch and they were too easy to play through. The wingbacks didn’t defend enough.
“There were so many things wrong, all at different times, some at the same time. There was a lot not quit clicking,” he added.
The back three of Wilson, Deklan Wynne, and Tommy Smith were hung out to dry. They made mistakes and looked really bad on plays that led to goals. None of them were great 1-v-1 defenders. Spacing and gap control were poor. Evident weaknesses were exposed and taken advantage of, regularly.
“It took me awhile for me to get acclimated, on the field as well. There were challenges there. The team wasn’t in a good place. We were in a transitional period. My performances weren’t where I expect them to be.”
Almost weekly, opposing forwards and attacking midfielders had highlight reels when they played Colorado. It was all too predictable. Being TAM signings, Wilson and Tommy Smith were roasted especially hard on social media.
Here’s some examples of what that looked like:
Danny and a hand full of others took a lot of flack that year. Did he play poorly? Yes. Did the circumstances put him in a position to be successful? Not really. When asked, Price was adamant that this was a team and system failure that ultimately made the backline look bad and at fault:
“You can’t pinpoint one person. Defensively, as a team we weren’t good. We were too easy to play through front to the back. From the outside, everyone looks at it and sees it a defender’s fault or a defensively mistake.”
Coming out of that year, changes needed to be made. Wilson and many others needed to play better. The system had to be altered for the betterment of the club. Ultimately, that required Hudson getting sacked.
Changing positions to better the team in 2019:
The Rapids succeeded in player acquisition going into 2019. Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio both scoring in double digits. Keegan Rosenberry stabilized the right back position.
Still the team struggled. Hudson deployed a 4-4-2 diamond system, still focusing on possession and playing out the back. The diamond wasn’t really a diamond.
The club got just two points from their opening nine games, leading to Hudson’s firing. Wilson played 90 minutes just twice up until that point. One of those was Hudson’s final game, a 1-0 pragmatic loss at Atlanta United.
Casey, a good locker room motivator, went to a 4-2-3-1 and simplified the game plan: Keep it clean at the back. Feed Kamara. Dominate set pieces on both ends of the field.
Abubakar and Smith struck up a good center back partnership. There was however a need for a stay-at-home midfielder who could pass well and plug gaps, allowing Price and Kellyn Acosta to galivant upfield to attack.
“There were times you’d start a game, then you’d get ‘oh you’re not a midfielder so you’re not going to play the next game,’ and then you’d end up playing there the game after. It’s tough to hear that as a player,” Wilson said.
He started 15 games that season, 11 of which were as a midfielder. His responsibilities were defined and limited relative to 2019. He did a job and helped the team get results. He even scored the winner against LAFC in June.
“I have a lot of respect [for midfielders] now that I’ve moved back [to center back]. If ever I was asked to do it again, I would gladly do the job again the best that I can. It’s just about helping the team.”
He played in seven of the final nine games of the year. The club went into Decision Day with an outside chance at the playoffs, ultimately missing out. Wilson did not sub off the bench that day, a 3-1 loss at LAFC.
The only thing consistent about his time in MLS has been change. In 2018, he played in the middle of a back three. In 2019, he played out of position. He’s been a center back ever since, but has played as both a left and right center back.
His position, the shape, and the players around him have varied as much as the weather in Colorado. He’s rolled with the punches. In doing, he earned the respect of people around the club including Robin Fraser, who was hired as permanent head coach in August 2019.
Padraig Smith: “It’s character. It’s mindset. It’s mentality.”
William Yarbrough: “They were rotating center backs pretty often [when I arrived at the club]. I know how tough it can be mentally. Being in this club, you have to have that in the back of your mind to never give up. He definitely has it.”
Price: “You might say it’s not as natural cause he’s played most of his career on the left side. He doesn’t look out of place on the right. He’s still picking out great passes.”
Wilson: “Came through it. I’m now in a better place. Still enjoying my football. I enjoyed it then even through the hard times. It was tough, but you just have to dig yourself out of it. I’ve managed to do that.”
Fraser: “He was a good player. He was a good passer. But defensively, was not quite where I thought he needed to be.”
Robin’s arrival sparks improvements despite 2020 chaos:
Fraser kept the team similar for the remainder of 2019, but fully implemented his vision in 2020. The team came out in a 4-3-3 on paper. They pressed at times. They were comfortable sitting back and being compact defensively.
In possession, they looked to create pressure traps and ping balls to players in space and open things up. Use ball movement and fluidity of shape to disorganize the opponent. Goals by committee. Set pieces.
Fraser’s style of play has taken the culture of the club’s past success and combined it with what they wanted to do under Hudson and with what worked under Casey.
With Tommy Smith’s departure, this opened a door for Wilson to get back into the Starting XI. His passing skills were still an asset, but he remained a defensive liability.
Abubakar and Drew Moor started the first two games of 2020, then COVID-19 suspended play. Wilson was sent off in the second half of the MLS is Back group stage match against Sporting KC, dooming the dark horse Rapids to an early exit.
Fraser worked with him throughout Phase I and II of the altered regular season. Confidence had to be built up. So too did tactical understanding. Fraser helped his team, and Danny individually, both privately and in the public sphere.
He ripped me harder than any player or coach I’ve ever interviewed when I suggested Danny shouldn’t have played because he got a red card at MiB. The soundbite of him saying “that’s an extremely naïve statement” in HTHL’s new intro is from his response.
“Danny had some tough times. Looking for reasons why he was not playing well. We had some good discussions about shoring up the defensive side of things and he made a concerted effort, really took steps forward last year. He was a meaningful contributor for us down the stretch,” said Fraser.
Despite all the hurdles 2020, Wilson made progress, Fraser described:
“Danny was just getting better and better last year in spite of the adversity. He just continued to move forward steadily. He had worked really hard at becoming a more consistent defender and at the same time getting better and better with the ball.”
In games at DSG without fans, he was regularly one of the loudest players on the field. He, Yarbrough, and Price organized the backline. Wilson’s leadership was on display. So too were his communication and improved defensive marking.
“His biggest contribution is how smart he is tactically. He’s very loud out there. Knowing I have Danny, who also sees what’s going on on the field and is also very vocal about it,” Yarbrough said about his communication and organizational skills.
“He understands what Robin asks of us, and he’s able to communicate that to others.”
As Fraser’s tactical nuances were being implemented, Wilson’s understanding and implementation of what the coaching staff wanted grew. He wasn’t just being a student of the game. He was leading the class project that was the back line.
“Danny has really taken a hold of what we’re asking not only of the center backs but also asking the team to do. What I’ve seen is as he’s getting more confident and what we want and in himself, the ability to communicate has gotten better,” said Fraser.
He played in half of the regular season games with Fraser rotating the squad due to fixture congestion. The club made the playoffs for the first time since 2016, losing in the first round to Minnesota United 3-0. Wilson played all 90 minutes in that match.
Confidence, personality, playing time, and the stats:
The 29-year-old has picked up where he left off in 2020. He’s played 90 minutes of all seven games so far in 2021. Auston Trusty has developed a good chemistry as a center back tandem.
Danny’s adamant that he didn’t do anything different or special in the offseason. He does believe he’s on his best run of form since joining the club. He is more confident. It’s evident to everyone I spoke to for this piece.
Wilson: “At times last season, I was playing well. At this moment in time, I’m doing [better]. The way we play allows me to express myself. I’ve defended fairly well and I’ve picked out some good passes.”
Price: “He’s looking a different player. He’s confident. He’s chucking himself in front of tackles. He knew his time would come and he’s took his chance. He’s been able to play a run of games. That’s been massive for him, getting that confidence. Defensively, he and Auston have a great partnership.”
Yarbrough: “When I saw Danny come back in [for preseason], he looked fit. I was pleasantly surprised to see where his mindset was at. That’s what’s showing on the field.”
Fraser: “What you’re seeing now is a great deal of confidence. He knows he’s a very good passer. He’s very confident in that. At the same time, he’s turned himself a very solid defender.”
Wilson’s had one of the best 18-month turnarounds I’ve seen a center back in MLS have. He’s outsmarting opposing forwards. He’s become an extension of Robin on the field. He’s Colorado’s MVP. Rabbi made the same argument last week.
The analytics back it up. Here’s his G+ courtesy of American Soccer Analysis:
As you can see from the right-most column, his G+ has gone up every season. These numbers aren’t normalized per 90 minutes, so they’re cumulative. His net benefit to the team so far this year has already surpassed last year’s.
His interrupting stats confirm the eye test and testimony above. His offensive numbers are up thanks to the set pieces, but that’s the one low hanging fruit for improvement.
It’s hard for many Rapids Fans to get the memories of his play from 2018 out of their heads. Danny’s not really Social Media and comes off as a private individual in interviews.
Scots can have a reputation for being dower and reserved. That couldn’t be further from the truth for Wilson. He’s a lot funnier and personable than you might think. Club officials have told me he’s one of the best human beings on the roster, no easy feat.
With COVID and his approach to Social Media, we don’t see that like with Price, Moor, Bassett, etc. Intentionally or not, his football has done the talking. It was hard to become endeared to him given his performances in his first year at the club.
He’s become a good player. He’s happy here. With his new contract, he’ll be here for a reasonable amount of time and isn’t costing the team TAM anymore. He told me he’s in the process of getting his green card. Danny Wilson as a domestic player on ~$300k in 2022 would make him one of the most valuable center backs in MLS.
The Scottish Salmon Explained:
For starters, Scottish Salmon isn’t his nickname. He likes salmon, but doesn’t eat it a lot. It refers to his headers, I think. It’s not 100% clear what exactly Price said or meant because of his Monner accent (which makes it better if you ask me).
“It’s the first time I’ve properly said it. Danny knows it being from Scotland, the fishing industry. It came out at the time. He rose like a salmon and headed it in. It was just a joke,” Price told me.
“I had a laugh about it. I’m not quite sure what [Price] said. I don’t think he said ‘gone Scottish Salmon.’ I always tell Pricey ‘you’re English and [English people] can’t understand you so what chance do I have?’” Wilson added.
“We were just having a laugh about it, saying ‘you’re like a salmon when you get up there. You just put it in the net place.’ That’s where that’s come from.”
Whatever Price meant, if Wilson keeps improving as a defender and a leader and he goes Scottish Salmon a few more times this year, he’ll be starting a home playoff game come October. If that happens, his redemption arc and Rapids journey will have come full circle.