Pádraig Smith made the journey from the banks of the River Boyne, in County Meath, to the Mile High city of Denver, Colorado in 2015, first as the Sporting Director of the city’s Major League Soccer (MLS) club, the Colorado Rapids, before earning a promotion to the dual roles of General Manager and Executive Vice President of the franchise.
Raised in the small town of Morningstone, Smith told the Irish Echo that he was, “the eldest of six kids, I've got four brothers and a sister. So yeah, big, big family, big sporting family. I played everything from football to Gaelic, the only thing I think I didn't play was hurling. I played rugby, played tennis, played golf, played everything growing up I mean, obviously I'm from County Meath, Mornington is just the right side of the Boyne River, is the way I describe it, so Morningstone is not exactly a hurling stronghold.”
Extended highlights from over the weekend, where we earned a point at home and held the reigning MLS Cup champs to a season-low for shots on target 💪April 5, 2023
Still, despite that love of sport Smith gravitated to the financial world, first studying business at Dublin City University before moving into the professional ranks with Ernst & Young, working as an Audit Supervisor.
“The fact that we're part of the largest, I believe it's the largest, privately held sports group in the world is just incredible."
After five years with Ernst and Young Smith was very receptive when an opportunity to put his finance expertise to use in a sporting context arose with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), when the organization was looking to hire a financial compliance officer.
Smith explains, “they wanted to really get a handle on club finances in Ireland. They wanted to introduce a salary cap, solving cost protocol, which was going to limit what clubs could spend on player salaries to a percentage of their revenue. They needed someone to come in and really kind of flesh that out. So I went in and did that.”
Smith called the experience “phenomenal,” recalling he “got to travel the length and breadth of the country meeting with all the teams, looking from a due diligence perspective of what was going on, and how they were being run, implementing the salary Cost protocol.”
Working at the FAI led to a position with UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) where Smith was heavily involved with club licensing and the big ticket item of Financial Fair Play. Smith served on a six person steering committee for the implementation of Financial Fair Play with members from England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
While at UEFA, Smith met Tim Finchey, then the VP of Commercial Affairs for Derby FC and the two became friends. When Hinchey moved to the Rapids, first as Chief Marketing Officer before moving up to the President of the team, he tapped Smith to do some analytics work for the Rapids.
Smith told the Irish Echo that, “I'd been doing some work myself on analytics and looking at the use of analytics in soccer/football. It was obviously very, very early on in that kind of data revolution in soccer, it was much more prevalent in baseball.”
“I’m a big baseball fan myself, I follow the Red Sox,” Smith said, “having spent a summer in Cape Cod playing soccer over there.”
Hot dog, loaded fries and a beer at Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) 🇺🇸
💵 $40 (£32.50) pic.twitter.com/HX1EJzHlbV— Footy Scran (@FootyScran) April 2, 2023
Hinchey knew of his friend's work with analytics and given the peculiarities of Major League Soccer’s rules on roster construction, with the salary cap, designated players, and host of other rules unfamiliar across much of the soccer world, he asked Smith to review how the Rapids were going about their business.
Before long Smith joined the Colorado franchise as Sporting Director. Smith felt that his talents lined up with the Rapids job.
“Sporting Director was really looking at salary cap management and the use of analytics in football, and also looking at how we went about scaling, recruiting players and looking for real value in the market.”
The move to Colorado also fulfilled a long held ambition for Smith. “It was something I was very keen on, I'd been over in the U.S. from a very early age, my dad was CEO of an engineering company back in Ireland that had a plant in upstate New York, and I came over with him when I was very young, came over again with my parents in 94, when the World Cup was here, so I'd always wanted to work in the U.S.”
Smith also points to his work with the FA and UEFA as having set him up well for the challenges he currently faces with the Rapids.
“UEFA in particular, obviously, where I got to travel and kind of see the operations of some of the biggest clubs in the world. I spent a lot of time at Man City, a lot of time at Red Bull Salzburg, spent time at Real Madrid, Juventus, you know, really the biggest clubs in the world. And I also spent a lot of time at some smaller clubs who were doing really, really interesting things. And that was how I began to put together my thoughts around how best to organize and run a club.”
By January 2018 Smith had stepped up to Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Colorado Rapids, one of the 10 teams to compete in Major League Soccer right from the league’s kickoff in 1996 and MLS Cup Champions in 2010.
Smith’s ultimate boss is controversial multi-sport titan Stan Kroenke, whose Kroenke Sports and Entertainment also owns Arsenal F.C. of the Premier League, the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, Denver Nuggets of the NBA, Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, along with teams in other sports.
I asked Smith about working for Kroenke and the Meath man was keen to emphasize the reach of the organization.
“It's phenomenal for us,” Smith began. “The fact that we're part of the largest, I believe it's the largest, privately held sports group in the world is just incredible. And you know this morning I had a conversation with Kevin Demoff, who's the president of the Rams. Tomorrow morning I'm chatting with Vinai (Venkatesham), the Managing Director at Arsenal.” Smith also mentioned the fellow Colorado franchises, defending Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche, and the NBA Western Conference leading Denver Nuggets as resources.
Smith cites “the ability to connect with these people and to harness the skill sets within our organizations, it’s just incredible. It's unrivaled globally, and that's something that’s incredibly exciting for me to just be able to tap into these other folks and kind of learn and listen and share ideas and thoughts, and ultimately, help make us all better.”
The highpoint of Smith’s tenure has been the 2021 season, which saw the side win the Western Conference regular season title, although the Rapids were eliminated in the Conference semifinals.
The Rapids were unable to follow up on the success of the 2021 season which Smith puts down to “a rash of injuries going into 2022.” “We lost three players to cruciate ligaments and a player to a broken leg, which was unfortunate, but still only missed the playoffs by four points last year.”
2022 has started slowly for the Rapids who currently sit 14th, or last, in the Western Conference. But with the club just three points below the playoff line behind 9th place Vancouver, Smith remains confident.
“We're still early in this year, we still have a few of those guys coming back from those injuries. So, I’m not overly overly concerned about that. But it's obviously something that we have to manage; but we fully expect to be back in the playoffs this year.”