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The Unknown DP: Shkelzen Gashi

Sunday 7th May 2017
Major League Soccer has openly stated its ambition to one day rival Europe's elite competitions. It has learned from its betters by importing their aging stars. Yet, that is changing. Many clubs are realising it's time to move beyond name recognition, to seek younger, more agile foreign players to better match the league's burgeoning homegrown talent. Sebastian Giovinco and Bradley Wright-Phillips were just the first. Look deeper than Pirlo, Kaka, Villa, and Schweinsteiger. You will see unsung international players anonymously raising the bar for MLS, edging it closer to its goal. Shkelzen Gashi is one of those players.
Born in Switzerland to Albanian parents, Gashi came up through the FC Zurich youth system. After being loaned out twice, he signed with rival Swiss Super League side Neuchatel Xamax, then, after being farmed out again, with Swiss Challenge club Aarau. The attacking mid's strong 17-goal season with the second-tier side caught Grasshopper's interest. His new side gave him a clear opportunity in the Super League, which he seized with both hands. Twenty-four goals in two seasons led to a summer transfer to top Swiss club, FC Basel, in 2014. That December, he was named Swiss League Player of the Year. At Basel, Shkelzen was used less but scored slightly more. After eighteen months, he signed a Designated Player contract (MLS for big $$$) with Colorado Rapids.

His arrival in Denver was not nearly as heralded as Rapids' other two DP signings, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard. The former Everton and USMNT number one's shot-stopping skills, coupled with Jones' raw power as a marauding defensive mid, were viewed as difference makers for catching young manager Pablo Mastroeni's title dream. But it was Gashi's incredible strike from 40 yards that leveled Colorado's Western Conference semifinal tie against favoured LA Galaxy in November. The stunning goal set Rapids up to advance to the conference final on penalties.
Eventual MLS Cup winner, Seattle Sounders, proved too much for Colorado at that point. Gashi's sneaky ability to strike from distance and run the channels found no support. Without a partner to complement his skills, Rapids couldn't match Sounders' potent attack. Worse, defenders tiring after a long campaign were afforded little respite from the neon green waves crashing Howard's goal.

Matters have worsened this season. Gashi, as yet, has no partner. Jones has moved on to Los Angeles. Rapids still can't score and are now leaking goals like a submarine with screen doors. The Rocky Mountain side sit last in the West, gaining little consolation from Jones' Galaxy most closely matching its misery.
Rapids recently played well for eighty-three minutes against mid-table visitors Vancouver Whitecaps, especially dominating the second half. A scramble in the box resulted in a near own goal caroming off David Ousted's left post on 54'. Just after the hour, Gashi was fed the ball in a central position. Pushing forward with his first touch, he let fly from 25 yards, screaming his volley just beyond a diving Ousted and the far post. He has yet to score his sophomore season's first, in three starts and two substitute appearances, yet hasn't lost his confidence.

At 28, the Albanian international is in his prime. Colorado should not waste it. Given his past history, if the Rapids braintrust don't provide help, he will not be shy in looking for another club. It would be a pity if said club was not in MLS. Shkelzen Gashi should be a household name in the US, just as it was in the Swiss Super League.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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