Not that long ago, just three seasons ago in 2010, the Colorado Rapids improbably found themselves hoisting the MLS Cup as league champions. The Rapids reached the final back when the MLS used overall standings rather than conference standings to determine playoff qualification, in a year where the Western Conference provided six of the eight postseason participants. Once in the playoffs, Colorado knocked off Columbus, San Jose and FC Dallas to claim the crown as league champs. It was the team’s first finals appearance since the league’s sophomore season in 1997 and their first trophy.
Over the last two years, though, Colorado were swept down the standings. They returned to the playoffs in 2011 but were quickly steamrolled by Sporting Kansas City 4-0 in the two-leg aggregate score. Last year the Rapids fell further, out of the playoff picture altogether as they finished 2012 with an 11-19-4 record.
Former FC Dallas assistant Oscar Pareja enters his second year as the head coach in Denver. After the club parted ways with championship-winning manager Gary Smith due to irreconcilable differences in roster philosophy between the coach and front office, the task of returning the Rapids to contention falls upon the Colombian coach’s shoulders. The task is tall for the coach who was on the losing sideline for Colorado’s only championship.
The Rapids had an up-and-down preseason, playing in the Desert Friendlies in Tucson. They lost their preseason opener to the Portland Timbers, falling 3-1 in a match where they also lost playmaker Martín Rivero to a broken foot. Rookies Dillon Powers, Kory Kindle and DeShorn Brown all contributed on Brown’s goal, the only one of the night for the Rapids, but the defense could do little to stop Diego Valeri and the rest of the Timber attack.
They were still asleep as their next preseason match commenced in Tucson against the Houston Dynamo, when Calum Elliott scored what would be the only goal of the night just 63 seconds into the match. Colorado looked more fluid in the second half of the friendly but was unable to crack the Dynamo defense for an equalizer.
Andre Akpan set up Jamie Smith’s goal in the final match of the Rapids’ Arizona portion of the preseason schedule, the 65th-minute strike leading Colorado to their first preseason victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. Matt Pickens and Steward Ceus each played a half as the Rapids earned their first clean sheet of 2013.
They would play two more matches, losing 3-0 to Chivas USA at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas a week before falling to the Galaxy 2-1 in Santa Barbara. The losses to both Los Angeles teams would drop Colorado to just 1-4-0 in preseason play, showing that Pareja and his staff still have a lot of work to do to get the Rapids ready for the regular season.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
The goalkeeper situation for Colorado is locked down by Matt Pickens, who has started 109 of 128 games for the Rapids since his arrival via trade from the Chicago Fire in 2009. His goals against average has increased each of the past two seasons, but the 30-year-old has the experience to anchor the last line of defense. Steward Ceus provides backup, with Clint Irwin recently signed as insurance at the position.
Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne look like likely starters in the center and right side respectively for what might prove to be a perilously thin back line in the Rockies. 2013 SuperDraft selection Kory Kindle offers a diversity of options for Pareja, and could potentially challenge Anthony Wallace for a fullback spot given his collegiate experience all over the pitch. Ecuadorian international Diego Calderon arrived in the offseason as an international acquisition to shore up the defense and will play alongside Moor in the middle. The team also has Chris Klute and Anthony Wallace to toss into the mix.
Controlling play in midfield should merely be a matter of figuring out the right combinations, given Colorado’s depth at the position. The biggest question is whether Pablo Mastroeni — the team’s all-time leader in games, starts and minutes played — is going to be fit enough following the concussion that kept him out for most of 2012. If healthy, he serves as a central presence to anchor the midfield. At holding midfielder, Honduran international Hendry Thomas was signed late last summer and started eight games for the team on his arrival; he is another strong veteran to solidify possession for the Rapids. At the attacking position, Rivero will be out for at least the first month after breaking his foot against the Timbers, and it could be Kamani Hill filling the role as an attacking mid/recessed forward behind the center forward. Former Chivas USA starter Nick LaBrocca, Scottish vet Jamie Smith, 34-year-old Brian Mullen and 2012 starter Jaime Castrillon will compete with a slew of youngsters for starting time in the team’s 4-2-3-1 look.
On the wings feeding the forward will likely be 22-year-old Tony Cascio on the left and Atiba Harris on the right, with support from DeShorn Brown, Charles Eloundou and Kevin Harbottle. The striker spot will certainly be Edson Buddle’s to lose. Buddle, who signed with Colorado from the LA Galaxy in the offseason, is seven goals away from reaching 100 in his MLS career. Brown can also slide into this forward spot, as can Eloundou, Harbottle or Andre Akpan.
Colorado is an odd juxtaposition of aging veterans and young rising stars. Health issues will continue to be a factor for a team that was banged up last season, brought in other players who were injured last season for their former clubs, and already suffered the injury bug in the preseason. The experiment with the new attacking formation will place defense at a premium and test their depth; Pareja will also have to get his team to play more consistently on the road, where they gave up 31 of their 50 goals allowed in 2012 and only scored 10 away from Denver. Everything will have to come together perfectly for Colorado to contend for the playoffs.