Inside MLS season preview: Colorado Rapids
Last year in a nutshell: A vibrant, youthful side brought Oscar Pareja's project to life and carried the Rapids back to the playoffs, but Pareja's offseason departure placed the considerable progress made in some doubt.
(as of February 24)
Incoming: COACH: TBD; GK: John Berner (SIU-Edwardsville), Joe Nasco (Atlanta Silverbacks); DF: Marc Burch (Seattle), Grant Van De Casteele(Notre Dame); MF: Marvin Chávez (San Jose), Marlon Hairston (Louisville), Jared Watts (Wake Forest); FW: Charles Eloundou (Coton Sport/Cameroon)
Outgoing: COACH: Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas); GK: Steward Ceus (unattached); DF: Diego Calderón (LDU Quito/Ecuador), Kory Kindle (retired), Anthony Wallace (Tampa Bay Rowdies); MF: Tony Cascio (Houston – interleague loan), Jaime Castrillón (unattached), Martin Rívero (Rosario Central/Argentina – loan return), Jamie Smith (retired), Hendry Thomas (FC Dallas); FW: Atiba Harris (San Jose)
Key Player: The arrival of former Club América and Schalke schemer Vicente Sánchez slipped under the radar last summer. His subsequent performances – oozing with class and menace as he floated into dangerous spaces and linked the play for the speedier players surrounding him – earned him a larger role for 2014 and prompted the Rapids to decline the option to purchase playmaker Martin Rívero during the close season. If Sánchez can remain fit and slink around and through opposing rearguards as effectively as he did last season, then the Rapids will benefit immensely.
Strengths: Most of the primary components – including the entire back four and the majority of the attacking group – from last season's playoff team return for this season. Drew Moor and Shane O'Neill comprise a solid core for the back four, while Chris Klute (a revelation on the overlap last season) and Marvell Wynne form a good fullback tandem. The midfield group offers a nice blend with potential signing José Mari (a holding player, but not exactly in the robust mold of the departed Hendry Thomas) and Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers (recently returned from a concussion that kept him from competitive matches since October 5) as potential standouts. Team speed is a major plus, particularly if Deshorn Brown retains his place in the starting XI after a strong first season. The forward group boasts the sort of diversity any coach can appreciate with its mixture of darting runs behind the line (Brown, Gabriel Tórres) and hold-up play (Edson Buddle).
Weaknesses: The team – as of February 24 – still does not have a coach. Even if special assistant to the technical director Pablo Mastroeni takes permanent charge before the start of the season, the adjustment process at this point will extend into the campaign itself. All bets are off if someone else somehow pips him to the gig. Matt Pickens' impending departure leaves the Rapids without a proven alternative in goal if Clint Irwin fails to reproduce his stellar form from a year ago. Depth in central defense remains a concern. Thomas' exit creates a pugilistic void to fill in the center of the park, though the Rapids hope José Mari can establish the tone in possession if he eventually signs and the rest of the team can replace Thomas' bite. The forward group could stand to convert more of the chances presented to it. And the entire team must now bear the weight of expectation after surprising the league a year ago.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Is last year the base line or a deviation from the norm?: Colorado impressed for much of last season with its ambitious, blossoming side and its attractive style of play. This group must now prove those displays did not constitute some sort of one-season wonder. The degree of difficulty increased substantially when Wilmer Cabrera and Oscar Pareja left during the close season, but the assignment isn't impossible given the relative stability in the squad. The team must meet the heightened and revamped standards in order to achieve similar successes against opponents fully aware of the tasks at hand.
● How will a new coach alter the function and the shape of the side?: Every incoming boss stamps his own particular imprint on the team. Colorado has taken steps to cultivate an expansive style of play regardless of Pareja's successor, but the particulars will change slightly once a full-time manager takes charge. Those modest amendments can make a significant difference to the operation of a carefully honed unit. The exact shape (though it makes sense to keep the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation given the pieces in place) under the new regime matters far less than the new coach's ability to retain the fluidity created during the Pareja era.
● Will the Rapids share the wealth again in the final third?: Brown led the Rapids with 10 goals last season, but no one else mustered more than five. It is perhaps a bit much to expect Brown to those heights again. Other players – and the highly touted Tórres, in particular – must assume some of the burden to create some additional potency and develop the necessary alternatives if the promising Jamaican striker struggles a bit with second-season syndrome.
Best case scenario: All of the momentum from 2013 carries straight through to this season despite the change in the dugout. Brown and Tórres (presumably comfortable after arriving midseason last year) score goals for fun with Sánchez serving as the primary facilitator. The midfield hardly skips a beat without Thomas. The defense stays strong in front of the reliable Irwin, a darkhorse candidate for Goalkeeper of the Year yet again. And the Rapids book a second consecutive playoff berth with room to spare.
Worst case scenario: The magic from last season dissipates amid all of the chopping and changing. The emerging talents plateau. The defense cracks from time to time. The midfield misses Thomas' combativeness in the engine room. The forwards squander too many chances, even though they manage to procure plenty of opportunities on the counter. At the end, the Rapids feel closer to square one than MLS Cup.
“It's a huge burden off my shoulders. It's been so long, it's just nice to have that medical clearance and now I can put that behind me and worry about really getting into good shape and competing.”
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
FEB. 26: D.C. United – FC Dallas
FEB. 27: Houston Dynamo – LA Galaxy
FEB. 28: Montréal Impact – New England Revolution