There are two facts that can’t be denied about the 2010 Colorado Rapids. The first is that they won their first MLS Cup title last fall, doing so in courageous and resolute fashion.
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The second fact is that they won that title despite having tied for the seventh-best regular season record in MLS.
That second fact isn’t meant to downplay what the Rapids accomplished in last year’s playoffs. Colorado won its first championship because it was the toughest team in the playoffs, and because the Rapids stepped up while other teams failed to deliver. That being said, the Rapids’ title run was as much about a strong few weeks as it was about a year of quality.
In 2011, the Rapids will have to prove that they are worthy of the trophy they now hold, and the fact that Colorado was able to keep its championship team largely intact means we’ll find that out this year.
Head coach Gary Smith didn’t make too many changes to the squad, adding speedy Sanna Nyassi and veteran Tyrone Marshall. The club could sign English striker Caleb Folan, but he doesn’t exactly have the strike rate of a player who will be fighting for a starting role on the Rapids.
If the Rapids are getting anywhere close to repeating as champions, they will do so with mostly the same team that finished tied for fifth in the West, a team that should gain considerable confidence from having won a title, but a team that could struggle to break into the top four of a stacked Western Conference.
Colorado will once again be lead by the strike force of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey. Cummings is the catalyst, with his blazing speed and playmaking ability capable of unsettling defenses and creating chances for Casey. The tandem combined for 27 goals and nine assists, impressive numbers, but also evidence that the Rapids were too reliant on Cummings and Casey to carry the attack.
Smith will be hoping Nyassi can help in that regard. The Rapids have some wingers in the mix already in Brian Mullan and Wells Thompson, but Nyassi brings a speed element that could help the Rapids stretch defenses and create more room for Cummings and Casey to operate. Nyassi struggled with consistency during his time in Seattle, but he should play a key role in helping Colorado field a more balanced attack.
Cummings and Casey may form the league’s best forward tandem, but just as important to Colorado’s success is the central midfield pairing of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni. The tandem provides invaluable support for a sturdy defense by shutting down opposing playmakers and squeezing forwards trying to break through.
The back-line will need to post another stellar season after the centerback tandem of Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne came together to form one of the strongest duos in the league. The converted fullbacks were very good in 2010, but there is a belief that the pairing overachieved and will struggle to maintain that level in 2011. The addition of Marshall provides some depth, but he looked more like a liability than strong option for Seattle in 2010.
The Rapids remain a strong team, and will continue to be one of the toughest teams to beat at home in the league, but with other teams revamping their rosters, Colorado could struggle to match last year’s regular season record. When you consider the added strain of CONCACAF Champions League games in the fall, the Rapids look more likely to be fighting for a seed outside of the Top Six in the playoffs than competing for a conference title.
A low playoff seed was enough to help the Rapids win a title in 2010, but it’s much tougher the second time around and Colorado may wind up regretting not doing more to bolster its roster.
KEY LOSSES: Julian Baudet, Danny Earls
NEW ARRIVALS: Caleb Folan (potentially), Tyrone Marshall, Sanna Nyassi
BIGGEST QUESTION: Did the Rapids do enough to strengthen its roster? While other top teams revamped their squads with new players, the Rapids stood relatively pat. Veteran Tyrone Marshall and speedy winger Sanna Nyassi were brought in, but neither is considered a true difference maker. That means it will be up to the same team that finished fifth in the Western Conference last season to battle through an even stronger West this season.
X-FACTOR: Mac Kandji. He’s only been with the Rapids for a half season but Kandji’s role in the MLS Cup-winning goal last November endeared him to Rapids fans for life. Now it will be up to the shifty striker to prove he can live up to the hype that built up during his time in New York, when he showed glimpses of greatness, but never consistency or real results.
OUTLOOK: The Rapids will still have a tough defense, and one of the league’s best forward tandems and central midfield pairings, but the flanks remain a question mark and the team’s depth will be severely tested this season. Unless Colorado’s newcomers have major impacts, the Rapids look destined to finish in the middle of the pack, and having lightning strike twice with another title run from a low playoff seed is too much to ask for. If anything, Colorado could be more likely to miss the playoffs than to win a second MLS Cup.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.