Inside MLS 2015 Season Preview: Colorado Rapids
Last year in a sentence: After cobbling together a bright start under new boss Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids spiraled out of contention during the second half of the campaign.
Offseason in a sentence: The quest for more help on and off the field inspired a flurry of trades, led to expenditures in South America to bolster the midfield and prompted the arrival of sporting director Padraig Smith and the return of Claudio Lopez as director of soccer.
(as of February 23)
Incoming: Bobby Burling (Chivas USA), Caleb Calvert (Chivas USA), Sam Cronin (San Jose Earthquakes), Michael Harrington (Portland Timbers), Zac MacMath (Philadelphia Union), Lucas Pittinari (Belgrano/Argentina), Juan Ramirez (Argentinos Juniors/Argentina), Marcelo Sarvas (LA Galaxy), Axel Sjöberg (Marquette/SuperDraft)
Outgoing: Gale Agbossoumonde (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Carlos Alvarez (option declined), Davy Armstrong (option declined), Edson Buddle (option declined), Tony Cascio (Orlando City), Kamani Hill (option declined), Nick LaBrocca (option declined), Chris Klute (Columbus Crew SC), Jose Mari (Levante/Spain), Brian Mullan (retired), Danny Mwanga (Orlando City), Joe Nasco (Fort Lauderdale Strikers), Thomas Piermayr (option declined), Grant Van De Casteele (option declined), Marvell Wynne (San Jose Earthquakes), Zat Knight (mutual consent)
Key player: Everything starts with Dillon Powers in central midfield. His considerable technical ability and his relentless work ethic allow the Rapids to stitch things together in possession and transition quickly from back to front. His absences last year played a significant part in the Rapids’ second-half wobbles. Powers must play an important role in the proceedings to spur improvement in the second year under Mastroeni.
Philosophy: Mastroeni retained many of the principles espoused during Oscar Pareja’s run in Commerce City, but he tweaked them to make better use of the pace at his disposal. Expect more of the same as the Rapids experiment with 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in the early stages of this season.
Strengths: Most of the pieces are in place for a formidable central midfield with Sam Cronin and Sarvas — one of the league’s top performers in that department over the past couple of years — acquired to bolster the efforts. Powers and Vicente Sanchez pick out passes regularly to supply the forwards, while there are considerable, if somewhat untested, options in the wide areas. The combination of John Berner, Clint Irwin and Zac MacMath offers enough choices in goal, though Mastroeni needs to settle on one goalkeeper after rotating too often last year.
Weaknesses: Scoring goals posed a considerable problem for much of last season. There isn’t a reliable number nine on the team yet, though the Rapids have engaged in talks with former Wolves striker Kevin Doyle recently. The additions of Harrington and Sarvas addressed issues at left back and central midfield, but there are still ample questions about the back four after conceding a league-worst 62 goals last campaign. Bobby Burling offers a consistent option in central defense, but Mastroeni still needs more options in that department and on the right side.
* Who will lead the line? Doyle offers perhaps the most enticing option despite his recent dearth of match practice at a suitable standard, but the Rapids might have to muddle through a bit without him. Deshorn Brown operates most reliably in space, though his finishing improved. Gabriel Torres reveals his quality in flashes here and there without truly convincing for extended periods of time. At this point, it looks like the genuine answer is in house.
* How much influence can Sarvas exert over this young group? The veteran Brazilian midfielder embraced the opportunity to start over in Commerce City. He accepted a broad remit — mentor this youthful squad off the field and orchestrate the proceedings on it — once he landed. If he can match his considerable contributions from his time in Carson, then the Rapids will benefit substantially.
* Are the pieces in place to create a cohesive and effective back four? Most of the offseason work in defense focused on cultivating experienced options (Bobby Burling and Michael Harrington) and severing ties with players who fell short last year (Marvell Wynne and Zat Knight). It is now on Mastroeni to mold a unit around the promising Shane O’Neill and plot a path forward to defensive solidity.
Best-case scenario: The young guns reach maturity earlier than expected. The combination of deft work on the ball and sweeping counterattacks carves open opposing teams and provides Doyle or a striker of similar caliber with plenty of opportunities, while the defense holds firm in its reconstituted state. Powers states a case too irrefutable for Jurgen Klinsmann to ignore. The end product ensures the Rapids play meaningful games through the end of October.
Worst-case scenario: Instead of taking a substantial step forward, the Rapids plunge into chaos instead. The necessary striker never arrives. The defense buckles under the responsibility created by a lack of goals. Powers looks at his EU passport and ponders exit strategies. And the results leave this young group to play out the string and wonder about the future.