MLS ’12 Preview – Colorado Rapids

Team: Colorado Rapids

Coach: Oscar Pareja

Last Season: 12-9-13, 5th West, 6th Overall

Twitter Hashtag: #Rapids

From MLS champions to gutted in the past season, the Colorado Rapids enter the season wondering “what if”.  A new front office and new coach will try to repeat the incredible playoff run of two years ago with an older and more injury-prone group of players and a philosophy seeking to play more up-tempo.

But what a group of players they are.  When healthy, the Colorado starting XI could conceivably match up with any team in MLS.  How these players handle a new philosophy will go a long way towards seeing if they can make another MLS Cup run.  Not having Champions League matches will certainly help with their schedule.

Coaching Staff and Front Office:  This was the story for the team in the offseason as the acrimonious relationship between Gary Smith and the front office ended up with Smith coaching in the English third division and new faces running the franchise.  The new head coach is Oscar Pareja, an assistant with FC Dallas who is also a former MLS player.  The Colombian knows MLS well and should adjust quickly to being a head coach, although there is always an unpredictability in first-time coaches.  The staff he has assembled so far is heavy with South American influences and coaching experience, recently inking Wilmer Cabrera as an assistant after he was let go as the U.S. U-17 head coach.

While Technical Director Paul Bravo recently signed an extension, the team’s new president is Tim Hinchey from Derby County in the English first division.  The new front office has already been aggressive in rebuilding the depth of this team and is looking to put an exciting, pro-goal team on the pitch.

Key Roster Additions:  The biggest addition may be yet to come.  A rumor has been swirling in the Rapids’ blogosphere that a mystery signing of a major contributor would be made prior to the season.  In the past few days, that rumor has been confirmed as the team has sought to sign 22 year old Martin Rivero.  The attacking midfielder has had a falling out with his current club Rosario Central and is looking for a new home.  If signed (and that’s a major “if” at this point), he would instantly help the Colorado attack.

As for players who have actually signed with the team, Hunter Freeman was the biggest name acquired this offseason.  The fullback most recently of the Dynamo was selected by the Rapids in the Re-Entry draft and instantly gives some depth to the defense and midfield.  He also returns to where his MLS career began.  The signing of midfielder Jaime Castrillon also gives the Rapids more offense options in midfield.

Key Roster Subtractions:  It is questionable how important these players’ departures are in the grand scheme of things, but the names that left this offseason were important for Rapids fans.  Macoumba Kandji was a little used forward who spent all of last season injured, but scored the winning goal in the 2010 MLS Cup.  He was traded to Houston last week for a draft pick.  Caleb Folan, an inconsistent striker who was the team’s second leading goal scorer last season, was released by the team to pursue his career elsewhere.  But the team’s biggest loss has to be Sanna Nyassi, a winger who at times was quick and a dynamic threat from the outside.  He will likely be replaced by 2012 draft pick Tony Cascio.

Projected Starters:  The starting XI for the Colorado Rapids is currently pretty much set, as it was the depth that did the team in last year (and maybe some erratic coaching).  Solid to good keeper Matt Pickens mans the back and can be counted on to keep his team in a game.  The defense in front of him will probably be Hunter Freeman/Anthony Wallace, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor (who looks to be back healthy from his 2010 injury) and Kosuke Kimura.

If Pareja incorporates a more up-tempo attacking style, then the midfield lineup could change.  Returning from 2011 however will be the entire midfield.  Captain Pablo Mastroeni is the strength of the team both as the holding midfielder and long-time Rapid.  Attacking midfielder Jeff Larentowicz was tied for second with six goals last season while Brian Mullan and Jaime Smith could man the wings.  Expect to see Castrillon see more than a few starts this season.

Up front the names are known commodities, and the only key to their success is if they can stay healthy.  Conor Casey is the team’s big number nine and was sorely missed when he was out with injury last season.  Omar Cummings is his complement, who again when healthy can create space by burning defenders and feeding the ball to Casey or creating his own shots.

Player to Watch:  If the team wants to be a more aggressive, attacking side, it will be up to Omar Cummings to be the player he was in 2010.  The depth behind him has taken a hit and Casey needs someone to draw defenders away to create a little shooting room.  This team wilts without his versatility.

Best Case Scenario: With the boardroom drama behind them and a relatively healthy season, this team is good enough to make the playoffs and take a run at the MLS Cup.  The team restocks its second string players with good talent who can fill in or push for a starting job.  They become everyone’s dark horse pick to win it all.  Rivero signs and is everything he was advertised and more.

Worst Case Scenario:  Injuries either were a convenient excuse for this team’s quick aging or they have slowed players like Casey and Cummings down permanently.  The new up-tempo offense is stuck in neutral and the defense’s improvement was a mirage.  Pareja fails to inspire and the team misses the playoffs while facing a major rebuild.

Prediction: The Rapids are back, and Pareja will immediately bring them back to the playoffs.  They finish fourth in the Western Conference.

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