Looking back on Earl’s preseason preview of the Colorado Rapids, you will see the following players listed as anticipated starters:
Kimura (10) – Wynne (8) – Moore (10) – Wallace (5)
Mullan (5) – Larentowicz (10) – Mastroeni (8) – Smith (9)
Casey (2) – Cummings (6)
With pretty much the entire team coming back from last year’s MLS Cup winning side and the key additions being for depth, this team was expected to compete again for a championship. And while they are in the race for the playoffs (4th in the tough Western Conference with 15 points), their lineup has seen various changes throughout the year.
The number in parentheses next to each player’s name is the number of starts they have had so far this season. Mainstays like Pickens and Larentowicz have played in every game, but where this team has broken down is on offense. Omar Cummings will miss a few more weeks with an ankle sprain and Conor Casey is finally coming back into playing shape after a long lay-off. Brian Mullan was obviously suspended, and Pablo Mastroeni, a key cog in the midfield, has missed some games with a calf injury. Injuries have also caused the team to shuffle players – as The Burgundy Wave pointed out even healthy players have had to shift to cover for injuries; against the Revolution a few weeks back Kimura and Wynne played new positions on the backline just to provide cover for missing teammates.
Look at the bench, and Colorado’s injury woes become even more pronounced. In addition to long-term injury Macoumba Kandji, Caleb Folan has a groin injury and is currently out of the lineup. In DC this past weekend, the last two strikers on the bench (Akpan and Amarikwa) were playing up front and Ross LaBeaux came off the bench as a late substitution. Even players who have played all ten games, such as Matt Pickens, have been playing with injuries. In short, this is a wounded team.
MLS has not helped the situation with a brutal stretch of scheduling. The DC United match Saturday was the Rapids’ third straight road game and in five of the last seven they were the visitors. In that stretch they had one win, three draws, and three losses. But they took five points in their last three road games, which included two matches on the East Coast.
But things have begun to turn around for Colorado, and there is reason for hope in this squad, even to think about another MLS Cup run. First, the schedule does get easier. Eight of the next thirteen matches are at home, including three of the last four, and the Rapids finish the season playing three potential playoff teams (Dallas, San Jose, and RSL) at home before going to Vancouver.
Second, the players are starting to come back from injury. Casey made his return in DC and looked healthy, and his presence will make a major difference for the Rapids’ offense. In about two months Cummings and Folan will be back, and baring any additional injuries, the team will begin to be back at full strength. Brian Mullan has also served about half his suspension and will be back within the next month and a half.
I asked Gary Smith on Saturday about whether the injuries were actually preparing the team for an MLS Cup run: “I think the guys who are playing who might not have had too much football are going to benefit hugely from it,” he said. “[The young players], come the latter stages of this season, they’ll be able to draw on what they’ve been able to achieve in this period and hopefully their form continues to improve and they develop.”
One June 1, 2010, Colorado sat in fifth place in the Western Conference with a record of 5-3-1 (15 points). As of today, having played one more match, the Rapids are 4-3-3 (15 points). With expanded seeding Colorado is likely to make the playoffs unless there is a major implosion or other massive injuries. This team has the experience and ability to make another Cup run and if they are a “wild card”, they may take another trip through the Eastern Conference to make the finals. The Rapids are healing and the next few matches are an opportunity to keep the bench players, “nice and bright and lively, and hungry to play when you’ve got a bit of a rotation,” as Smith told me. “At the moment we’re having to endure some difficulties… the position we have in our conference at this point is a very good one given circumstances and of course the fact we’ve gone on the road for four games we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
Colorado is quickly becoming the team not to face in the fall.