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Navigating the Rapids: Three Questions for Colorado

Defending champions in all sports have had down subsequent seasons, but few have imploded quite like Colorado.  Despite qualifying for the playoffs, the Rapids’ season was a roller coaster.  Struggling with injuries and added games the entire season, the team constantly rotated players and tried to field a healthy eleven, ending the season with third-string players trying to stave off elimination.  In the interim, their head coach and management held a power struggle over who controlled the purse strings and player movements, with the ultimate symbol of the weirdness being the head coach staying behind during a CONCACAF Champions League group stage away game.

But it’s a new day in Colorado, as they have a new coach and a few months of rest.  The team, when healthy, has one of the most talented starting XI in the league.  After such a rough season, how will the Rapids respond in 2012.  Let’s ask our “Three Questions” of the 2010 MLS champs.

1. Can we all play nice now?

The offending parties have left and been replaced.  This week Colorado hired former FC Dallas assistant and player Oscar Peraja as their new head coach.  For the team president slot to replace Jeff Plush, the team hired veteran front office man Tim Hinchey away from Derby County.  So all of the griping about who is in control can cease and the team can begin getting active in the offseason market, right?

There are still some questions about this front office, however.  With Peraja in place it looks like he will be in charge of player-personnel moves while Hinchey will be in charge of managing the organization.  With owner Stan Kroenke dealing with his larger soccer property overseas, essentially the buck stops with Hinchey.  While it is not entirely his fault, Derby County did fall down a few divisions under his watch, a serious drop in the English soccer world.  With their offseason beginning later than most other teams due to their front office hirings, how management works together to build depth will be critical in how quickly Colorado can restock.

2. Who’s next?

It is hard to build depth in MLS with the salary cap and various leagues for players to join.  That said, the Rapids’ lack of top-level depth was seriously exposed last season.  Some of their second string players were revelations, but injuries showed that Colorado was a fragile team.  This offseason, when the team should have been adding solid second and third string players who could compete for a starting job, they actually lost some of their depth when Sanna Nyassi was lost to the Montreal Impact after a promising season.  Colorado will use the draft next week to add some players but as long as their stars like Omar Cummings continue to have injury issues, they need to have contributors ready to step in.  This is especially important in an aging midfield.

3. Will they ever play defense?

Even in their MLS Cup run, Colorado’s defense was suspect but held up well enough to hoist the cup.  They allowed 41 goals in 2011 which was middle of the pack but, in a defense-first league, a better than average defense makes your team a championship contender.  Colorado did pick up Hunter Freeman from Eastern Conference champion Houston whose flexibility and good defense will help the team’s back line (or midfield if he moves up into a holding midfield role).  Anthony Wallace is turning into a very good defender and Drew Moore/Marvell Wynne are a good enough center back pairing.  We could see this unit become more consistent in 2012 and make that next step, although additional signings will help this progression.

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