Monday, September 29, 2008

Who were those guys and what did they do with the Rapids?

A whole lot of firsts for the Rapids on Saturday night. The first time this season they've come from behind to win. The first time in their history they've scored 5 goals on the road. The first time this season the Rapids gave up 4 goals. It was a wild and crazy affair at the Meadowlands Saturday night.

The game started out quickly with Omar Cummings scoring in the 3rd minute. Conor Casey got behind the defense off a Kimura pass and forced Jon Conway to make a play on the ball, Conway could only deflect it and the ball felt right to Cummings who had an open net. The lead didn't last long though as two minutes later Cory Gibbs sent a weak backpass to Burpo that allowed Mike Magee to swoop in and put it past the onrushing keeper. The draw was only 6 minutes old when Cummings played the best ball I've ever seen from him, putting Casey in on Conway while sandwiched between two defenders and Conway couldn't make the save. Things settled down for 20 minutes or so after that flurry.

In the 34th minute a long ball was played over the top of the Rapids defense and Pablo Mastroeni scrambled back to try to control it. Magee played the ball in and it deflected off of Pablo's arm, the PK was called and converted by Angel. 6 minutes later there was a complete defensive breakdown with 2 Red Bulls left open and Richards was able to take a diagonal pass and slot it home for NY's first lead of the game. The Rapids weren't done though, scoring in the 40th and 43rd minute. The first was off a Mehdi Ballouchy corner that was headed down to Mike Petke. He settled the ball, changed feet, paused for a beat, and sent the ball into the roof of the net from about 4 yards out to tie the score. 3 minutes later Cummings got to a ball on the end-line and sent a great cross to a wide open Casey. Casey was at a bad angle and instead of taking a low-percentage shot headed the ball back to the spot for an onrushing Nick LaBrocca. Before Nick could get his shot off he was knocked down leading to a PK that Casey converted for a 4-3 halftime lead.

*deep breath*

After 7 goals in the first 45 the second half settled down to a more normal pace. Both teams had chances but it wasn't until the 74th minute that the scoreline changed. New signings Kandji and Mbuto were left unmarked in the box and combined to tie the score at 4 while Burpo was frozen trying to cover the near post. It looked like the game was going to end as a draw, but right at the end of the 90 minutes Ballouchy got the ball at midfield and took off down the left side. Outside of the box he stopped and lofted a cross in that Casey hit in midjump with a one time volley just inside the far post for the game-winning goal and his first hat-trick for the Colorado Rapids.

Keys to the Game review:

  • Can Burpo avoid the major error. He's done well the last couple of games not making huge mistakes but this is the type of game where one mistake might be one too many.
    Its hard to say that a keeper that let in 4 goals had a good game, but he didn't have a bad one. I wonder if Bouna would have come out and gotten to the ball before the pass that led to the last goal but other than that there were no major issues.
  • How do we deal with the roster churn? We've done well with the stable lineup over the last few games but we're looking at at least 2 new starters and one player changing positions tomorrow.
    Considering the roster changes were all on the attacking side, I don't think they caused any issues. ;).
  • Can Cummings link up with Casey? Both players seem to do their own thing up front.
    Assisted on one of Casey's goals, Casey essentially set up his goal, his cross to Casey set up the PK. I think that's a yes.
  • Is Gomez an actual option?
    No, it doesn't appear so.
  • The turf. Giants Stadium is historically the worst surface in the league, though it was eclipsed the last four years by the turf at RES in Salt Lake City (Now out of the league with the new FSL stadium). Can the Rapids adjust to the bounce?
    I don't think the turf had any more of an impact on the Rapids than on the Red Bulls. There were some crazy bounces for both teams though.
  • How greatly does Smith value this game in our playoff run? I don't see points in this game being critical, but we don't have much room to maneuver if we don't get points. Will Smith pull out all the stops for a draw or win, or will he conserve our players on the turf and save them for our 4 remaining games?
    Well he only subs in the last 10-11 minutes, and one of those was a time-wasting sub, so I think he wanted to save players as much as possible.

Critical Matchup: Juan Pablo Angel vs. Pablo
- Well Pablo created the PK that led directly to Angel being on the scoreboard, but other than that Angel was relatively quiet. Who know that RBNY had an offense without him though!.

Facts of the Match: There are a number of interesting facts about this game.

  • Casey's hat-trick was the 4th in Rapids history, joining John Spencer, Chris Carrieri, and Jeff Cunningham

  • Casey's 3 goals give him 8 for the season, and Cummings' 1 gives him 6. Jovan Kirovski led the team in scoring last season with 6 goals (4 from the PK spot)

  • This is the first time in Rapids history they scored 5 goals on the road

  • This ties the best 4 game stretch since the 5 game winning streak between July 4th and August 9th 2003

  • This is the first time the Rapids have come from behind to win this season

    Random Observations:

  • OK, so I was WAY off on my prediction. Who would have expected 9 goals though.

  • As good as the offense was, the back line was almost as bad. Gibbs and Harvey in particular had bad games, but Kimura seemed to lose his man fairly often as well.

  • Would anyone have said 5 goals for the Rapids with no Cooke, Gomez, or McManus?

  • Casey was man of the match, but Cummings had a great game, possibly his best as a Rapid.

  • LaBrocca looked better out on the wing than he has at central mid lately.

  • I hate that Giants Stadium turf. At least Toronto (and Seattle next year) as FieldTurf designed for soccer.

  • Petke showed some real cool on his goal. He took the time to get the shot right and was rewarded for it.

  • Overall great job by the team. I think you'd have to go back to the Mooch-led Rapids before finding a team that would have pulled out this result.

  • Man of the Match: Conor Casey - 3 goals, essentially an assist on Cummings' goal, and set up his own PK. Easy choice.

    Friday, September 26, 2008

    Rapids try to water down Red Bull

    The Rapids are in New York (Well, actually New Jersey) tomorrow to face the Red Bull New York Red Bulls. Colorado is barely holding on to the final playoff spot with only 5 games to go , leaving them little room for error.

    Here's the injury report:

    OUT: GK Justin Hughes (R shoulder); QUESTIONABLE: FW Tom McManus (L knee)

    DISCIPLINE: Suspended after 1 more yellow card - Pablo Mastroeni, Colin Clark
    Suspended after 2 more yellow cards - Nick LaBrocca

    My lineup prediction:

    Kimura - Gibbs - Petke - Harvey
    LaBrocca - Pablo - Ballouchy - Clark
    Casey - Cummings

    Today's Denver Post is reporting that due to fighting the flu and a less than 100% hamstring Cookie won't start but will be available on the bench. Smith says he'll move LaBrocca over and play Ballouchy in the middle (Gomez? Who's that?). There's also some question about Pablo being ready, if he can't go I expect we'll see Peterson or O'Brien on the right so LaBrocca can be moved back to the center to team up with Ballouchy.

    Critical Matchup: Juan Pablo Angel vs. Pablo

    With Van den Bergh injured and Altidore now playing in Spain, Angel has 1 less goal than the rest of the Red Bulls combined. Its been 5 games since the Bulls scored a goal without the involvement of Angel or Van den Bergh. If Pablo can take Angel out of the game New York will have a tough time finding their offense.

    Keys To Look For:

    • Can Burpo avoid the major error. He's done well the last couple of games not making huge mistakes but this is the type of game where one mistake might be one too many.

    • How do we deal with the roster churn? We've done well with the stable lineup over the last few games but we're looking at at least 2 new starters and one player changing positions tomorrow.

    • Can Cummings link up with Casey? Both players seem to do their own thing up front.

    • Is Gomez an actual option?

    • The turf. Giants Stadium is historically the worst surface in the league, though it was eclipsed the last four years by the turf at RES in Salt Lake City (Now out of the league with the new FSL stadium). Can the Rapids adjust to the bounce?

    • How greatly does Smith value this game in our playoff run? I don't see points in this game being critical, but we don't have much room to maneuver if we don't get points. Will Smith pull out all the stops for a draw or win, or will he conserve our players on the turf and save them for our 4 remaining games?

    Prediction: 1-0 loss. I think the combination of travel, turf, and injuries will be too tough for the Rapids to overcome. Given New York's lack of offensive options I wouldn't be shocked by a draw, but at some point this team will have a let down before the end of the season and this seems to be the most likely spot.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008

    Playoff Chances

    Best press conference ever

    With 5 games to play the Rapids are in the final playoff spot based on a goal differential tiebreaker with FSL. A precarious situation to say the least. What kind of chances do they have to make the playoffs?

    First, a quick review of the MLS Playoff structure. 8 teams make the playoffs. The top 3 teams from each conference qualify automatically, and then the next two best teams qualify as wild-cards. Teams are matched up 1v4 and 2v3 inside each conference. If both wild cards come from the same conference the 5th placed team in that conference fills the 4 spot in the conference without a wild-card team. The first round is a 2-game home-and-home series, followed by a 1-game Conference Championship at the site of the team with the better record, and then MLS Cup held at a neutral location (LA this year).

    Right now the standings look like this with both wild-card teams coming out of the Eastern Conference. At this point the rapids hold the final guaranteed spot in the West and are 2 points from tying DC for a wild-card spot, should they slip from 3rd to 4th.

    One way to look at the chances is just to take each teams home and road performance and project that performance out over the remaining games (essentially current home/road points form x 15). Doing that you get the following final standings for the West:

    Houston: 48.75
    Chivas: 40.01
    Colorado: 36.54
    FSL: 36.25
    San Jose: 36.25
    LA: 34.42
    Dallas: 33.75

    And the 3 teams in the East trying for a wild card:
    NY: 42.98
    KC: 39.23
    DC: 38.75

    As you can see, we're on pace for a playoff spot, but with absolutely no room for error. San Jose or FSL playing above their season-long form would pass us with an extra point, LA or Dallas with an extra 3 points. We don't even keep up with the wild-card hopefuls.

    Another way of looking at it is the strength of the remaining schedule. For a quick-and-dirty calculation I looked at the remaining schedules for all of the teams above and assigned them points for each team they played based on their current standings (1 point for a 1st placed team, 2 for a second, etc.). I divided the number by the remaining games to account for Houston and San Jose having one more game to play against each other. The lower the number the harder the schedule:

    LA: 2.6
    Colorado: 3.4
    San Jose: 4.16
    FSL: 4.2
    Chivas: 4.4
    Houston: 5.0
    Dallas: 5.8

    And the Wild-Card teams:
    DC: 2.2
    KC: 3.0
    NY: 3.6

    So out of the playoff hopefuls Colorado has the second hardest schedule, with only the long-shot Galaxy having a harder one. Not the data you want to see when you have no margin for error. Even though I didn't take home/away games into account that doesn't help the Rapids since they have more road than home games left.

    Right now with the way the team is playing I think the Rapids will squeeze into the playoffs. I would not be surprised at a loss this weekend, but that wouldn't change my opinion. If we can get 8 points in the final stretch we should be in good shape, and I think that's more likely to happen with a win and a draw at home and a win and a draw on our two game LA trip than it is to get points in NY. We can't stumble after this weekend if we have any hope of post-season play.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Coaching Future

    The Rapids are midway between the end of the Clavijo-era and the end of the season. Its time to take another look at the long-term coaching possibilities. There haven't been any rumors of new names likely to land the job, so we're dealing with the same gang of four as we had last time.

    1. Gary Smith - Interim Head Coach

    Smith was given the reins for the last third of the season. So far he's 2-1-2 (3-1-2 if you count the last game of the Clavijo era that he managed). The team is showing more cohesiveness and stability under his control, but there are still questions about his use (or lack thereof) of certain players, namely Christian Gomez and Bouna Coundoul.

    Smith has obviously straightened out a number of the problems in the Rapids organization. He also has the team on the best 3 game streak in over a year. There are still a tough 5 games left where the bloom may come off the rose, but based on the team's play in the first 5 games under Smith I would consider him a big leader in the race. The remaining question mark is his official ties to Arsenal (He was originally brought over from Arsenal to set up the Gunners' youth team in Colorado) and if he's willing to leave that job to take over a MLS team, and if Arsenal is willing to let him leave.

    3. John Spencer - Assistant Coach, Houston Dynamo

    I think Spencer would be the goto guy if Smith fails to get the job done this year, or passes on the offer. Once again the Dynamo are leading the Western Conference, even with the extra games they've played in other competitions. and they are the favorite to return to MLS Cup for a 3rd straight year. Obviously as Assistant Coach Spencer only gets a bit of the credit for the performance, but it shows that he's in an organization that has figured out how to succeed in MLS which is what the Rapids desperately need. The issue with Spencer will continue to be money, will Colorado be willing to pay what he wants? I list him as a 3 though because I think there's that much of a gap between Smith and everyone else right now.

    4. John Murphy - Director of Player Development

    We haven't heard anything out of Murphy since the coaching change, even when making the last couple of player moves. This leads me to believe that he's not likely to be the next coach and he has his focus elsewhere, be it a GM/Player Management role with the Rapids or possibly a position in Europe. I think if he were seriously interested and/or the Rapids were seriously considering him we'd see him more involved in the first team during this playoff push.

    6. Paul Mariner - Assistant Head Coach, New England Revolution

    At this point I think Mariner is a real long shot. I think the Rapids are likely to come to an agreement with one of the first 3, and Mariner will only be approached if all three of them unexpectedly fall through. Even then I wouldn't be surprised if somebody that's not on this list gets the job before Mariner.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008

    Weekend Roundup 9/20-9/21

    Colorado Rapids - My game review is here. With the draw the Rapids move up to a tie with FSL for 3rd in the West, the last playoff spot. Based on the tiebreakers, if the season ended today the Rapids would be the final playoff team. They are 8 points behind leading Houston. Colorado has the 7th best offense and is in a tie with New York, KC, and Dallas for the 6th best defense.

    Queen of the South - Queens hosted St Johnstone at Palmerston Park over the weekend. The game was end to end with plenty of chances, but int he first half the keepers were up to the challenge, stopping everything that came their way. The dam had to break at some point though, and it was a PK for the Doonhamers that did it. The lead didn't last long though as Jim Thomson put one past his own keeper to gift St. Johnstone a 1-1 draw. The teams traded goals again before the end of the match and both teams took home a point. After 7 games in Queens is 3rd, 3 points behind leaders Livingston.

    Today QoS travelled to Falkirk to take on the SPL relegation leaders in a CIS Cup match. The Doonhamers showed up ready to play, but went down int he first half. They battled back to control the game in the second half and levelled the score, only to see the game slip away to a opposition goal against the run of play. Still Queens can hold their heads high, having fought an SPL team to the end on unfriendly turf.

    Blackburn Rovers - The Rovers faced Fulham USA at Ewood Park looking for their first home win of the season and a way to get out of the relegation zone. What on paper seemed like an easier match turned out to be anything but as Blackburn had to fight of Fulham for the full 90 minutes. Finally in the 84th minute Matt Derbyshire, who had been in the match for less than 10 minutes, found a header from Roque Santa Cruz to put the Rovers on top 1-0 and give them their first home win of the season. It also got them out of the relegation zone and moved them all the way up to 10th, 5 points behind Arsenal.

    CD Tenerife - It was an Alpha and Omega game for CDT as they went down to a 5th minute goal, only to tie it up int he 82nd minute. Local boy Angel got the goal and he's quickly becoming a super sub for his team with multiple late-game heroics. Tenerife is floating just outside the promotion zone with 7 points from 4 matches, just a point behind the league leaders.

    Kildare County FC - For the first time in 4 months the Thoroughbreds got a home win this week. As a Rapids fan I've seen some bad runs of form but 4 months without a home win, ouch. County took the lead in the 21st minute and then needed a brick wall performance from their keeper to keep it. A bit of luck was on Kildare's side for this game, but they'll need that if they are going to avoid the drop. They are 2 points from safety with a game in hand and 9 games to play.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Upstart Revolution fight English-led Rapids to a draw

    Much like the early years of the War for Independence Colorado, led by an Englishman, was held to a draw against the Revolution from New England.

    The Revs started out in a 3-5-1-1 or 3-6-1 with every intention of playing for the draw and were largely successful early, breaking up attacks as they came through the crowded midfield. In the 17th minute LaBrocca charged up the field and took a shot from 25 yards that looked like it was going wide before it curved towards the top corner of the next, causing Matt Reis to stretch for the save. 25 minutes later Reis would be unable to get to a Colin Clark header, off a Terry Cooke cross, and the Rapids would take a 1-0 lead to the locker room.

    The lead didn't last long though as 5 minutes after the break Mansally leveled the score. The Rapids defense fell asleep for a minute on a free kick and the Revs took full advantage, sending a ball over the top with 3 onrushing attackers. Gibbs scrambled back and got a foot on it but it went right to Mansally who chipped over Burpo. After that New England fell back to preserve the draw. The Rapids controlled the play but only managed one shot on goal in the second half. The game ended on a sour note as Colin Clark was free on the left heading for a 1v1 with Matt Reis when referee Michael Kennedy whistled for full-time, stopping the opportunity seconds before Clark would have shot.

    Keys to the Game review:

    • Does Burpo improve on crosses? He came up with some great saves last week, but his decision-making on when to come out is still weak.
      Burpo looked a bit better this week, making some plays on some dangerous crosses. His distribution was off though, and the ball that fell in the box on the goal was the type of ball Bouna would have come out for. Still not a disaster, but not a convincing performance either.
    • Can Cooke get back on the same page as the rest of the team? He did get an assist last week, but other than that he was not in sync.
      He was better, but not great. He was still off on a number of his passes. At the same time he now has assists in back-to-back-to-back games and if he keeps doing that I won't complain (much).
    • Do Cummings and McManus keep Casey off the field? I really think Casey isn't the option for this team.
      Once again we see Casey subbed in for McManus around the 60th minute. Honestly I'm not sure any of our forwards are the right option for this team, but I think McManus is the best of the 3. Cummings regressed last night back to his tendency to take on 3 players at once.
    • Is Gomez still an option if we need him?
      *sigh* No. It appears the Rapids may be done with Gomez. If a game at home that the Rapids are controlling but not winning isn't the situation to use Gomez, I don't know what is.

    Critical Matchup: Harvey and Clark vs. Ralston - Ralston was played more centrally than I expected, so Pablo had more of the responsibility to cover him. Ralston was no real threat last night, and you have to say the Rapids won that battle, even if they didn't win the game.

    Fact of the Match: This is our best 3 game stretch in over a year. Last time we got at least 7 points in 3 games was 8/16-9/2 of 2007.

    Random Observations:

  • Two bad points lost last night. Right now based on year-to-date for the Rapids would make the playoffs by a quarter point. The two points we left on the field at the Dick last night represent the margin of error we had for the last fifth of the season.

  • Needing those two points Smith's move was to bring Ballouchy in instead of Gomez. Really? What exactly are we paying Gomez to do?

  • All that said, if you had told Rapids fans after the FSL game that they would get 7 points in the next 3 games I don't think anyone would complain.

  • I still don't see the LaBrocca love that some fans have. I agree he's been a solid player for us at times, but last night he was in pretty poor form. Lots of passes to nobody and he gave up possession too often. People are calling him the team MVP but I don't even have him in my top 3 (Pablo, Cooke, and either Petke or Gibbs).

  • As one of my fellow Class VIers said last night, Cummings doesn't play off the other forward well, regardless of who it is. I like having his speed and his willingness to pressure in the game, but he's a black hole for the ball. Until we can get a pair of forwards that can play off each other we're going to struggle.

  • That leads to Conor "Feet of Stone" Casey, who does a good job making space but then can't redirect the ball accurately..

  • Kimura was a monster for the second straight game. obviously he didn't like being benched as is taking full advantage of being back in the starting 11.

  • Michael Kennedy had a horrible game in the middle. I'm not saying the officiating cost us the game, but I am saying the officiating sucked. He pulled out 3 yellows, none of which were yellow card fouls, while letting other fouls go uncalled on both sides. He was more interested in jawing with players than he was actually managing the game, letting New England waste time while he was talking to a player, and he and Cooke got into numerous glaring matches in the second half. His decision to blow the final whistle while the Rapids were in the middle of an attack is decision that is very rarely seen at the professional level and the Rapids were justifiably upset about it.

  • Tip of the hat to the Midnight Riders who joined us at the tailgate. Great to have you, and maybe next year we'll have cupcakes! ;)

  • Man of the Match: Pablo Mastroeni - tough choice this week as nobody really stood out to me, but Pablo was on his game and controlling the midfield. Plus in a game where the ref was handing out yellow cards for mysterious reasons he somehow managed not to get one.

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    "The die is now cast; the colonies must either submit or triumph.... we must not retreat."

    King George III, In a letter to Lord North, 1774

    Tomorrow the Rapids, led by an Englishman, attempt to do what George and North could not, quell the Revolution. Its a critical game for the Rapids playoff hopes, a loss here puts them in a hole with a tough upcoming schedule. Kickoff is at 7pm at The Dick and the supporters groups will be tailgating in Lot AA beforehand. This week we'll be joined by the second-best fans in MLS as a few of the Midnight Riders have travelled out from the East Coast.

    Here's the injury report:

    OUT: GK Justin Hughes (R shoulder); PROBABLE: DF Greg Dalby (R ankle)

    DISCIPLINE: Suspended after 1 more yellow card - Pablo Mastroeni
    Suspended after 2 more yellow cards - Colin Clark

    My lineup prediction:

    Kimura - Gibbs - Petke - Harvey
    Cooke - Pablo - LaBrocca - Clark
    McManus - Cummings

    Smith has said he wants to use the same lineup as he did last week against the Fire. With almost no injuries I see no changes. I still think Bouna is the better start than Burpo, but apparently it will take Burpo having a complete meltdown before Bouna starts.

    Critical Matchup: Harvey and Clark vs. Ralston

    Its actually a bit difficult to figure out who will be matched up against Steve Ralston, as Revs coach Steve Nicol has moved him around a bit in recent weeks. I assumed he would start at his normal right wing spot and it will be Harvey, supported by Clark, that will have to shut him down. Ralston is the engine in the Revs midfield, involved in 14 goals this season. If the Rapids can keep him off the scoreboard their chances of winning go way up.

    Keys To Look For:

    • Does Burpo improve on crosses? He came up with some great saves last week, but his decision-making on when to come out is still weak.

    • Can Cooke get back on the same page as the rest of the team? He did get an assist last week, but other than that he was not in sync.

    • Do Cummings and McManus keep Casey off the field? I really think Casey isn't the option for this team.

    • Is Gomez still an option if we need him?

    Prediction: 1-0 win. I feel like I'm going out on a limb a bit on this one, but the Rapids have looked more cohesive in the last couple of games than they have for a while. Add to that the long travel for the Revs, playing at altitude, and the number of games the Revs have faced recently and I think the Rapids have the edge.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2008

    80% Of The Way There, Where Are We?

    We're 80% of the way through the season, so time for another update to my last review. We're entering the homestretch with the playoffs still within reach.

    I've gone back and looked at the first 24 games for the last 3 seasons. I chose 2005 as a starting point because it was the first year of the Clavijo era and because the only player remaining with the team from prior to that is Pablo Mastroeni. It should be noted that in 2005 and 2006 MLS played a 32 game season, so these numbers aren't quite at the 60% mark.

    Over the last 6 games the Rapids have settled in right in the middle of the pack overall. We're tied with 2000 for the 8th best season. We're still right around the average in the Clavijo/Smith era for goals against at this point, and still ahead on goals scored. This is largely due to our two big 4-0 wins.

    Looking at the team position by position:

    Goalkeepers: Bouna Time! has gone AWOL over the last few games. His last start was 6 games ago against Toronto where Chad Barrett hit a perfect free kick that would have taken a world-class stop to save for the only goal in the game. Since then Burpo has been the keeper of choice, not only when Bouna went to Senegal but also when he's been available. Reports are that Burpo has played better in practice, but given some of Preston's questionable decisions during games I still find it surprising that Bouna Time! hasn't gotten his starting spot back. This is a concern for the Rapids as I don't think Burpo is a keeper that can lead a team through the playoffs, and with Bouna's contract ending this season he may decide to try his luck elsewhere, leaving us without an experienced keeper for 2009.

    Defenders: The saving grace for Burpo has been a revamped back line. The Rapids made a strong move signing Cory Gibbs right before the transfer deadline and the addition of him, along side a healthy Mike Petke, has significantly strengthened the defense. The switch in coaching (more on that later) has brought in a coach that favors a 4-man back line which has also helped. Smith also saw what liabilities Erpen and Burciaga were on defense. Combined with an injury to Ihemelu its given Kimura a chance to regain his starting job and given Harvey much needed experience on the left side. The defense is probably the strongest part of the Rapids team.

    Midfield: Along with the Bouna benching, Christian Gomez has found himself out of favor, playing only 137 minutes over the last 6 games. This is a major issue for the Rapids, who make Gomez the centerpiece in their offseason moves, trading their DP slot and their first round draft pick next season for MLS's most expensive bench warmer. While the midfield has been adequate recently, there hasn't been much creativity coming from central midfield, which has been manned by a combination of LaBrocca, Ballouchy, and Dalby. Outside of the central midfield issue the rest of the middle has solidified around Pablo, Cooke, and Clark. Nothing spectacular out of those 3, but they're getting the job done.

    Forwards: After a long stretch of futility from the forwards things seem to be turning around. Casey is still somewhat ineffective and his feet of stone are getting worse, but McManus is quickly becoming the soul of this team. He and Cummings made a good pairing last week and I think there is some hope for that combination going forward. With the trade of Herculez Gomez the team is somewhat light upfront, so injuries would be a concern.

    Bench/Reserves: With Bouna and Gomez relegated to sub status we have one of the stronger benches in the league. Add to that the likes of Ihemelu and Burciaga and we certainly have some options in defense. Things get a bit thin up front though with Peterson along side whichever of our 3 forwards that doesn't start being our only realistic options. Hopefully that will be enough to get us through this season but we'll have to look for some reinforcements in the offseason.

    Coaching: The major change in the last 6 games has been Fernando Clavijo leaving the team and Assistant Coach Gary Smith being put in charge. While there hasn't been a huge improvement, over the last couple of games the team has come around after hitting rock bottom in SLC. Smith has settled down the lineup, switched to a standard 4-4-2 system, and made some good personnel choices. The only questionable moves have been Bouna Time! and C.Gomez, but if he can continue the winning he won't be questioned too much about those. It remains to be seen if he will get the interim tag removed, but so far things are looking better.

    Overall the Rapids are on pace for 37-38 points this season, which for the last 3 years would be good enough for between 4th and last place in the West. 38 points would not have made the playoffs in any of those seasons though it would have been close last season.

    Right now the Rapids have a real chance at making the playoffs. They control their own destiny, winning out would put them in 2nd place in the West. With a rough home schedule (New England and Houston, ending the season at home against FSL) they'll need to get some points on the road in some winnable games (NY and both LA team) if they're going to claim a playoff spot.

    Weekend Roundup 9/13 - 9/14

    Colorado Rapids - My game review is here. With the win the Rapids move up to a tie with Chivas for 3rd in the West, the last playoff spot. They are 9 points behind leading Houston. Colorado is in a tie with Dallas for both the 5th best offense and the 7th best defense.

    Queen of the South - Last week Queens hosted Morton in the Challenge Cup and lost 0-2. This week they travelled to Morton for a league match. The Doonhamers controlled most of the play, only to see Stevie Tosh ejected for a second yellow in the 65th minute. QoS continued to dominate the match but couldn't crack the Greenock defense and had to settle for returning to Dumfries with a 0-0 draw. After 6 matches Queens are 2nd in the division, 1 point behind leading Livingston.

    Blackburn Rovers - Rovers hosted Arsenal and got beat up and down the pitch to the tune of a 4-0 drubbing. There's not much to be said about a match like that. After 4 matches Blackburn is 18th in the table with a -6 goal differential. They are 6 points behind league leading Chelsea.

    CD Tenerife - CDT got their first road win since December with a 4-2 drubbing of Elche. The scoreline is a bit favorable to Tenerife, as after taking a 2-0 lead they allowed the home side to draw level before scoring 2 in the last 11 minutes of the game. After 3 games CDT are in 5th place, 1 point behind leaders Hercules.

    Kildare County FC - Kildare had a hard time fielding a full lineup due to injury ands it showed, with a 4-1 loss on the road. 17 year old Orrin Farrell became the youngest starter in team history. They stayed with Dundalk for the first half, but their lack of depth caught up to them in the second when they were greatly outplayed. With the loss County remains at the bottom of the table, 5 points from avoiding a relegation playoff series with 10 games to play.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    Rapids Rage While Fire Fizzle

    Sorry for the sparse posting around here lately. Work has been busy and I'm not getting much sleep. Things are settling down though, so we'll have the Weekend Update tomorrow, my last mid-season Report Card on Thursday, and the NE game preview on Friday.

    The Rapids started out on Sunday pushing the attack but had problems getting anything on frame. In fact the Rapids first shot on goal resulted in their first goal. After 3-4 shots by McManus that were just offline, Jordan Harvey got the ball along the endline and sent a weak shot at goal. Fire keeper Jon Busch parried the ball into the far side of the net. Busch was credited with an own goal, but Harvey was also credited with a shot on gaol. This odd statistic would continue,m as the next shot on goal was by Omar Cummings after a nice square ball by Terry Cooke. Cummings took the pass 30 yards from net, spun, and sent a low ball right inside the near post for the 2-0 lead. 3 minutes later the Fire finally got their first shot, but it was harmless. The teams would go to the locker room with the Rapids leading in shots (5-1), shots on goal (2-0) and goals (2-0).

    The second half was a series of wasted opportunities by both sides. The Fire wouldn't get their first shot on frame until the 72nd minute, by which time the game was pretty much out of reach. Preston Burpo would have to come up big twice in the last minute to preserve the shutout though. On the offensive side the Rapids would only mount one dangerous shot by Colin Clark in the 87th minute. The Rapids were happy with that though as they did something they had not done all season by winning back-to-back games.

    Keys to the Game review:

    • Can Burpo step up his game and show why he deserves to be the starter?
      No. To be fair though he didn't do anything to make me think he shouldn't start either. Two great saves late in the game, but some very questionable decisions on dealing with crosses. Overall a pretty neutral game from him.
    • Do McManus and Cummings work together better than McManus and Casey?
      I thought so. McManus was very active all game, and the two of them combined to pressure the Fire defenders into a number of mistakes.
    • Can Gibbs and Petke keep Rolfe contained? With Barrett gone Rolfe is the biggest weapon the Fire have after Blanco.
      Rolfe was quiet all game, and the defensive line as a whole had one of the best games I've seen all season from the Rapids defense.
    • Who wins the air war? Both teams like to use outside wingers to cross into the box, the team that can take advantage of those crosses will be the one to win the game.
      Neither team was able to use the aerial game on Sunday. Some pretty poor crosses from both sides resulted in few dangerous chances.
    • If our offense can't break down the Fire, will Smith finally turn to Christian Gomez?
      The Rapids didn't need to turn to Gomez with a 2 goal lead. Still when Cooke came out and Ballouchy was put in I was surprised. Gomez does everything Ballouchy does better.

    Critical Matchup: Pablo vs. Blanco - Blanco who? Mr. White was Mr. Invisible on Sunday. During the game I thought Pablo was somewhat quiet given all the work the defense was doing, but looking back I don't remember Blanco being all that involved either. If Pablo takes himself out of the game to take No-Neck Blanco out of the game, I can live with that.

    Fact of the Match: This is only the second time this season we've scored two goals in the first half. The other time was our 4-0 win against RBNY on the 4th of July.

    Random Observations:

  • Huge nod to the defensive line. Kimura, Gibbs, Petke, and Harvey were monsters on Sunday. Every time it looked like the Fire might have something going one of them stepped up and shut them down. The Fire didn't seriously threaten the goal until after the 80th minute when the game was all but wrapped up.

  • Cookie was off all day. He's one of my favorite players, but I thought we waited too long to sub him. He would play the ball long while players would run short and vice versa, his crosses weren't sharp, and his ball handling was average at best.

  • I really think the Rapids are starting to find themselves. Smith has stabilized the team and done pretty well figuring out our best 11. I still think he needs to give the starting job back to Bouna though.

  • LaBrocca isn't doing anything to convince me he should be starting over Gomez. Nick has been solid, but not spectacular. Without a true attacking mind in the lineup both Clark and Cooke are having to pinch in to get the job done.

  • Tom McManus took a beating out there and just kept going. He may not be credited with a shot on goal he was dangerous the whole game.

  • Great job overall by the team. With the win they're right back in the playoff race.

  • Man of the Match: Kosuke Kimura - Kosuke had probably his best game in a Rapids uniform. He completely shut down the Fire's left side and came up big on a number of crosses from the other side. The whole defense played great this game, but Kimura really stood out.

    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    Rapids Looking To Douse the Fire

    The Colorado Rapids will attempt to something they have yet to do this season tomorrow, win back-to-back games. Unfortunately they have the best road team in the league, the Chicago Fire, coming to the Dick. This will be the first appearance by Mr. White (aka Cuauhtemoc Blanco) in Denver as a member of the Fire. Kickoff at the Dick is at 1pm, with a morning tailgate starting between 10 and 11 in Lot AA.

    Here's the injury report:

    OUT: GK Justin Hughes (L groin); DOUBTFUL: DF Greg Dalby (R ankle); FW Conor Casey (R ankle); QUESTIONABLE: MF Mehdi Ballouchy (concussion); PROBABLE: DF Ugo Ihemelu (concussion)

    DISCIPLINE: Suspended after 2 more yellow cards - Colin Clark, Pablo Mastroeni

    My lineup prediction:

    Erpen - Gibbs - Petke - Harvey
    Cooke - Pablo - LaBrocca - Clark
    McManus - Cummings

    Other than the injury to Casey I expect Smith to run out the same lineup as he did last week in Dallas. While I agree that a consistent lineup is key, I really think we're leaving two of our best 11 on the bench in Christian Gomez and Bouna Coundoul. I realize integrating a player like Gomez into a midfield that seems to have developed a good relationship is difficult so I can see why Smith will leave Gomez on the bench. I have no idea why Burpo will continue to start (as reported by Nick Thomas) over Bouna. His play over the last two games has been horrible, with poor decisions leading to both goals given up to FSL, and only Dallas' inability to hit the broadside of a barn from the inside keeping a clean sheet in Dallas.

    Critical Matchup: Pablo vs. Blanco

    Long time antagonists on the international stage, this will be only their second matchup in MLS, and first at the Dick. One of the classic images of World Cup 2002 was Blanco being this close to punching Pablo in frustration after being stopped, again, by Mastroeni and the rest of the Yank's defense in route to dumping Mexico out of the tournament in their unforgettable 2-0 win. Pablo will have to summon that kind of defense again to shut down the Fire's playmaker and keep Colorado in the game.

    Keys To Look For:

    • Can Burpo step up his game and show why he deserves to be the starter?

    • Do McManus and Cummings work together better than McManus and Casey?

    • Can Gibbs and Petke keep Rolfe contained? With Barrett gone Rolfe is the biggest weapon the Fire have after Blanco.

    • Who wins the air war? Both teams like to use outside wingers to cross into the box, the team that can take advantage of those crosses will be the one to win the game.

    • If our offense can't break down the Fire, will Smith finally turn to Christian Gomez?

    Prediction: 1-1 draw. The Fire are too good, even on the road, to expect to hold them scoreless, especially if Burpo's questionable play continues. I think the Rapids defense can limit the damage though, and I expect the paring of Cummings and McManus to result in at least 1 goal.

    Monday, September 8, 2008

    Weekend Roundup 9/6 - 9/7

    Colorado Rapids - My game review is here. With the win the Rapids move into 5th place in the West. They are 11 points behind leading Houston. They are 10th overall in the league, 3 points out of a tie for the last playoff spot. Colorado is in a tie with Chicago and, Dallas for the 7th best offense and with Toronto for the 8th best defense.

    Queen of the South - In midweek the Doonhamers hosted Ross County at Palmerston Park. The game was a back and forth affair with both teams having chances. Queens lost both Sean O'Conner and Paul Burns to injury, and the Burns injury happened after QoS had used all of their subs. Amazingly enough, the injury restart led to the only goal of the game, for the Doonhamers! The boys were happy to take the 3 points and leave, even putting Burns back on to stand in one place for the rest of the game. The win moved Queens up to second place in the league, only 2 points from the top.

    Over the weekend South hosted Morton in the ALBA Challenge Cup quarterfinals. Morton decided to play bunker ball, looking for the counterattack goal, and it worked. While the Doonhamers controlled the run of play and held possession most of the time it was Morton who scored the goals. Greenock found the back of the net twice in the second half, dumping QoS out of the Challenge Cup.

    Blackburn Rovers - Blackburn Rovers had the week off because the EPL had a bye week for the FIFA International Date.

    CD Tenerife - Tenerife took their first trip to the mainland, facing Eibar who handed CDT their worst road loss of last season. This time around the result would be the same, but the scoreline would look better. After a quiet first half Tenerife opened the scoring, but then gave up 3 goals before getting a consolation goal right before full time. Next week the team travels to Elche to try to get their first road points of the season.

    Kildare County FC - County's game against Limerick 37 was called off due to a waterlogged pitch.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008

    Backed Into a Corner We Came Out Kicking

    Literally in this case, as Terry Cooke served in a perfect corner kick to the head of Mike Petke for the only goal of the game.

    The Rapids started in a 4-4-2 and managed to keep possession more than they have in recent games. Still Dallas was the more dominate team, but like Colorado recently, they couldn't turn their control into goals. Dallas outshot Colorado 15-9 (7-4 on frame) and had a 10-4 advantage on corner kicks. Preston Burpo gave them plenty of opportunities as he did his best vampire impersonation on most crosses.

    The game was fairly quiet for the most part, other than the goal the Rapids only had one other good chance and Dario "Knock em Dead" Sala came up with the acrobatic save to deny Tom McManus. Jeff Cunningham had an empty goal from a tight angle, due to his poor first touch to get around Burpo, but put it off the corner of the frame. Dallas had three strong opportunities ion the final 10 minutes, but couldn't put a single shot on target and the Rapids escaped with 3 points, having not lost to Dallas at all this season.

    Keys to the Game review:

    • Only one this week. Do the Rapids play like they care, or do they not.
      Well they didn't play well, but at least they looked like they cared which was a significant improvement from the FSL game. We still need to do better, but it was a good first step.

    Critical Matchup: Rapids vs. Themselves - The Rapids didn't beat themselves, they forced Dallas to do it and Dallas was unable to.

    Fact of the Match: The Rapids got just their second road win this year. Oddly enough I've been at the Bulldog for both games, the only two games I've been there for.

    Random Observations:

  • LaBrocca over Gomez? Really? No offense to Nick, who's come on well this season, but he's not a former league MVP that we gave up our DP slot and a first round pick for. Interesting to note that we've been shut out twice in the 4 games Gomez has been benched, while we were shutout 3 times total prior to that, and only once when Gomez plays the full 90 minutes.

  • Burpo time has to end. Bouna should be back from Senegal this week and I don't care how bad he's been playing in practice, the play of Burpo over the last two games should be enough for Bouna to start.

  • I liked the move of putting Kimura and Harvey in as outside backs over Burciaga and Erpen. We needed a stronger defensive presence on the outside and they provided it.

  • Petke and Gibbs had their first really bad game defensively since they've been teamed up. If Dallas could hit the broad side of a barn we wouldn't have gotten 3 points.

  • Clark seems to have plateaued in his development. I don't know if the new coaching will help him or not, but he needs to take the next step if he wants to lock down that left mid position long-term.

  • Can we see what a Cummings - McManus combo would do? Casey is completely unimpressive right now.

  • We're back in the playoff race with this win, but id doesn't get any easier with no-neck Blanco and the Fire coming to town next week.

  • Man of the Match: Terry Cooke - Had the assist on the goal and created the most dangerous chances all night.

    Wednesday, September 3, 2008

    Gut Check Time

    The Rapids are in Dallas tomorrow night for the ESPN2 game. Kickoff is at 6:30pm and the supporters clubs, along with this author, will be at the British Bulldog to watch the game. This is a must win game for the Rapids, not only for their playoff hopes but also to prove that the team still has some pride. A third straight defeat, especially if we're shut out for the 4th time in 5th games, and everyone will be wondering if anyone in the organization still cares about even appearing like they're making an effort.

    Here's the injury report:

    OUT: GK Justin Hughes (L groin); QUESTIONABLE: MF Mehdi Ballouchy (concussion); DF Greg Dalby (R ankle); DF Ugo Ihemelu (concussion); PROBABLE: MF Terry Cooke (L hamstring); MF Pablo Mastroeni (R hamstring)

    DISCIPLINE: Suspended after 1 more yellow card - Colin Clark, Pablo Mastroeni

    INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: Bouna Coundoul - Senegal, Omar Cummings - Jamaica

    My lineup prediction:

    Kimura - Gibbs - Petke - Burciaga
    Cooke - C.Gomez - LaBrocca - Clark
    McManus - Casey

    I think we keep Pablo rested unless we need him. Burciaga will start for no good reason. With Cummings gone and Herculez traded the only two forwards we have are McManus and Casey. And I see no way you can't start C.Gomez. With Ballouchy and Dalby injured the last possible excuse to keep him on the bench is gone.

    UPDATE: Bad information, Cummings was not called up for the Jamaica National Team. I still think McManus should start but it might be time to give the McManus/Cummings paring a try since Casey isn't getting the job done.

    Critical Matchup: Rapids vs. Themselves

    Its simple, either the team shows like they care about this season and gets the win, or the jokers that played in SLC last week show up and we can write off the rest of the season.

    Keys To Look For:

    • Only one this week. Do the Rapids play like they care, or do they not.

    Prediction: 1-1 draw As much as they need this game, I don't see them getting it done. I'm sure they see last week as a low point and will bounce back from that, but on the road against a decent Dallas team is too much for the Rapids to handle right now.

    From 3 Gomez' to 1

    The Denver Post is reporting that Herculez Gomez has been traded to Kansas City for 4th round Superdraft and 1st round Supplemental draft picks in 2009 plus cash. Given how little playing time he's gotten this season I'm not really surprised. We have such a hard time scoring though that I don't see how we can afford to lose another forward.

    Why CD Tenerife?

    Another in my occasional series of posts about why I follow the teams I do. I've done previous posts about the Colorado Rapids, Queen of the South, Blackburn Rovers, and Ebbsfleet United. This time around we'll look at CD Tenerife of the Spanish Segunda (Second Division).

    I'm sure most people are wondering why a random team from the second division of Spanish soccer has popped up on my radar. I don't speak Spanish, no Americans have played there, and I don't have any Spanish heritage. The one thing that separates Tenerife from every other European team is that I've seen them play live in Europe.

    In May of 2007 I was able to take a Transatlantic cruise on the Disney Cruise Line's Disney Magic because my mother-in-law works for the Mouse and they offered a special deal to their employees and families. This trip is also where the picture of me and the monkey on the sidebar comes from, that's one of the Barbary Apes of Gibraltar. Our first stop after crossing the Atlantic was in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, home of CD Tenerife, and it happened to be a Sunday which was game day.

    View of Santa Cruz from the ship

    Image of the ship from the waterfront

    Before we left I can contacted members of Armada Sur, the English-speaking supporters club of CDT and arranged to meet them before the game. After spending the morning looking at the local flea market/garage sale I headed up the hill to the Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez Stadium while my wife and her parents went on a excursion to Mount Teide.

    Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez Stadium from down the hill

    A closer view of the stadium

    I stopped by the vendors outside the stadium and picked up a scarf and jersey then wandered to Armada Sur's bar of choice to meet up with the group and watch the game with them. After some pre-game drinks we headed inside.

    Armada Sur's pre-game festivities

    A look from the supporter's seats

    Tenerife's opponent was Malaga CF from the mainland, coincidentally enough the favorite Spanish team of another Rapids fan, so I was hoping for a victory in order to rub it in. Tenerife got off to a good start, with a goal from a corner kick to take an early lead.

    Corner kick that results in a goal

    Armada Sur and Frente Blanquiazul (among others) celebrating

    It was all downhill after that though, as CDT's star keeper had an off day, spilling a shot he should have held which led to a rebound goal, and not covering a ball he should have stopped which resulted in the winning goal. Still the fans weren't too hard on him, apparently he was responsible for keeping them in many games that season and everyone has an occasional off day.

    Afterwards I had to race back to the ship, getting on board only about 30 minutes before the final boarding call, so I wasn't able to partake in the post-game misery drowning. It was a great day though, and I'd love to be able to visit again.
    Since then I've followed CD Tenerife through the Armada Sur forum, Colin Kirby's game writeups, and Andy Woolley's Internet fanzine. We've started out well this season, maybe this is the year we return to La Liga?

    And just to prove I'm not making it up ;), here's a picture of Armada Sur shot from another part of the stadium. You can see yours truly in the blue shirt and sunglasses in the center

    Monday, September 1, 2008

    Weekend Roundup 8/30 - 8/31

    Colorado Rapids - My game review (such as it is) is here. With the loss the Rapids fall to last in the conference and the league. They are 11 points behind leading Houston, 3 points out of a tie for the last playoff spot. Colorado is in a tie with Chicago for the 7th best offense and tied with Chivas for the 11th best defense.

    Queen of the South - Tuesday Queens travelled to Denmark for the second leg of their UEFA Cup qualifier. QoS needed a win and 2 goals to advance but came up short, losing 2-1. The Doonhamers carried the game and probably deserved the win, leading 1-0 until late. Needing a second goal they had to push forward and got burned twice late. It was a short UEFA Cup run for Queens, but a great experience.

    On Saturday Queens hosted league leaders Dundee and got revenge for their early UEFA Cup exit. After an early goal by Dundee, QoS struck back with 3 goals, 2 in the first and 1 in the second, to take complete control of the game. With the win the Doonhamers move up to 4th in the table, 5 points behind the leaders with a game in hand.

    Blackburn Rovers - Blackburn played a competitive match only to fall apart late and lose 4-1. The Rovers gave up two goals in the first twenty minutes, only to get one back right after. For the rest of the first half and most of the second it was a back and forth affair with Blackburn having plenty of chances but failing to find the back of the net. They haven had a PK saved. West Ham scored twice in stoppage time as Blackburn pushed forward for the tying goal which made the scoreline look worse than the game really was. With a 1-1-1 start to the season the Rovers are right in the middle of the table in 10th, 3 points behind Chelsea and Liverpool in first.

    CD Tenerife - The season started this weekend in Spain and somebody forgot to tell Tenerife for the first 20 minutes. The only bright spot was a PK right before half, but CDT was looking at the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline with 5 minutes to play in their home opener. Then local boy Angel scored twice in the last moments of the game and Tenerife escaped with the 3 points to start the season.

    Kildare County FC - The Thoroughbreds continued their up and down season, following a result last week with a dismal first half. By the time County got back into the game it was too late, not even a gift PK call could save them as the ensuing kick was saved by the Waterford keeper. Kildare finally scored in stoppage time but it was only a consolation goal. Kildare County is now 2 points from safety with 11 games to play.