Wednesday, March 18, 2009

2009 Season Preview

The Rapids enter 2009 looking very much like the team that ended 2008. The only significant change in the team was in the nets, and there's a good chance that the only starter on Saturday night that won't have been on the roster at the end of 2008 will be goalkeeper Matt Pickens. The big change to the Rapids is behind the scenes. Gary Smith was given full control of the team after being the interim coach for the last third of 2008, and Paul Bravo joined the Front Office as Technical Director. While the players haven't changed much, hopefully the style and mentality of the team has been overhauled from the failed Clavijo area. I'll break this preview down by position to see where we stand heading into 2009.

Bouna Time! has ended in Colorado. After passing on a contract that would have made him one of the top 5 paid keepers in MLS Bouna Coundoul has decided to try his luck in Europe. The Rapids moved quickly to fill this hole, swapping 2nd round picks with Chicago and sending allocation money to the Windy City on draft day for the rights to Matt Pickens. They followed that up by drafting Steward Ceus, who followed Coundoul at the University of Albany. Preston Burpo returns from 2008 to round out the goalkeeping trio. Pickens is expected to be the starter and there shouldn't be much difference between him and Coundoul. Pickens has spent time with the U.S. Nats, but is not in the picture for the 2010 World Cup. We may lose his services during the Gold Cup though, as I expect to see some of the second and third string Nats called up for that competition as the first-team players have plenty of work this year with the Confederations Cup and World Cup Qualifiers. His backup early on will probably be Burpo, but Ceus may challenge quickly. Ceus displaced Justin Hughes on the roster, who was caught int he roster crunch when the reserve league was eliminated.

The Rapids churned through a number of players on defense this offseason. They waived Tim Ward, Mike Petke and Stephen Keel, and did not offer Jose Burciaga a new contract. To replace the departing players they traded a draft pick to LA for the rights to Ty Harden and they got Ivan Guerrero from DC in the Christian Gomez trade. They also signed Kosuke Kimura, Ugo Ihemelu, and Jordan Harvey to long term deals. It appears that the Rapids are on the verge of announcing the signing of Scott Palguta from Rochester as well. The signing has been long rumored and Palguta has been added to the team roster on MLSnet. This leaves them with a number of young players in defense, plus Cory Gibbs and Ivan Guerrero to try to lead them. The Rapids have been rumored to be trying to sign 2 other defenders, draft pick Mike Holody and Julien Baudet from Crewe in England. Baudet would bring the experience and leadership this group lacks, but at what price. Baudet won't be available until June though, and with Palguta apparently signed Holody is probably unnecessary so we'll start the season with a back line of Kimura - Ihemelu - Gibbs - Harvey, with Harden and Guerrero being options depending on what strategy the coach employs. That's a good deal of youth so we can expect some growing pains, but if the Rapids can keep the majority of this group together that's a pretty solid line to build on for the next few years.

The big off-season move was the trade of Christian Gomez. Gomez obviously didn't fit into Gary Smith's plan so it was just a matter of time before he was moved. The Rapids actually did a pretty good job of getting value back for him, getting their DP slot and a player back. Not a bad recovery from a disastrous trade. The one thing the Rapids haven't done yet is fill the need his departure created and it appears that Smith is happy using LaBrocca or Ballouchy int he role of attacking midfielder. I think this will be a weakness for the team as neither one has shown (in admittedly limited playing time) that they can run an MLS offense. Outside of the attacking mid position the midfield is the strength of the Rapids with Mastroeni, Cooke, and Clark. It appears though that Smith may be starting Peterson in place of Cooke, something I find very surprising, but supposedly he's been working with Jacob int he offseason. Still Cooke is available to shore up that side if we need it. If the Rapids can find a central midfielder then they are good to go.

The Rapids ended the 2008 season with only Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, and Tom McManus on the roster as true forwards. They are starting the 2009 season with only Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, and Jordan Schunk on the roster as true forwards. I think you can see the problem there. There seems to be a good deal of faith that Casey can keep up the strike rate he finished the season with (6 goals in 5 games) but looking at his career stats I don't see that happening. That means Cummings is going to have to finally take the next step and claim a role as a sure starter or we're going to be hurting. Smith has lots of good things to say about Schunk, but he his a rookie and we shouldn't expect much from him yet. The Rapids also acquired the rights to Gregory Richardson from Trindad & Tobago's Joe Public. Richardson lit up New England for 4 goals in a Champions League game, which put him on every MLS radar, but that's the extent of his competition against MLS teams. He's not signed yet but he could give us some depth. The Rapids have also been linked with a summer move for Jason Euell, but that rumor has died down lately and I'm not sure if he'd be worth the money he would demand. Whatever the Rapids do they need to find depth up front, preferably in the form of a sure starter to pair with Casey.

The big change for Colorado is on the sidelines as Gary Smith takes over for Fernando Clavijo. It was obvious more than a year ago that Clavijo had lost the plot as a MLS coach and the move was far overdue. Smith seems to have the respect of the players, as many of them have talked about how much better things are after Clavijo, but it remains to be seen if he can guide a MLS side. He's brought in Steve Guppy as his assistant coach and re-signed David Kramer as GK coach. From all indications, plus the backgrounds of Smith and Guppy, we can expect a traditional "English style" 4-4-2 this year. Unlike a number of fans I don't really care if the Rapids win pretty, as long as they win, so I'm not dreading seeing the English game, yet. Smith has said all the right things this offseason, and has talked about working one on one with players like Peterson and Clark, which is more than we ever heard from Clavijo. The proof is in the pudding though, or in this case, on the scoreboard.

Front Office:
The Rapids signed Paul Bravo as the Technical Director, which seems to amount to something along the lines of "General Manager for Soccer Operations". He'll be responsible for scouting and the youth teams and support the coaching staff of the first team. This is a much needed position in the Rapids FO as it seemed that after you got past the coaching staff there was no soccer knowledge in the organization. It paid immediate dividends as within 48 hours Bravo was able to deal for Ty Harden. In fact the Rapids didn't make a single bad move this offseason in my opinion, the only mistake they seemed to have made is not making enough good ones. If they can keep that track record up then we won't have to worry about puzzling midseason moves like we've seen in past years.

The Rapids have not been successful in making their new home at the Dick a fortress. For a team that has the best natural home-field advantage dropping any points at home should be seen as failure to be avoided at all costs. Since they opened the stadium the Rapids have won less than 50% of their games there, and finished 1-2 wins out of the playoffs. If Colorado is to be successful in 2009 they need to challenge for double-digit wins at home. The road is always a tough place to play in MLS, but the team seemed to turn it around late last season with wins against Chivas and NY on the road. If the team can start winning, they'll get more support form the fans which will increase the home field advantage.

This offseason I think the Rapids did not significantly improve in any area except coaching. Given how bad Clavijo was, that's a significant step forward. I expect the Rapids to be in the playoff battle but it will go down to the last couple of games before they know if they make the playoffs or not. I think they're short a an above average player at central mid or forward in order to feel confident of making a playoffs. Filling both those holes with quality players would make the Rapids a team to take seriously when it comes to MLS Cup. The Rapids do have the type of squad and coaching who could make a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup. They have the youth and depth (everywhere but up front) to bounce back from weekend games and be ready for the mid-week Cup games, and Smith and Guppy know the value of a cup run. I would not be surprised to see Colorado get at least to the quarterfinals.


Allen said...

Any chance that we have 3 forwards to bring in a big striker in June after the season ends in England/Germany/et al.?

Jason Maxwell said...

Well I did mention Jason Euell... ;)

Allen said...

Any rumors on anyone beside Euell?

As for Euell, Wotte has been playing him whereas Poortvelt [sic] wasn't too keen on him. But I don't expect Southampton to offer Euell a new contract until they've secured a spot in the Championship.

Euell's not a scrawny guy. In in the MLS I wouldn't be surprised to see him uses as a CAM as he's been used in Southampton's midfield.