Wednesday, March 24, 2010
On a 3-year run of missing the playoffs the Rapids enter 2010 needing to turn things around. The team itself, however, has not changed much. If you were to look at the best 11 when healthy last year and compare it to the probable best 11 when healthy this year, there's really only 2 changes. Earls takes over the slot vacated by Harvey's loss in the expansion draft, and Larentowicz will probably supplant LaBrocca as a midfield partner for Pablo. Other than that the same players that I would have wanted to see starting at the end of last year are the same players I'd want to start this year. For a team with a mediocre history, I'm not sure that's a good thing.
Matt Pickens returns as the starter in the nets. He was solid when healthy last season, but I feel like he didn't really win us any games. On the flip side he didn't lose us any game either. I don't expect him to stand out this year either, but he should provide confidence to the back line that he'll be able to do his job. Pickens faced a number of injuries last year and if that continues his backups become a concern. Colorado loaned second-year player Steward Ceus to Charlotte for more seasoning, and brought in Ian Joyce as a backup. Joyce is a young player that's bounced around the lower leagues of England but has never gotten much playing time at a level close to MLS. At this point he's as much of a question mark as a keeper in the draft would be. We need to hope that Pickens stays healthy this year.
The Rapids have completely remade their backline since this point last year. Moor and Baudet were brought in mid-season last year. The biggest change in the off-season was the strategic decision to leave Jordan Harvey unprotected in the expansion draft, leading to his selection and departure to Philadelphia. Danny Earls from Rochester was signed to replace him at left back. The closest thing we have to a constant is Kosuke Kimura. In this group we have two young guys that have shown potential (Moor, Kimura), a wizened vet (Baudet), and a question mark (Earls). There's also a good amount of depth with Palguta getting significant playing time last season, Holody got some late-game time, Valentino has gotten significant work this preseason, and newcomer Oscar Murillo form Colombia. The key will be how well the starting 4 gel and can cover for each other, but I feel fairly comfortable with our defense.
The biggest off-season addition for Colorado was in midfield. We sent away Cory Gibbs and Preston Burpo to acquire center mid Jeff Larentowicz and backup winger Wells Thompson. This gives the Rapids a solid 1-2 combo of Mastroeni and Larentowicz in the center of the park, with LaBrocca as a solid backup or utility man. Unfortunately our greatest weakness last season was depth on the wings and we aren't in much better shape this year. Jamie Smith and Colin Clark are returning from season-ending injuries and Wells Thompson is really the only natural winger we have as a backup. Ciaran O'Brien would be a possible sub, but he seems to be out of favor with Gary Smith. One of our two draft signings, Ross LaBauex may be able to help, as well as trialist Andy Lorei if he signs, but we're really banking on not repeating the injuries of last year. The less said about our last midfielder, Ballouchy, the better. If Clark and Smith can come back to their form and stay healthy we have the possibility of having one of the better midfield groups in MLS with Clark, Larentowicz, Mastroeni, and Smith. Any long term absences though and we'll be hurting.
Clearly our best two players last season were our Dynamic Duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings up front. If we're going to make some noise this season that will probably have to happen again. Omar and Conor are a legitimate contender for the best forward tandem in the league. After that though our depth amounts to new draftee Andre Akpan. This is a disaster waiting to happen. There's still a decent chance that Casey will miss significant time by joining the World Cup team, and even if he doesn't any sort of injury to our top 2 leaves us relying on a MLS rookie with nobody behind him. Should Casey and Cummings continue their form from the first 75% of last year we shouldn't have to worry too much about scoring but that's putting most of our eggs in that basket.
In his first full year Gary Smith didn't make any big mistakes wen it comes to his game time coaching. His roster construction leaves much to be desired however, something we've seen continue into this off-season. We go into the 2010 campaign with only 1 backup forward and really only 1 backup winger, while we have 3 defensive midfielders and a couple of general midfielders seemingly without an obvious natural position. Given the natural wear and tear of a season I expect this will come back to hurt us. Other than that Smith has not impressed me, but he hasn't really screwed anything up. Still, with a 3-year run of missing the playoffs he has to be feeling the pressure this season.
The decision to leave Jordan Harvey unprotected was a bad one, there's no away around it. Protecting him of Cory Gibbs made no sense, and while we were later able to trade Gibbs for Larentowicz, I think Gibbs would have been passed over by Philly anyway. The FO did a good job trading the dead weight of Gibbs and Burpo for Larentowica and Thompson, but the team still seems to have no interest in using its DP slot. Combined with the lack of backups in vital positions I wonder what the Front Office spent most of the off-season doing. Out of the four draft picks only the two signed by the league pre-draft made the roster, and we went out and signed Danny Earls and a backup defender and GK. Not hat much going on. I expect we'll need the Front Office to step up and make some mid-season moves if we're going to contend.
Once again the Rapids failed to win much more than 50% of their home games. We dropped 16 out of 45 points at home and missed the playoff by a point. That has to change in order to be competitive. I think breaking 30 points at home should be the minimum expectation for a place with the best natural advantage in the league.
The flip side to not making many changes in the off-season is that the team should be fairly comfortable with each other from the start. There shouldn't be that much "ramp up" time as the team figures out how to play as a unit.
This off-season the Rapids made one major improvement (Larentowicz) and one major decline (Harvey). Everything else was pretty much neutral. Our lack of depth is still a very big concern to me. For us to be a real threat we need to have all the breaks go our way. We need to have no major injuries, Casey and Cummings need to repeat their 2009 seasons, and our young players need to prove that they're up to MLS standards right away. If that happens I can see us making the playoffs with a few games to spare and being a threat to make a run. I don't see good odds for all that happening though, so I'm expecting that for yet another season the Rapids playoff chances will come right down to the wire. In the end I think we come up short for the 4th season in a row.