Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2011 Season Preview

This year starts on a much better note than the last 3 years. Before our first kick of 2011 we'll be raising our 2010 Champions banner (I assume)! That's a much better place to be than on a 3-year playoff drought like last year. With the added CONCACAF Champions League games the Rapids have a full schedule this year. This year's preview will probably be a bit shorter than prior ones, mainly because so little has changed this offseason.

There have been no changes in the nets for the Rapids since the end of MLS Cup 2010. Pickens is still the starter, Joyce is expected to be his backup, and Ceus is the young guy waiting in the wings. While Casey deserved the MLS Cup MVP award, it could have easily been given to Pickens as well. He's one of the more underrated keepers in the league. I feel fairly confident with him in goal. Joyce looked capable in his one start last year, hopefully Pickens back spasms won't reappear but if they do I think we'll be OK.

Since I wrote my 2010 preview the Rapids made two major changes to the back line, trading for Marvell Wynne and Anthony Wallace. Wynne was probably the biggest surprise of 2010. When he came over from Toronto most people thought he was a speedy outside back that couldn't read the game well. Gary Smith threw him right into the mix at center back and Wynne excelled. He still relies on his speed more than he should but he's partnered well with Moor. Wallace looks like our left back of the future. He's still working on his positioning (he was way out of position on Dallas' goal in MLs Cup) but that's a teachable skill. Kimura and Moor round out the defense, giving us a very young group. After Baudet and Earls were traded before the expansion draft Tyrone Marshall was added to help bring some experience to that group and Michael Holody was re-signed to join Scott Palguta to give us some depth. Draft pick Eddie Ababio has been offered a contract and Danny Earls is training with the team this week after being cut by Seattle, he may also be re-signed.

The biggest changes in the team this off-season have come in midfield. Claudio Lopez and Ciaran O'Brien were waived after getting little playing time in Colorado. The Rapids traded for Sanna Nyassi (Seattle) and Joseph Nane (Toronto) to replace the lost depth. They've also signed Steven Emory from Metro State. Along with Wells Thompson this gives the Rapids a young set of midfielders to back up the older starting foursome of Mullan, Mastroeni, Larentowicz, and Smith. There's also academy product Davy Armstrong and 2010 draft pick Ross LaBauex who are expected to get experience in the reserve league.

C+C Goal Factory is back to make "EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!" for another season. The best strike duo in the league, the only question around Casey and Cummings is when Cummings will eventually be sold to a European team. Depending on how well he plays in the Gold cup and what affect it has on Jamaica's FIFA ranking that could be as soon as the summer transfer window. With the added fixtures and the possibility of losing Cummings the Rapids have been looking to add depth up front and seem to have found it in Caleb Folan from Hull City. The signing has not been officially announced but rumor has it that the deal is done and he'll be arriving this week. Mac Kandji is still rehabbing from the torn ACL he received while forcing the MLS cup winning goal. Anything we get out of him this season should be considered a bonus. Amarikwa and Akpan will get a ton of starts for the reserve squad and spot time as late game subs for the first-team.

Gary Smith made enough right moves last year, and has followed that up with a solid if unspectacular off-season. Looking at the play and the results last year, the biggest mistake he made was sticking with the 4-5-1 far too long,t he team didn't take off until they reverted back to a 4-4-2. When asked about moving Cummings back to the midfield during the Arizona pre-season trip Smith indicated that wasn't likely, so he seems to have learned that lesson. Certainly after the return to the 4-4-2 and the late-season trades the Rapids proved that they could hang with any team in the league, so there was no reason to make significant changes to the starting XI in the off-season.

Front Office:
The Rapids FO did what needed doing this off-season, at least on the field. They didn't make any major moves because none were needed, and the trade of Earls and Baudet for Vaegnas in order to protect players like Kandji and Kimura in the expansion draft was a very good piece of work. Especially now that it looks like we could re-sign Earls anyway. The preset move with Portland to have them pick Wallace (so we could protect Thompson) and then trade him back to us for allocation money shows they learned form their mistake with Harvey last year, and then to grab Nyassi from Seattle (by way of Vancouver) for an international slot was working the system to full effect. The team still has 5 slots to fill, but with players like Folan, Ababio, Janniere, and Bannister still working with the team in various roles there are options to fill those slots. the one thing the FO has yet to do is find a jersey sponsor. For the most part that's no big deal, but the money from it would be nice if we ever wanted to sign a Designated Player.

The fact that we're returning our starting XI from MLS Cup 2010 means that the team should hit the ground running. With a fairly easy opening 3 games against an expansion team and the worst team from each conference last year. Two of those are home matches, so starting with anything less than 7 points would be a disappointment. Last year the Rapids lost only 2 games at home (and one of those was to the eventual Shield winner) but they had 5 draws so they barely won half their home games. If the Rapids want to push for one of the automatic playoff spots by finishing in the top 3 they need to get that win number to double digits. That would have gotten them 3rd last year.

With the addition of a minimum of 5 more competitive games than the Rapids played all of last year I don't think they'll be pushing for the Supporter's Shield. I do think they're in the upper half of the West and in the top 6 overall. I expect the Rapids to be in a playoff position all season and clinch a spot without too much trouble. The fight will be to avoid the extra wild-card game by finishing in the top 3 in the West. That battle could go down to the final games. The draw for the USOC has us on the road for both play-in games so I expect a quick exit from that competition. Its hard to know what our Champion's League fate will be until we see the draw in August and how the team will approach it, but I expect that we'll at least put up a good fight.

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