By AVI CREDITOR
The Colorado Rapids enter the 2011 preseason with an unfamiliar distinction: Defending MLS Cup champions.
Not much has changed in terms of the team's make-up. Captain Pablo Mastroeni is back in the fold after climbing the champion's mountain for the first time in his career; the lethal strike tandem of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings is still in tact, which may have been an uncertainty had Cummings gotten the chance to impress on trial at Aston Villa; and the defensive unit, which had a number of unknown commodities in 2010, has a successful season under its belt as it enters another campaign together.
With the team's role shifting from hunter to hunted, though, only the best will be expected from coach Gary Smith's squad from the onset of this coming season. Prior to that, the club will be tested with five friendlies against MLS clubs in a preseason that will be spent on the western part of the country.
Here's a closer look at the Colorado Rapids' preseason plans:
Training Schedule: Feb. 7-10, Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Feb. 11-16, Westside Complex, Glendale, Ariz.; Feb. 18-28, Dick's Sporting Goods Park; March 1-4, Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo, Calif.; March 5-8 and 11-18, Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Preseason Game Schedule: Feb. 12 vs. Sporting Kansas City at Westside Complex; Feb. 14 vs. Columbus Crew at Westside Complex; Feb. 16 vs. Los Angeles Galaxy at Westside Complex; March 4 vs. San Jose Earthquakes at Cal Poly University; March 9 vs. Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field.
Key Arrivals: MF – Sanna Nyassi, Joseph Nane; D – Tyrone Marshall, Eddie Ababio
Key Departures: MF – Claudio Lopez, Peter Vagenas; D – Julian Baudet, Danny Earls
What to Watch For: With Mac Kandji still on the mend after tearing his left ACL on the game-winning play in MLS Cup, the Rapids will need either Andre Akpan or Quincy Amarikwa to take on a bigger role as the team's security blanket up top. Should Casey or Cummings miss any time, either Akpan — the team's first pick in the 2010 SuperDraft (22nd overall) — or Amarikwa would be pressed into duty. Look for both of them be pushed harder than most players on the Rapids roster over the next six weeks.
Also, can Nyassi reprise his 2010 success with Seattle in Colorado? When in form, Nyassi is a menace for opposing defenses to deal with on the wing, and he could interject more width into the Rapids' attack than the team had a year ago. He'll also be relied on spell the 32-year-old Brian Mullan on the right.
Of Note: Cummings was supposed to be on trial, and perhaps on loan, with Aston Villa throughout the preseason, but he was denied a work permit and will remain with the Rapids instead…Marvell Wynne, Matt Pickens, Jeff Larentowicz and Anthony Wallace all took part in the United States men's national team's January camp, with all but Pickens seeing time in the 1-1 draw with Chile…Two of the team's preseason friendlies are against 2010 postseason foes (Columbus, San Jose).