photo by Stephen Brashear/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Two years removed from winning their first MLS Cup, the Colorado Rapids have undergone some major changes.
After a season in which it was the last Western Conference team to secure advancement to the playoffs, Colorado dismissed head coach Gary Smith and team president Jeff Plush resigned.
Now, a new era is set to begin for the Rapids. Former Colombia internaional and long-time FC Dallas assistant Oscar Pareja has been named Colorado's head coach and he is implementing a system different from that of years past, one that emphasizes a more technical style of play.
"Realistically, it will take time but we can discuss that within the season," said Pareja. "For now it is trying to put this team at the next level again and they have been in an MLS Cup already and we would like to take them back again."
Here is a closer look at the Colorado Rapids ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
COLORADO RAPIDS 2012 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 12-9-13, 49 points (fifth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Martin Rivero, M Jaime Castrillon, D Luis Zapata, G Joel Helmick, M Tony Cascio, D Hunter Freeman, M Kohei Yamada
KEY LOSSES: F Macoumba Kandji, F Caleb Folan, M Sanna Nyassi, D Mike Holody, D Miguel Comminges, M Danny Earls
The Rapids have the same core group of players with Omar Cummings, Conor Casey, Pablo Mastroeni, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Matt Pickens and Jeff Larentowicz all returning. That foundation should make for a competitive team, but as last year proved, more is needed to keep up with the other clubs in the steadily-improving Western Conference.
In come some of Pareja's additions. Midfielders Martin Rivero and Jaime Castrillon combined with defender Luis Zapata add more technical skill and creativity to a team that was held scoreless 11 times (including playoff games) in 2011.
"Saying Latin flavor kind of pinpoints them to a tee," said Wynne. "The guys have great skill on the ball, they like to do the little give-and-go passes and they look to go forward a lot. It's not so much just keeping the ball and possessing it but it's also attacking with a purpose."
The formation Pareja is favoring is a 4-3-3. In it, the players continuously look to play through the middle and there is more of an emphasis on technique. Pareja says this is to 'overload' the middle with players.
That's different what Smith deployed when he was coach, preferring to go with a 4-4-2 that emphasized physicality, counter attacks, and crosses after runs down the flanks.
That does not mean Pareja is tactically unflexible. In fact, he is quite the opposite.
"One thing that I tell everyone, I like my team to be very flexible," said Pareja. "Flexibility, versatility in our players is something we want."
Riddled with injuries in 2011, Colorado will be hoping for a clean bill of health this season. The Rapids are not off to the greatest of starts in that respect as Cummings, who was often injured last year, is currently recovering from a right ankle knock.
Then there is the case of Colorado's other top scoring threat in Casey, who was recently ruled out for another month as he recovers from sports hernia surgery he had earlier this year.
Should that bad luck on the injury front begin to change, the Rapids will need to turn their focus quickly to continuing to finetune and progress in the new system Pareja is attempting to implement.
"It will definitely improve as we go along, but it's still looking pretty good," said Wynne. "He's done well with it. It took us time to get used to not always trying to go wide with the ball and then get crosses in, but to go through the middle. We're just going to get better with time."
Time may not be a luxury the Rapids will have too much of, not with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas looking like serious contenders in the Western Conference.
Then again, Colorado was also not the favorite two years when it hoisted its first MLS Cup trophy.