Thursday, July 31, 2008

Toffeemen in Town; Mastroeni to Impress?

Everton have arrived in Colorado for this weekend's game against the Rapids. It will be an intriguing game, not least because of the many subplots emerging. Just as manager, David Moyes, appears on the verge of agreeing a GBP 60,000 a week contract -yes, that's right, he will be earning about four times as much in one week as Bouna Coundoul does in a whole year -Everton's CEO has resigned. Officially, it has nothing to do with the club's protracted negotations in moving to a new stadium, a move very unpopular with many fans because it will mean the team will play outside the boundaries of the city of Liverpool.
The bigger concern for the Everton players is that they don't have enough teammates. Everton's arrival in the Rocky Mountains comes after a 2-0 defeat to the Chicago Fire where they were forced to play three teenagers and only had five substitutes available at a time when nobody is anywhere near match fit. "We can’t hide the fact that we need new players at Everton," Moyes told evertonTV. "Everybody knows it, I know it, the players know it – we have to get five or six players in before the season starts." Such comments can only lead to speculation about Rapids' skipper, Pablo Mastroeni, who has openly stated a desire to play in Europe. Mastroeni, who is out of contract at the end of this MLS season, would fit in well with the Everton squad. He has the toughness and ethical standards that a tough Scot like Moyes will demand. He has the pedigree and the experience and could be a real mentor for some of the Everton youngsters emerging. I will try and pin him down for a comment tommorrow.
One other piece of interesting news is that Australian, Tim Cahill, has surprisingly joined the Everton team at their training in the US. It had previously been made clear that Cahill, recovering from surgery, would not make the US trip but his appearance could maybe lead to a surprise outing for the tough tackling midfielder in Colorado on Sunday. That would be a major treat for all soccer fans.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bye Bye Bruno; Rapids Screwed by The Crew

He didn't come, he didn't see and he certainly didn't conquer. The Colorado Rapids today traded college midfielder, Bruno Guarda, to FC Dallas. In return, they received multiple draft picks and an undisclosed allocation. The Rapids picked up Guarda in the MLS lottery last week and the much vaunted SMU star immediately became the subject of many approaches from other teams. It was difficult to see how the Rapids could have fit him in so he instead will be reunited in Dallas with his old SMU coach, Schellas Hyndman.
How the Rapids could have done yesterday with some of the creativity Fernando Clavijo described Guarda as having when he signed him last week. Despite relentless atttacks, especially in the second half when Columbus escaped once upfield to score the game-winning goal, the Rapids could not break down a stubborn defense which included an outstanding display from Columbus goalkeeper, Will Hesmer.
The problem as I see it was more on the defensive side. We know the Rapids usually lose when they concede first. So they did yesterday and it was a poor goal. There was fatal indecision by Facundo Erpen and Bouna Coundoul which allowed Columbus striker, Steven Lenhart, to get enough room behind the defense and net the opening goal in the 21st minute. It wasn't the only time last night that there was a lot of indecision or poor decision making by the defense. Both Erpen and Ugo Ihemelu had poor nights yesterday. If it hadn't been for a dominant performance from Pablo Mastroeni at the heart of the defense, it could have been worse.
So, the Rapids were chasing a game again and they started to play some good soccer for the rest of the first half. They were further encouraged by the sending off of the goalscorer, Lenhart, who was rather harshly judged to have elbowed Erpen in the face.
There was so much pressure in the second half but it all came to naught. The Rapids were incapable of splitting the defense as Columbus had done to us on more than one occasion in the first half. There was wave upon wave of attacks. Colin Clark frightened the life out of All-Star Frankie Hejduk down the left. There was a shot against the bar from Terry Cooke. Even defender Erpen shot twice, showing how much pressure there was. But it proved impossible to split open a nine-man defense. Columbus played very smart soccer. They had two, maybe three chances all night and scored twice. They packed their defense in the second half hoping for a break away to secure the win and it worked. The Rapids, in contrast, ran around like headless chickens, full of sound and fury, and made bad defensive decisions which cost us the game. Very disappointing. The Rapids now face Everton in a friendly this weekend before two further games at home in the league against Toronto and Kansas City. Those games need to be won.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rapids Bringing More Sexy Football to DSG Park

The Colorado Rapids have signed Brazilian midfielder, Bruno Guarda, through the league's lottery system. Guarda will take the roster position of the unfortunate Justin Hughes who has been placed on the season-ending injury list. Get better soon Justin! The Rapids have not had the best of luck with Brazilians. They lost out in their chase for striker Reinaldo who went off to South Korea instead. Midfielder, Rafael Gomes, did show signs of real skill in the few opportunities he had but his lack of English let him down in the end and he was offloaded. Guarda comes with the advantage of having been in the American collegiate system, playing for SMU. He will no doubt have enough English to discuss some stories with SMU alumni, Ugo Ihemelu and Colin Clark. Guarda spent three years with the Mustangs, scoring 15 goals and registering 17 assists in 63 games. "Bruno is a skillful, creative midfielder who comes to us with a very impressive resume," said coach, Fernando Clavijo. "As a team, we were fortunate to win this lottery for such a talented, technical player." The Brazilian was also a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy in both 2006 and 2007 and a two-time Conference USA Player of the Year. Can't quite see how he will work his way into a crowded midfield just yet but maybe next season?

The Value of Hard Work; McBride for Colorado?

The value of hard work and the value of a deep roster. A week may be a long time in politics, as they say. A few weeks may actually be a very short time in professional sport. Last month wasn't looking great for two very skillful players on the Colorado Rapids team. At the beginning of July, both Mehdi Ballouchy and Herculez Gomez were wondering whether they would be able to find their way back into the starting XI. Now, they find themselves with great opportunities to establish their places. Ballouchy has played very well since the July 4 thrashing of the Red Bulls. With three successive games at home, he can cement his place in an attacking formation. Coach, Fernando Clavijo, spoke highly of the Moroccan's professionalism at fighting his way back on the From The Pitch radio show last night Fan favorite, Herculez, was frustrated at getting a few minutes here and there. But his hard work and his goals in the Reserves saw him in the starting line-up against Dallas and he grabbed the chance within five minutes. Now, with another fan favorite, Tom McManus, out for a few weeks having had surgery on a troublesome knee, Herc will surely get a good run in next to Conor Casey. Fellow striker, Omar Cummings, is with the Jamaican national team this weekend (congratulations to Omar) and will be lucky to make it to the sub's bench against Columbus this Sunday night so Herc looks set to start. We wish him and Ballouchy well just as we do Omar and McManus.
Veteran US striker, Brian McBride, was a guest on the From The Pitch show last night. Rapids coach, Clavijo, kind of joked that McBride would be very welcome at Dick's Sporting Goods Park if his dealings with Chicago and Toronto break down. Those two teams are in dispute as to claims on the striker who is out of contract with Fulham of the Premier League. It is very unlikely to happen but who would turn McBride down if the opportunity arose? I love the partnership of McBride and Altidore up front for the US Olympics team. A match-winning combination of exciting, speedy youth and sheer experience and nous?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Rapids Tie It Up Down Texas Way

The facts of this game? The Colorado Rapids managed a 2-2 draw, again showing that this is not a team that gives up easily, having gone down 2-1. In so doing, the Rapids extended their unbeaten run to three games in the MLS. The truth is that our attacking play was so much better than that of FC Dallas that we should have won this game. Unfortunately, some defensive errors let the Texans back into the game, which was eventually saved by a Conor Casey header with 20 minutes to go.
The start was inspired. Coach, Fernando Clavijo, deserves much credit for starting Herculez Gomez who scored twice for the Reserves last weekend. And the choice paid off handsomely, Gomez netting after just five minutes after some slick passing saw Mehdi Ballouchy slip a gorgeous pass over the back of the Dallas defense. Herc did the rest. Ballouchy is relishing this run in the starting XI. Altitude TV gave Herc the Man of the Match but, for me, Ballouchy was excellent. His passing and creativity were really top notch and his presence was far greater than that of fellow playmaker Christian Gomez who, admittedly, made a superb cross for Casey's equalizer. Ballouchy was also not shy at getting stuck in in the physicality of the midfield battles.
The defensive errors occurred in the second half and let Dallas back in and saw us in danger of losing. I'd have to see the action again but the penalty decision for the first goal looked harsh, to put it politely. Maybe Bouna did come too far out for the second goal but he did make up for it towards the death when he saved brilliantly from a Juna Toja scorcher from just outside the box. A few more nervous moments as Dallas scored a disallowed goal for a clear offside. Never fearing to lose, the Rapids eventually played out the remaining few minutes for a tough, well-earned draw. Now, three games at home on the trot. A time to turn this season around following the mini-momentum gained from two draws and a win in the last three games.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good News, Bad News

Merseysiders, Everton FC, will visit DSG Park next month in an eagerly anticipated friendly against the Colorado Rapids. I say eagerly anticipated but I wonder how many people in Denver and surroundings are actually eagerly anticipating? I say this because I can't seem to get an answer from the Rapids' ticket guys as to how many tickets have been sold for the game on August 3. I can't help thinking that this lack of information is a little fishy. Anyway, some good news and some bad news for the Nil Satis Nisi Optimum visitors. First, as always, the bad news. Tim Cahill, the Australian midfielder, looks certain to miss the trip Stateside. He has a broken metatarsal and is currently in his homeland seeking treatment. Cahill is, for me, one of the best attacking midfielders in the Premiership. He is strong, physically aggressive and quick and he scores a ton of goals, some of them spectacular as witness the bicycle kick against Chelsea last season (see link below). I am very disappointed he will not be on show at DSG Park because this is one hell of a player. The good news is that central defender, Joseph Yobo, is likely to be in a much better frame of mind if he makes the trip. His brother was eventually released from kidnappers in their native Nigeria this week after 12 days in captivity. Somehow, kidnapping does not seem to be something that you would worry about in Commerce City. We look forward to welcoming Yobo and the rest of the Blues, Cahill excepted, to the game next month. Kick-off is 6pm.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rapids Confident Ahead of Texas Trip; Dalby Signs

There's a growing sense that the Colorado Rapids may be able to take advantage of a weakened Dallas side this weekend and further consolidate the good momentum which started with the July 4 victory against the New York Red Bulls. Contrary to the doubters out there, last weekend's 1-1 draw with San Jose was a point well won. For the first time this season, the Rapids saved a game in which they had gone a goal down. That is very welcome. If they can get something out of the trip to Texas, the team would be unbeaten in four games, including the Tigres match, and this would be followed by three games in a row at home. Good performances in those games and the season will turn around. It's a big if but the players are doing well in training, the team looks settled and Dallas, for one, are not the team they have been. Some of that may be down to the recent coaching change but there may be deeper reasons. Rapids' coach, Fernando Clavijo, talked on the From The Pitch show last night about how a second season may have found out the Dallas midfielder, Juan Toja, who was in the All-Star team last year. "They also have not been playing well for the past two to three seasons," he told me at training today. Let us hope that Colorado can get over their historically poor record against Dallas in the Lone Star state and come out with at least a point.
One player relishing his time in the starting XI is Mehdi Ballouchy. The team's good form in recent games does coincide with his presence in the line-up. Maybe Clavijo has found a way of playing Christian Gomez and Ballouchy together, not to mention Terry Cooke? "It is obviously great to be back in the team again," he said. "I think the coach was wary about playing so many attacking players together but he has found his faith in me and I think the three-man midfield of me, Christian and Nick LaBrocca is working well right now." As for his celebration with his hands tied/untied behind his back after scoring the second goal against New York? "I want to keep that personal," he said. It must have felt a great release to find the net in his first MLS start of the season.
In other news, the Rapids confirmed the signing of midfielder, Greg Dalby. Dalby, who played in the friendly against Tigres, could only sign officially with the Rapids after July 15. The Californian was a draft pick in 2007 and played last season in Belgium with FC Charleroi. Having driven through Charleroi once, he must know he has made the right choice when he trains at DSG Park every day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mastroeni and Gomez Join All-Star Team

Those who were disappointed that no Colorado Rapids' players were selected to the starting XI last week for the All-Star Game can now comfort themselves with the knowledge that coach, Steve Nichol, has selected two squad members in Pablo Mastroeni and Christian Gomez. Nichol had five picks so selecting two Rapids' players out of that can't be bad. Commissioner Garber chose the other two. This will be Mastroeni's ninth successive All-Star involvement. The MLS team plays West Ham United July 24 in Toronto and all reserves can still work their way into the starting line-up. Maybe Pablo will impress the Hammers' watching staff and secure a lucrative London-based contract?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reserves Win as Herc Nets Twice, Petke Plays 90

Some good news on the Reserves front. The Colorado Rapids Reserves beat their San Jose counterparts 3-1 yesterday despite being a man down for much of the game after Jose Burciaga was sent off in the 34th minute. In terms of individual players, there was good news for Mike Petke in that he completed the whole match, building on his midweek second half performance against Tigres. Another very notable performance was from Herculez Gomez who scored two of the three goals, set up the third for Nico Colaluca and also hit the woodwork twice. Clearly, the pecking order for strikers at the club sees Herc lower down than he would like with McManus and Casey above him. He and Omar Cummings are very similar players. All he can do is score lots of goals, show willing and maybe he can work his way back into the starting XI.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rapids Concede First But Escape With Draw

The hex is broken. The Colorado Rapids finally got at least a point after going down a goal. In eight previous games this season, six of them on the road, the Rapids have lost when conceding the first goal. Today, against the San Jose Earthquakes, they sure enough conceded the first goal but a header from Conor Casey in the 70th minute from a Terry Cooke cross rescued a point. This is good and should fill the team with confidence as they approach a four-game cycle which sees them on the road next week against Dallas followed by three consecutive home games.
Nobody could really say this was a pretty game. There weren't that many clear cut chances although Casey had a very good opportunity which he put wide of Joe Cannon's post in the 11th minute. I can't pretend to say anything too intelligent about the second half because I had to miss most of it. I did hear the San Jose goal on the Spanish language radio station and the familiar sense of dread overtook. But one text message later and the gloom dispersed as Casey grabbed the chance. Each game seems to be getting more important and the Dallas one next week must now loom large in the team's mind as they try not to resort to the old habits of conceding and going on to lose.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pablo Ponders as Rapids Go West

Pablo Mastroeni, the veteran defensive midfielder and longtime face of the Colorado Rapids, may want to leave Denver and seek to further his career in Europe before his contract expires in December. He is reported to be considering that option, according to today's Denver Post (link below). Interestingly, while he was previously connected only with Spain and Italy (he holds an Italian passport and speaks Spanish), the report says England is also a possibility. As Rapids' coach, Fernando Clavijo, told me today at training, Pablo could play anywhere. He clearly has the pedigree and is held in particularly high regard in Italy where his performances in World Cup 2006 were widely praised despite the team's relatively poor showing. "There is nobody at this club I would be happier to see perform in Europe," Clavijo said. "I think next year is more likely, however. For now, he has to focus on the Rapids because it will be his peformances here that will catch people's eye." Clavijo stated that Mastroeni has not had any contact with any club in Europe so far. He has been linked to Cagliari of Italy's Serie A. Livorno, now in Serie B and at the centre of match-fixing allegations, and Atalanta have also been speculated as Italian possibilities. With England now in the mix, it should be noted that Aston Villa coach, Martin O'Neill, is reported this week in the Birmingham Mail newspaper as hinting he is close to signing several deals and is also on the lookout for a new club captain with the imminent departure of Gareth Barry. With one of the smallest Premier League squads, O'Neill is definitely looking towards the US and appears particularly keen on boosting his defense. The problem with all of the European leagues is that they are off kilter with the MLS and begin competitive games in August, making it difficult for the likes of Mastroeni to secure a contract at the end of his one in Denver. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, Mastroeni will be at the heart of the defense in the Rapids' game tomorrow against San Jose Earthquakes. Expect an unchanged eleven from the team that dismantled New York Red Bulls on Independence Day. We all know the Rapids' struggles on the road this season and how they fail to win if they don't score first. With the confidence levels high after last week, maybe this will be the game that turns things around. With another away game next week against Dallas followed by three home games in a row, this is a crucial time for the Rapids. As midfielder Terry Cooke has pointed out, this could be the time to put together four or five wins on the trot. Now that would be sweet.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Parli Italiano Pablo?

Here's a couple of reports linking Colorado Rapids' Pablo Mastroeni with Cagliari of Italy's Serie A. Can't find anything more substantial just yet but my thanks to Jeannine in Littleton who alerted me to the soccertimes article.
Stay tuned. There will be developments on this one, I am sure.

Pablo to Make Long Eurotrip?

Holy Jesus as they might say down in Colorado Springs! Pablo is really moving to Spain or Italy? According to the local paper, which, judging from its lack of Rapids' coverage, made its annual trip to Dick's Sporting Goods Park July 4, Colorado Rapids' midfield dynamo and veteran international, Pablo Mastroeni, will seek his fortune in southern Europe once this MLS season is over. Pretty damn good scoop. I thought it might be a dream because it was pretty near impossible to find the original story on today's Colorado Gazette website so thanks to our good friends at Class VI for posting this major piece of gossip (link below). Many questions remain about the proposed move so please check in later this week and I will hopefully have some updates. I'm sure the boys at the From The Pitch show will have something to say tomorrow too.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Do You Know The Way to San Jose?

Well, the logistics department of the Colorado Rapids probably knows how to get the team there but do the team know how to win aginst the struggling Earthquakes? Thoughts must now turn to a vital game next weekend in California after yesterday's dismantling of a poor New York Red Bulls side. We have been here before. On opening day, most people got a little too excited about the 4-0 drubbing of Beckham's Galaxy. Suddenly, the Rapids were going to win everything. Now, we win 4-0 again at home and we have to carry it through at this halfway stage of the season. The key at San Jose must be to score first. When we have scored first on the road this season, we have won. When we score second, we have lost. It is that simple.
The game started very slowly yesterday. Apart from a Christian Gomez header over the bar, there was little to show in the opening quarter until Tom McManus finished a very nice build-up out of defense. Did the Rapids players agree on some special celebrations for July 4? The Scotsman proceeded to take the corner flag out of the ground and pretend he was walking a tightrope. Mehdi Ballouchy, starting for the first time this season in a league game, put the game further under control with a simple finish following a hard, low cross from Terry Cooke. Not sure what his celebration was but he lay on the ground for a while with his hands behind his back.
It was vital that the Rapids didn't let New York back into the game from this position. Bouna Coundoul certainly did his bit with a fine save from a great goalscoring opportunity at the end of the first half and, within minutes of the restart, Colin Clark put the game beyond reach with a rifle shot after some strong dribbling and persistence. In truth, it could have been a far higher score because other chances were missed but Omar Cummings wrapped it up from good work with McManus in the 68th minute.
Why do the Rapids sometimes look so convincing and then take a few games off? I can't answer that. What I did notice yesterday was that there was some great counterattacking play. The passing was slick out of defense, through the midfield and up to the front boys. If I could watch video replays of the whole game, I would probably say also that our midfield generally stifled any New York creativity. Credit for this, among others, must go to Nick LaBrocca who is turning into a very sound player indeed. He works tirelessly and appears to be everywhere on the field. He is not afraid to get upfield either and almost added to his goal last week with a shot over the bar in the second half. I think he is the only player to have started all regular season games this year and he fully deserves that. He was my personal Man of the Match.
I very much like the way the substitutions were handled. It made perfect sense for a still not fully fit Christian Gomez to come off after the game was safe at 3-0 and let John DiRaimondo play almost a half. DiRaimondo was unlucky to have lost his starting place after a good game last week against Columbus. On the other hand, it was good to see Ballouchy play a full 90 and play well. You have to be happy for Herculez Gomez that he finally got decent playing time after he came on for McManus with 20 minutes to go. Gomez has been frustrated by a lack of first team action but he is an important player for this club. Injuries and lack of form can turn things around in no time and that is why it is important he gets some good gametime under his belt.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Cynicism is OK But You Can't Win Without Goals

The relatively inexperienced midfield for the Colorado Rapids may have to inject a little more cynicism into its play to avoid making the kinds of mistakes that saw the team allow a similarly inexperienced Columbus player last week waltz through it and score the winning goal. Goalkeeper, Bouna Coundoul, said in this week's radio show, "From The Pitch", that Emmanuel Ekpo should have been fouled further up the field. After all, a yellow card is a lot easier to stomach than a goal. It looks as if he had been listening to coach, Fernando Clavijo, who said he had played that moment over in his head all week and, no doubt, had not let his players forget about it either. "We were punished again for our mistakes, both defensively and in attack," said Clavijo at training today. As has been the case in the past weeks, it is our finishing that continues to let the team down and we are being punished for that as well as our defensive errors. I understand the need for a little more cynicism, maybe, but that does not escape the fact that we need to score more goals.
Maybe some of the punishment is being meted out by some tinkering with the line-up for tomorrow's game against New York Red Bulls. You can expect Mehdi Ballouchy to start ("very positive with lots of energy this week," Clavijo noted), maybe in place of John DiRaimondo. Jordan Harvey may drop to the bench with a back three of Ihemelu, Erpen and Mastroeni. Christian Gomez looks to be back to full fitness so we should see an attacking formation tomorrow which includes Terry Cooke and Colin Clark on the wings/side of midfield. Conor Casey and Tom McManus will get the nod up front.
A quick word on poor old Justin Hughes. The goalkeeper had patiently battled back from a hernia injury and was finally given the all-clear this week to train at full pelt. On Tuesday, he managed to dislocate his shoulder. He will have an MRI next week but will surely be out for a few weeks at least. He is accepting his fate very philosophically but this is another tough break for the promising goalie. We wish him all the best for a speedy return. Mike Petke, another long-term absentee, looks to be very close to full fitness and trained hard today. Clavijo has said Petke could be back for consideration next week against San Jose.