Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rubbing Salt Into Wounds

Confession. I only saw the last 20 minutes or so of this game due to other commitments and a need to change shoes. It's a long story. Suffice it to say I have very little intelligent to say about the game. I arrived when it was already 2-0 to Real Salt Lake, saw a bit of honest running from the likes of Omar Cummings and very little actual shots on goal. So, please do respond by sending in your observations on this latest Colorado Rapids' defeat.
I had the line-up almost right but Christian Gomez must be wondering what it takes to get into the team. The midfield is pretty much decimated and he still has to wait until the second half to get on. On the other hand, I do like the fact that all of McManus, Cummings and Herculez Gomez got gametime. I have always thought that Herc can play as an attacking midfielder rather than an out and out striker. Unfortunately, I missed the first half so please do comment on what you thought of his performance. I also liked the fact that Kosuke Kimura finally got on the field. After starting out so well this season with former coach, Fernando Clavijo, saying he had tied up the right back spot, Kimura was mysteriously subsequently left out and did not seem to be able to make it back into the team. He did put in one lovely cross for Cummings who headed well from a difficult position. Jose Luis Burciaga was another who started off the season very well but his recent performances have not been consistent and Kimura can state a case for making a start. The Rapids, sinking ever faster in playoff contention, face FC Dallas in hot and humid Texas next Thursday.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pablo Likely to Stay a Rapid Until New Year

So, I did manage to get up to training today but I am probably not able to add too many insights into who will start tomorrow for the Colorado Rapids against RSL. That was because I got involved in a good conversation with club captain, Pablo Mastroeni. By the time we finished talking, the boys were off in the bus to take them to the airport for tomorrow night's game. Assume the same back four, five including Preston Burpo. The midfield will include Christian Gomez, Nick LaBrocca and Colin Clark plus one of either John DiRaimondo or Jacob Peterson. Casey will start up front with one other of McManus, Cummings and Herc. That's my best guess.
One person who will not be playing is Pablo who spent much of today's session jogging alone with a nice view of downtown Denver and the DNC. While he was running well, his hamstring will see him miss both upcoming US World Cup qualifiers against Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago. Nice for us if he can get fit enough to play for the Rapids in the meantime.
Pablo is a top guy. How can anybody not wish him the best if he does take off for Europe? It does look as if it will be in January next year rather than anytime soon. He will be out of contract and free to go. Italy and Spain look the most likely and he did tell me he has someone representing him over in those two countries. He also has someone in England but this may be a less of a possibility. Something tells me his heart would be in Italy where he has cultural roots and family members in Sicily.
Watch this space to see what unfolds.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Will The Real Christian Gomez Please Stand Up?

The Colorado Rapids go into Friday night's Rocky Mountain Cup showdown against Real Salt Lake with what amounts to a mini injury crisis. Pablo Mastroeni and Terry Cooke, two of the most influential players in the team, will not make the trip due to hamstring injuries. Mehdi Ballouchy joins Ugo Ihemelu on the concussion injury list after picking up a knock in the DC game last Saturday. That leaves a new look midfield for this weekend's game with much of the spotlight bound to be put on Christian Gomez. Gomez is the most expensive player in the team and his career so far at the Rapids has not met with expectations. According to Gary Smith on last night's From The Pitch radio show, Gomez is "chomping at the bit" to get his place back in the team. Friday night might just be his opportunity to shine. I personally could see opportunities for John DiRaimondo to partner with Nick LaBrocca in a midfield that also contains Colin Clark but Jacob Peterson could be more likely to start. Up front, given Smith's admission he prefers a 4-4-2 in the English style, I would see Tom McManus partnering Conor Casey with speedsters Herculez Gomez and Omar Cummings on the bench. I am aiming to get up to practice tomorrow and have a word with the coach so I will post again tomorrow with more details.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Have We Lost The War?

So much hope about a new era but the Colorado Rapids crashed to a 3-0 defeat against DC United on Saturday. After going into the game almost like a line of combat soldiers, we lost the battle. The question is have we lost the playoff war also?
The team was in the game for the first 40 minutes or so. It was pretty even. I noticed at one point that I wasn't even aware Cory Gibbs was playing because the defense and midfield seemed to be in such control that there was no apparent danger. When Gibbs did make a couple of very good tackles towards the end of the first half, that was when the screws loosened before coming off completely later in the game. The Rapids conceded a good goal by Joe Vide right on the halftime whistle. Almost immediately afterwards, Nick LaBrocca had one of the best chances for the Rapids in the first half but the DC keeper, who looked vulnerable to me and whom we didn't test enough, saved well.
Interim coach, Gary Smith, then made a decision which, in hindsight, sort of decided the game. He took off two players, Ballouchy and Peterson, at half-time. I think one was injury-related. With substitute Greg Dalby then himself going off injured in the 58th minute, it meant all our subs were used up before the hour mark. We had no striking options up front to help Conor Casey and we never looked like we would score. With Pablo Mastroeni limping out of the game in the 80th minute, it meant we only had ten players for the last quarter of an hour or so. Any coincidence DC scored twice in the last ten minutes of the game to seal it? I think we need someone else up front to support Casey. I know we scratched the win against Kansas with him playing almost as a lone striker but there were signs there the experiment may not work consistently. And so it proved on Saturday. McManus, Cummings and Herculez Gomez will be working extra hard in training this week to persuade Smith they should be playing a role in the team for the game on Friday against Real Salt Lake.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rapids Go To War In Battle Formation

If you look at the Colorado Rapids website, you'll see this weekend's projected formation lined up looking like some Roman gladiators. The formation is listed as basically two lines of four and five in defense and midfield with lone striker,Conor Casey, up front. Here is the link to the website. Kind of scary, huh?
I apologize that I cannot offer any particular insight this week into what the exact formation will be. Because of the From The Pitch Radio show and other commitments, I just could not make it up to DSG Park again this week. I was hoping to bend Gary Smith's ear last night at staff soccer but the game didn't happen. It was a busy week for the Rapids and the staff were obviously a little preoccupied. I promise that I will be at training next week at some point to get some insights into camp mood and trends, especially after our rousing victory over DC United tomorrow.
What do we know for sure? Ugo Ihemelu will be out again with the concussion concern. It looks as if the back four will be the same as started against Kansas City. Changes look likely in the midfield. Christian Gomez and Mehdi Ballouchy are listed as probable starters along with the returning Colin Clark, Pablo and crosser extraordinaire, Terry Cooke. Mastroeni was taken out of the US game on Wednesday after 78 minutes and reportedly got a knock but the man is a beast and I am sure he will start. So, Jacob Peterson, who picked up a knock last week, and the unfortunate Nick LaBrocca appear to be on the bench this weekend.
What does surprise me is the probable inclusion of Bouna Coundoul. Preston Burpo performed well last week against Kansas and Bouna has been all the way to and back from Libya with the Senegal national team. He has not practiced all week with the Rapids and he did not get any game time in Tripoli. It would seem to me that Burpo would be the right choice for tomorrow.
Anyway, let's hope for a dramatic result under the new regime. The team should be fired up and competitive. Realistically, I think we would settle for a point but wouldn't it be spectacular to get all three? See you down at SoBo for the 5.30pm MT kick off.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pablo Wins, Omar Comes In Late, Bouna Benched

Mixed fortunes for the Colorado Rapids players representing their national teams yesterday in various parts of the world. Pablo Mastroeni played 78 minutes for the US team as they defeated Guatemala 1-0 in Guatemala City in their first World Cup qualifying game of this next stage. Pablo picked up his requisite yellow card and both teams had a player sent off. You may think it is easy to beat a team like Guatemala but it ain't exactly the red carpet the locals put down for the visiting US team. It sure semed like one hostile environment to play in and that is a very strong victory for the US.
Elsewhere, there was very little playing time for Omar Cummings and Bouna Coundoul. Omar came on as an 87th minute substitute as Jamaica drew creditably with Canada 1-1 in Toronto in their World Cup qualifying game. Bouna was the only player left on the bench for the entirety of the Senegal friendly against Libya which ended 0-0. Seems like Bouna may have to get used to this position both at home in Colorado and when on duty with the national team. Tony Sylva is the evident number one for the Senegal team and there is definite tension between the new players and the established stars of the Lions of Teranga. If you can read French, you can find details of such tensions in Senegal's online newspaper, sudonline (see link below to last night's game). In Colorado, Preston Burpo performed very creditably in last week's game against Kansas and it is hard to envisage him not starting this weekend against DC United, not least because Bouna has to make it all the way back from Tripoli and has clearly not practiced with the team this week.
Here are some links to reports on the Jamaica and Senegal games.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Clavijo Resigns From Rapids

Fernando Clavijo, the head coach of the Colorado Rapids, has resigned with immediate effect from his position. Like the death of a sick loved one, the news comes as a shock but not exactly unexpected. Rumors had been flying for some time, especially after the recent meltdown at the Los Angeles Galaxy when Ruud Gullit and Alexei Lalas said goodbye. Gary Smith, who took charge of the team in last weekend's victory over Kansas City after Clavijo flew to his native Uruguay on a family emergency, will assume the reins as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. More details are in the Denver Post at the link below.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rapids' Relief as Team Finally Tastes Victory

Acting head coach Gary Smith punched the air as the referee blew for the 90 minutes. It sure was mighty relief for the Colorado Rapids organization and their fans that the team finally managed to score some goals and eke out a win against a frequently dangerous Kansas City side. This was not a match the Rapids dominated in any shape or form but the defense was sound, the midfield created more chances than of late and Conor Casey worked his socks off to help secure the win with two priceless goals. One of these, naturally, came from a perfect Terry Cooke cross. Cooke crossed absolutely perfectly about three of four times in the first half and a goal could have come from any one of those crosses. As it was, the Rapids went into half-time a goal apiece having played the offside trap fairly poorly and finally allowing Kansas to get behind the defense and equalize. A combination of poor Kansas defense and strong play by Casey saw the big striker net a second right after the break but the Rapids failed to push home their advantage and Kansas could have scored two or three times later in the second half. Thankfully, the Rapids held on to their lead to secure their first win since July 4.
It was a curious line-up. Preston Burpo started in goal so maybe Smith was resting Bouna Coundoul who is probably now close to Libya with the Senegal national team. Bouna is expected to be back for the DC game next week. Burpo, apart from the occasional problem with crosses, played very solidly and could do little with the Kansas goal. Thankfully, he pulled off a great point blank save immediately after the Rapids had opened with Casey's header, a crucial save at that juncture of the match. There was no Christian Gomez (out injured?) and Smith appeared to start up front with Ballouchy and Jacob Peterson playing just behind Casey. As expected, Mike Petke and debutant Cory Gibbs made up the central defense in a back four. The midfield just seems stronger when Pablo Mastroeni and Nick LaBrocca are working in tandem. They were both dominant last night, particularly Mastroeni who barely put a foot wrong, seemed to win every 50/50 ball and almost scored from one of those Cooke crosses in the first half. That would have been a nice birthday present for the midfelder who will be with the US national team in Guatemala this week for a World Cup qualifier.
There is still a lot to work on. We cannot seem to make enough penetrating runs into space to get behind the defense. Our main route to goal still looks like Cooke to Casey. And our defense can look very vulnerable to such penetrating runs from the opposition. However, a win is a win and hopefully it will give the team some confidence going into a tough three-game stretch away from home.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Three or Four at the Back?

Our friends over at the Denver Post, aka my co-host this week on the From The Pitch radio show, Brian Forbes, is reporting that the Colorado Rapids will probably continue to play three at the back rather than four for tomorrow's game against Kansas. The only difference is that such a threesome would include two players making season debuts in Mike Petke and new signing Cory Gibbs in place of the injured Ugo Ihemelu. That raises a question of who fills out the remaining spot in the back. Probably old yellow (or is it red?) boots Facundo Erpen at the expense of Jose Burciaga. Unfortunately, I will not be in a position to confirm the line-up this week as work is taking its ugly toll and gas prices are too high to keep trekking up to my home from home at DSG Park. I guess you will all have to just turn up tomorrow night and see who starts. Will acting coach, Gary Smith, surprise us all?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rapids Called Up For National Duty to Add to Mix

Bouna Coundoul, Pablo Mastroeni and Omar Cummings have all been called up for their respective national teams for international fixtures next week. Bouna will be off to Tripoli for a Senegal friendly against Libya while Cummings and Mastroeni will represent their countries in World Cup qualifiers against Canada and Guatemala respectively. The good news is that they are all expected to leave Colorado after this weekend's game against Kansas City as well as be back for next weekend's game in DC. Of course, we should be very happy that Rapids players are getting the nod for their national teams and we congratulate them for it. Given the unsettling circumstances right now, however, it may add a little more uncertainty to the team.
Gary Smith was on the unofficial DL for tonight's scrimmage with the Rapids staff so, with Fernando Clavijo in Uruguay, there were no members of the coaching staff at the game. I do have it from well connected Rapids sources though that Mike Petke and Cory Gibbs will play in central defense this weekend as part of a back four that will presumably include Erpen and Burciaga. Ugo Ihemelu appears to be struggling with the concussion from last week and looks unlikely to start. You have to feel a bit for Kosuke Kimura who surely deserves a chance in defense. Colin Clark is also out suspended and it looks as if Jacob Peterson will get his chance this weekend. It will still be interesting to see what Gary Smith puts into the mix when the team walks out this weekend.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Action Off the Field Than On

With all the shenanigans going on at the troubled LA Galaxy organization, there have also been stirrings this week surrounding the Colorado Rapids. Rumors of coaching changes at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, new players coming in, supporters clubs airing their grievances with the organization. Added to the mix today is news of a family emergency for head coach, Fernando Clavijo, who has had to rush off to his native Uruguay to attend to an unspecified crisis. We can only wish him well.
In the meantime, the Rapids have signed US international defender, Cory Gibbs. The Florida native, who has had experience playing in Germany, Holland and England, has a strong pedigree as a central or left-sided defender. He may have to be called into action immediately as Ugo Ihemelu looks to be suffering from a concussion sustained in the Toronto game. However, there are questions about Gibbs and his recent injuries. The guy has barely played in two years and hardly appears ready for the game against Kansas. I was going to say must-win but every game has to be won now, it seems. It could be that Mike Petke finally makes his MLS debut this season in central defense.
Who knows what assistant coach, Gary Smith, now in charge because of Clavijo's misfortune, will do with the line-up? As well as the defensive issue, he will be without the suspended Colin Clark. It will be very interesting to see if he sticks with the status quo or whether he will make some surprising call-ups to the team. Watch this space. I am supposed to be playing soccer with him tomorrow night so I'll try and get a handle on that one.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bell Finally Tolls For Rapids

The Colorado Rapids' press office must be working off a template for their post-match releases. My worst fears were realized when I again read that the Rapids had outshot their opponents for the tenth week in a row but had still lost. Just like the Rockies baseball team, a loss over the weekend finally nails it home what most have been thinking for a while. The Rapids will not make the playoffs. To lose successive league games at home, one to a very weakened team, and not score a goal in the process means we have failed when it was crucial to succeed. Yes, the West will always be tight because no one team can dominate and all the teams are similar in standard but we are slipping further and further down and there seems to be little chance of redemption. I hate to be negative but that seems the reality at this stage. May the team prove us all wrong, win all their remaining games at home and pick up wins in unlikely places but that scenario is, indeed, unlikely.
In this blog, I like to report and not apportion blame or give my opinion overly. I am a fan first and foremost and I want this team and organization to succeed. The players, coaching and front office staff have always been very pleasant and helpful to me. I found myself, however, watching the game on Saturday against Toronto unfold with an almost inevitable bad feeling. It's as if we had to score early otherwise we would concede and then be chasing the game. Conor Casey had a wonderful opportunity to score from a perfect cross from Terry Cooke in the second minute but his header went wide. That was the closest we came all game to scoring. We played hard, we passed well when building our attacks and we defended well enough, much better than against Columbus. But, unless it is a cross from mainly Cooke or sometimes Colin Clark, to Casey, we cannot score. We cannot seem to penetrate through the middle at all and are often reduced to long-range shots that aren't really going to go in.
A couple of other details on the game. Toronto's goal was an outstanding free-kick from new signing Chad Barrett. I doubt many goalies would have saved that. I don't remember Bouna having much else to do all game.
One other thing I dislike to do is overly criticize the officials. They are so often an easy target when your team is not playing well. However, this referee was one of the worst I have ever seen on a professional field. The sending off of Clark in the 70th minute perhaps typified the referee's inability to distinguish between a legitimate challenge and a bookable offense. Many referees seem less than stellar in distinguishing between an honest foul and a malicious one (the only type that deserve a booking). This official was incapable of distinguishing between a well-timed tackle and any kind of foul. Clark, who had already been booked for a somewhat obscure offense at the end of the first half, was chasing the ball to the corner flag with a Toronto player hot on his heels. They clashed in pursuit of the ball, the Toronto player fell spectacularly to the ground and clattered into the advertizing boards. Clark didn't even lay any part of his body on him apart from clashing in honest pursuit of the ball. It was a truly terrible decision and added to the somewhat self-induced pressure on the Rapids to chase the game in the final 20 minutes. There were other incidences including two to three tackles Ugo Ihemelu timed perfectly and was then penalized for. This referee needs to take a long, hard look at his performance on video.
However, we cannot blame the referee for our loss. We will need some changes in line-up for this weekend's home agame against Kansas City. Sometimes, things just don't gel and change is needed to inject new enthusiasm into the game.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Rapids Unchanged (Almost) as Canadians Go South

The Colorado Rapids face international opposition for the second time in six days at Dick's Sporting Goods Park tomorrow. OK, it is an MLS game against Toronto rather than the likes of the EPL's Everton but there is more than national pride at stake here. This is a very important game for the Rapids who really need to win here and against Kansas City next weekend to boost playoff chances. It may be very tight in the mild, mild West but it will get looser if we slip up in the next two games.
The line-up will be the same as started against Everton except Bouna Coundoul will be starting in goal. Tom McManus is fit again but, according to Fernando Clavijo, will only last about 35 minutes and so will be on the bench. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey will start up front. The perceptive among you will ask how Herculez Gomez fits into all of this. There is no doubt that Herc is as frustrated as hell not to be getting a regular starting place. True professional that he is, he continues to work hard and not complain. He did reveal to me that there was an opportunity for him to go on loan to a Mexican team earlier this season but the MLS obstructed that move. He clearly does not want to move. "I love it here," he said. "The locker room is the best one I have ever been in and I love this city. It's just that I feel I am in a bit of a no-man's land." Maybe he will get on this weekend and score. Herc is a popular player with both fans and his fellow players and everyone wishes him well.
Coach Clavijo said another unlucky player this weekend will be Nick LaBrocca. The New Jersey native has had an outstanding season and is the only Rapid to have started all MLS games so far. Tomorrow will see him relegated to the bench as Clavijo plays a more attacking formation with Pablo Mastroeni in midfield rather than in central defense and Mehdi Ballouchy combining with Christian Gomez to offer creativity going forward. "Nick is absolutely not out," Clavijo said. "He is just more conservative than Ballouchy and we have to attack at home tomorrow." LaBrocca provided a lot of energy when he came on against Everton and expect him to do the same at some point against Toronto.
Players such as Ugo Ihemelu as well as Clavijo admitted they showed far too much respect for Everton in the opening 20 minutes or so last weekend - the period, in effect, where they lost the game as Arteta was left unchallenged for too long before unleashing a great shot into the corner. No such respect should be shown tomorrow against a weakened Toronto team who will no doubt try and close the game down and score on the break. Columbus managed it but, if we make more runs into space than we did against the Crew, we will win. I don't want to read a press release on Monday that says the Rapids outshot their opponents but the scoreline reads 2-1 to Toronto.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rapids Shoot But Don't Score Enough

Once again, the Colorado Rapids outshot their opposition but there is only one statistic that matters in soccer and that is how many goals you score and how many goals you let in, well two statistics then. Everton scored twice, once at the beginning of the game and once right at the end. Conor Casey got on the scoresheet for the Rapids early in the second half but it proved not to be enough. One of the post-match phrases often used by lower teams in England when they play the big boys is that "we showed them too much respect." That is what happened in the first 20 minutes or so yesterday when the Rapids seemed almost in awe of the various internationals facing them in the blue shirts and consequently let Everton dictate the game. There was no surprise when Mikel Arteta (or Michael Arteta as the stadium announcer insisted on calling the Spaniard) scored after six minutes. If Spain weren't such a damn good national team and so heavily stocked with superstars in the midfield, surely Arteta could find his way into that set-up. He and Cahill make up a fantastic midfield pairing.
It was only when the Rapids woke up and realized that they were facing a jet-lagged, not match fit team with teenagers playing at its heart that they started to fight back. This was particularly clear in Colin Clark's case. Clark was basically anonymous in the first half but played really well in the second 45 minutes, making some great dribbles and creating chances with Terry Cooke and the energetic Herculez Gomez. I kept wishing he would make a fool of Phil Neville at right back just as he had with another international in Frankie Hejduk the previous week but Neville never really let him do that. The Rapids dominated the second half with Clark, Herculez and Cooke gaining the upper hand. Nick LaBrocca also gave the team a lot of energy in that second half after coming on as a substitute for Mehdi Ballouchy.
A good game. It was great fun to interact with a team from England (and to hear the anthem at DSG Park!). I think these games are great for the Rapids' players who can test themselves against international stars who play in one of the biggest leagues in the world. If they can perform well against such a team, they know they can perform on most stages. Granted this is a team with a lack of fully fit players who are only in their preseason but this is still a Premier League team who finished fifth in the league last season. Positives to take into the vital MLS game against Toronto this weekend.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

It All Fits But Could It Work? Neville likes Starbuck's

Yes, it seems like a good fit but how do you get there? Colorado Rapids' skipper, Pablo Mastroeni, smiled at my idea of him playing for Everton next season. They have no players, they need to sign up to six new faces, he is looking to move to Europe and play and he wouldn't cost them as much as European players when there is controversy within Goodison Park about the transfer budget. All seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, life is more complicated. Clearly, it is too much pressure on one player to expect him to perform so brilliantly in one game that Everton coach, David Moyes, would sign Pablo on the spot. "I just don't think about the end of the season," Pablo said after training yesterday. "I'm thinking about the next game." And he has things to think about because it looks as if he may be back to a more accustomed defensive midfielder role with some changes in the defense which could see Mike Petke get a much welcome outing. More accustomed role, maybe, but Mastroeni has probably just got used to playing at the heart of the defense. Pablo revealed that he did have the chance of playing for Italian team, Brescia, two years ago, but that the MLS didn't exactly give him a free pass. This time, he won't have to worry about the league because he is out of contract at the end of the season. Moyes did say he is very well aware of American players. After all, he has national team goalkeeper, Tim Howard, to keep him aware of trends in the US player market and he did sign one Brian McBride to play for the Blues. Another point in Pablo's favor is that he wouldn't have to worry so much about the dreaded work permit in the UK because he has an Italian passport which should allow him to work freely anywhere in the European Union. See, it does all add up.
Moyes and team captain, Phil Neville, were very complimentary about the set-up at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and the overall health of the MLS. Moyes was lavish in his praise of the pitch at DSG Park, saying it was one of the best ones he had ever encountered and he had impressive words about the overall state of youth soccer in the US. "The youth teams here are much better than the ones in England and Scotland," he said. England international Neville, who said he was enjoying Cherry Creek and the fact there is a Starbuck's on every corner (there is one in all of Liverpool, apparently), said he was very much looking forward to the game tomorrow. "The quality of the football here is very high," he said."Chicago were very athletic and skillful and we are expecting a tough game on Sunday." Everton lost 2-0 to the Chicago Fire earlier this week.
A couple of other things to note. Moyes said that influential midfielder, Tim Cahill, will not be fit to play tomorrow. The upside is that the Australian walked up and down our co-ed game this morning and might just have noted my left foot rocket into the top corner. Well played, Class VI, great effort all around. Finally, don't be surprised if Preston Burpo gets a start in nets tomorrow.