Sunday, September 28, 2008

New York Score Four and We Still Win?

Everyone got their breath back? The final whistle blew almost 24 hours ago and I can't seem to shake this game out of my mind. The image of Mehdi Ballouchy's fantastic cross onto Conor Casey's outstretched boot in the final minutes of the game remains largely fixed. It was not that the defenses were so poor on both sides. It just seemed that, after a crazy opening ten minutes when three goals were scored, both teams threw caution to the wind and devoted themselves to playing carefree attacking soccer. Even when the Rapids had to pick themselves up off the floor when conceding the equalizer in the 75th minute to make it 4-4, the boys in Burgundy refused to tighten up and continued to go all out for victory. The Red Bulls, God bless them, did the same and it made for a fantastically exciting game culminating in Casey's poke into the corner in injury time.
Honorary mention must of course go to Casey for his fine, aggressive hat-trick but praise also to his partner up front, Omar Cummings, who not only pounced in the second minute to score the opening goal and set the tone for the match but also probably played his best game in a Rapids' shirt. I hope former England star, John Barnes, was watching Cummings in his new role as Jamaican national team coach. In midfield, Nick LaBrocca and Pablo Mastroeni were everywhere. LaBrocca also caused the penalty which Casey converted to equalize at 3-3 and almost scored twice in a minute in the second half. Mastroeni performed his usual heroics defensively and was unfortunate to give the penalty away. The defense, as you might expect with four goals, was maybe not at its best, but two of the goals came from a penalty and a poor backpass. Preston Burpo, and rarely can this be said for a goalkeeper who conceded four, was absolutely heroic in goal, especially in the second half when he came out time and again to pick up the final ball behind or over the defense. This was truly a performance of great heart. Well done boys! With Chivas and Salt Lake both winning, the Western Conference remains as tight as ever with just four games to go. The Rapids return home next week to play conference leaders, Houston, October 4. Kick-off at DSG Park is 7.30pm.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Injuries Force Changes as Rapids Head East

The Colorado Rapids, unbeaten in the past three games, are now headed to New York for a tough game on the turf against the Red Bulls. Much has been made of the consistency of the team in those recent games. Unfortunately, injuries mean there will have to be some changes in tomorrow night's line-up. Out goes Tom McManus who was injured in the draw against New England and has not trained all week. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey will start up top. While the back four and Preston Burpo will remain unchanged, Terry Cooke will not start given persistent problems with a hamstring injury. Nick LaBrocca will take his place on the right flank with Mehdi Ballouchy coming in to the right center of midfield. Rapids' interim head coach, Gary Smith, said it was unfortunate that Cooke cannot shake the hamstring problem. "Terry has been fantastic at home and the turf will not be good for him," he said. "We know how important those home games against Houston and Salt Lake will be and he should play a big part in those." At the same time, it gives an opportunity for the recently injured Ballouchy. "Mehdi is raring to go after his concusssion," Smith said. "He will be very creative on the turf."
This could be a game for Christian Gomez to maybe shine if he gets enough opportunity to show his skills off as a substitute. Kick off at Giants' Stadium is 5.30pm MT tomorrow night. See you at SoBo.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spain Calls But Heart Is in Italy

Pablo Mastroeni, club captain of the Colorado Rapids, is getting closer to his dream of playing in Europe. This week, he has received calls, via his representative in Spain and Italy, from two clubs in Spain - Malaga and Seville's Real Betis. The offers are good, says Pablo, but much remains on the table. "We are just keeping the doors open and seeing what comes at the end of November," Mastroeni told me after training today. "I think it's going to be a question of five possibilites and picking what we think is right." Pablo may still remain a Rapids player next season. He says his relationship with Gary Smith is very good and Smith is very keen to hold on to him if the interim coach keeps his job. This would be a great thing for the Rapids fans but you can't stand in the way of a person's dream and Pablo's eyes are clearly on a bigger stage. It may be Spain but he admits that his heart is still set on Italy. But, for now, he is very much a Rapids player and, if today's training is anything to go by, there is increased intensity in the camp as the players head into the last five games. Pablo, himself, and good friend, Mike Petke, had a furious row during scrimmage today but Mastroeni almost welcomed it. "That's what it is all about," he said. "Everyone is increasing the intensity for these last five games and that is what we want. You see a lot of teams giving up in this league at this stage of the season but not here."
There will be some changes in the line-up for this weekend's game against New York and I'll post something on that later.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Resolution Against The Revolution

The Colorado Rapids grinded this one out against one of the league's top teams and were unlucky in the end to only get a 1-1 draw. With Chivas beating Salt Lake, the Rapids are now third in the Western Conference with just five games to go. Gary Smith, head coach, now has one of the nine points he said he wanted from six games but this conference remains so tight, especially with Dallas' surprise victory over Chicago, that it looks impossible to predict what will happen. All the Rapids can do is play tough, especially on the road, and try and maintain the self-belief that has begun to creep into their play.
In reality, this was not a great game to watch. The Rapids didn't really create enough good chances and had to rely on assist God, Terry Cooke, for another serve it up on a plate cross, this time for Colin Clark to head one in. Cooke is playing extremely well right now after the abyss he found himself in earlier this season. Former coach, Fernando Clavijo, was not a big fan of Cooke's defensive prowess but he was all over the field last night, tackling back consistently, including right at the death when New England threatened to snatch it.
Other than that, the defense once again proved to be very solid and that back four with Burpo in goal looks set to remain unchanged. It really is a nice balance. The experience and pedigree of Mike Petke and Cory Gibbs coupled with the exciting attacking play of Kosuke Kimura and Jordan Harvey on the outside. Kimura does make a few mistakes but he is a young player with a great future and he gives it everything.
The Rapids move on to Giants' Stadium to play New York next Saturday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rapids 1stXI Beat Dallas Reserves

Well, it could have been a first eleven. With a defense featuring Bouna, Ihemelu, Burciaga and Erpen and a midfield consisting of DiRaimondo, Peterson, Christian Gomez and Dalby, the Colorado Rapids fielded a very strong reserve team today in a straightforward 3-0 victory over visiting Dallas. I only counted two Dallas players that I recognized from the recent Rapids win down there. Ciaran O'Brien, who did play in that opening win against LA, along with Tim Ward and Nico Colaluca, who scored two of the goals today, rounded out the starting eleven. New signing, Kwame Sarkodie, got a run out in the second half and played well, the highlight being a mazy run down the left to set up the third goal.
There has been some criticism that some players left out of the first team have not looked up to the challenge of getting their starting places back. I didn't see much evidence here. Bouna was outstanding in goal. He didn't have a whole lot to do but, when he did, he pulled off some typically athletic saves including a brilliant and courageous dive to stop an indirect free kick opportunity just yards from goal. Christian Gomez orchestrated a number of the attacks and finished very well for the second goal. Facundo Erpen was another who charged around the pitch and seemed to enjoy the second half freedom he had playing just ahead of the back four.
These players - Bouna, Gomez and Erpen - will continue to be in the core group that makes up the 18 destined to launch the final push to the playoffs. Whether they will get back in the starting eleven is another question. Gary Smith confirmed that he likes the settled nature of the current first team and he has good reason to do so. There seems little reason to change something that is not broken and which has momentum. That's hard luck on a lot of players including the likes of Bouna, Erpen and Gomez as well as others such as Ihemelu and Burciaga but, as always, it is the team that counts first. So, expect no changes for this weekend's game against New England. I spoke briefly to Mike Petke after the game and he is fully expecting to be available after limping out in the second half against Chicago. Smith said the team is going to need a minimum of nine points from the remaining six games to challenge for a playoff spot. That does include three games at home but they are against very tough opposition in New England, Houston and rivals Salt Lake. Two wins and a draw would be nice, I would say. That would leave at least two points in the three games against New York, LA and Chivas. I get the feeling Smith is targeting an unexpected win against the Galaxy, which would really help the cause. He knows they score a lot but I think he believes we have the better players overall for that one. One game at a time, as they say.
P.S. Former Rapid and recently waived Crew player, Niko Hernandez, was among the "crowd" watching the game today with his very young family. Did he hear about Herc's move to Kansas and think there may be a need for a backup striker?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rapids Sign Midfielder Sarkodie

Official press release from the Colorado Rapids:
The Colorado Rapids today announced the signing of midfielder Kwame Sarkodie. Per league and team policy, details of the contract were not disclosed.
Sarkodie has played with the Rapids Reserves in their past two matches both in the midfield and as a defender. He came on at halftime against the Real Salt Lake Reserves on August 30 and played the full 90 minutes against the FC Dallas Reserves on September 5.
A collegiate teammate of Omar Cummings at the University of Cincinnati, Sarkodie played most recently with the Cleveland City Stars of the USL-2. On August 23, the City Stars won the USL-2 Championship with a 2-1 win over the Charlotte Eagles; Sarkodie came on and played the final 10 minutes of the match.

Kwame Sarkodie – Midfielder

Height: 5-11

Weight: 170

DOB: April 27, 1985

Hometown: Dayton, Ohio

Last Club: Cleveland City Stars (USL-2)

Status: Developmental Roster

Monday, September 15, 2008

Blanco Blanked as Rapids Find Rhythm

The Colorado Rapids look a very settled team. Something has happened since the coaching change and the Rapids finally look like they have a rhythm and the personnel to keep that rhythm going all the way to the playoffs. The team emerged victorious yesterday, dousing the Chicago Fire with an own goal and a splendid individual effort by Omar Cummings, both goals coming in the first half. Despite some intense pressure from the Fire in the second half as they chased the game, the defense held firm and Preston Burpo had one of his best games in a Rapids shirt, including two vital saves in the dying minutes.
We certainly didn't dominate this game, especially in the second half, but we took our chances when we needed to and everyone on the team contributed well. Burpo was given the Man of the Match award and he fully deserved that but, for me, the key was in Pablo Mastroeni dominating Blanco. Pablo was fitter, quicker to the ball and more alert than his Mexican counterpart and was just all over him for the whole game. Blanco, cheered by the very large Mexican contingent at yesterday's game every time he touched the ball (and alternatly booed by many Rapids' fans) did play one gorgeous pass behind the defense from where a cross came that was driven too hard for Brian McBride, but he was largely outplayed by Mastroeni. Pablo was equally a contender for MoM. There are some good comments in an MLS article from Gary Smith on Mastroeni and others' contributions (see below).
Cory Gibbs is looking a very sound buy for the Rapids. He was terrific in defense yesterday with one game-saving block at a dangerous time of the game when Chicago were threatening to cut into the Rapids' lead. Mike Petke was very solid and the full-backs defended resolutely and also played some nice attacking stuff, including Jordan Harvey's great running which led to the first goal on a bad handling mistake by the Chicago goalkeeper.
I really liked the way Gary Smith used the subs. It was very good to see Ugo Ihemelu and Mehdi Ballouchy back after their layoffs with concussion injuries. Conor Casey also got on for the last fifteen minutes or so. It looks as if this group of players, barring injury, will likely play the crucial role in the final six games of the regular season. Not good news for the other squad members including the increasingly isolated Christian Gomez and Bouna Coundoul.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bouna to Follow Herc Out The Rapids' Door?

There's a nice write-up about Bouna Coundoul in the Denver Post (link below) and how he is caught between a rock and a hard place both at home and with the Senegal national team. He's saying all the right things about being happy as a deputy to Preston Burpo but it is clear how frustrated he is at being on the bench both for the Colorado Rapids and Senegal. According to the article, Burpo looks set to continue in goal for the game on Sunday against Chicago. Burpo is a highly competent goalkeeper and arguably deserves a run in the team but I can't help but feel that this is a similar situation to the one with Herculez Gomez. Granted that both sides in the Gomez case wanted out in the end but there is a strong argument that it should never have got to that position. Gomez was left for far too long on the sidelines. He got frustrated and it became a fait accompli in the end that he would go elsewhere. The same will happen with Bouna if we are not careful. It's no secret that his ambitions are elsewhere, probably in Europe. He wants to become the number one choice in goal for Senegal and he is not going to do that in the Rapids' Reserves. When I discussed about how we could not afford to ignore Bouna in a previous post, that is no reflection on Burpo. It is simply the case that we cannot afford to underuse and eventually lose highly talented players. It's happened before with Herculez, I hope it does not happen with Bouna.

I may be dogged but I could not get up to training today given the awful weather conditions. I write just as the sun is coming out. From Bryan Forbes' article, it looks a pretty much unchanged team from the one that beat Dallas other than that Conor Casey is out injured. Christian Gomez looks likely to remain on the bench. Talking of underusing talented players?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Guess Walcott's Not Available On Loan Then?

To those who spout cliches that football is a funny old game or that there are no easy games in international soccer, have a look at some of the results in the early stages of European qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Obviously, the easiest game was England away to FIFA fifth-ranked team Croatia. Cue wunderkind Theo Walcott's hat-trick and it did turn out to be a stroll in the park for the England boys. Not quite what was imagined as Croatia have dominated England recently and never lost a competitive game at home. This was the best performance by England since they dismantled Germany 5-1 in Germany back in 2001. Walcott was calm, quick and caused problems all night. David Beckham may never start another game for England again after this. I think it was all obviously down to the game Walcott played for Arsenal reserves against the Colorado Rapids on their preseason tour to the UK back in March. I'm sure we were thinking of picking him up on loan as he was not a sure starter for the Gunners but that might seem a little distant as a prospect now. The infamous Sun newspaper summed it up very nicely: "Walcott, 19, gave Croatia a real kick in the Balkans."
Elsewhere, the team of the moment appears to be Lithuania who have beaten both Romania (away) and Austria. Austria, themselves, beat France at the weekend. Fancied Portugal somehow managed to give three goals away to Denmark in the last eight minutes to lose at home, Finland drew with Germany and poor old Luxembourg, who basically never seem to win, got an away victory in Switzerland, hosts of Euro 2008. It's good that it's not as predictable as the Premier League. Thirteen teams will qualify for South Africa from Europe; the nine group winners and four of the runners-up. I'll try and write something periodically about the other qualifying zones.
Off to Rapids training tomorrow so will post something to preview the Chicago game on Sunday.

Monday, September 8, 2008

It's All in Our Own Hands, Kind of

I don't usually pay too much attention to what the other teams are doing. It only really matters to me how we are playing as to whether we will make the playoffs or not. However, it is getting to that point of the season when it will matter what our closest rivals are doing as the playoff fight refuses to get any looser. The victory over Dallas brought back some hope that the Rapids will possibly make the playoffs. Thursday night's victory in Texas was then somewhat dented by the wins for San Jose and Chivas. The Real Salt Lake draw against LA helped a little. So, now we stand four points behind Salt Lake, three points behind Chivas and a point behind San Jose. We remain one point ahead of both Dallas and LA Galaxy with all the teams having played 23 games. Can't get much tighter than that. Given that Houston look likely to win the Western Conference, that will leave two automatic playoff spots to fight over. Can someone explain to me how the other non-automatic playoff spots are decided on? I can't seem to find that anywhere, including on the MLS site.
Anyway, any one of the remaining six conference teams could win those two spots. Interestingly, we still have to play Chivas (away), LA (away) and RSL (home) so, theoretically, we can make up the point difference more or less by winning those games. What should be more of a concern right now is the two upcoming home games against tough opposition. Chicago and New England look very likely to be with Columbus as the three automatic playoff qualifiers from the Eastern Conference although the Revolution seem to like losing 4-0 these days. These will be difficult games for the Rapids. If we can get something very positive out of these two matches, the whole playoff picture could look a lot rosier.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rapids Secure Vital Win Down Texas Way

Holy Crap! Victory is ours. The Colorado Rapids went all the way down to Texas and beat FC Dallas 1-0. The team's first away victory since April. In a week that saw us down in the dumps having lost another road game against Salt Lake and in which we said goodbye to a fan favorite, a header from Mike Petke (where was the Dallas defense?) of all people was enough to secure the win. We are, remarkably, back in playoff contention. There are many areas in this team that need fixing (Is Christian Gomez on the way out? Can we really afford not to play Bouna Coundoul when he is available?) but, for now, we should celebrate this much-needed win. The team, especially after the goal went in in the 59th minute, showed a resilience that has been sorely lacking by their own admission. Just go to the MLS website to see the comments from Petke and Cory Gibbs about how nobody showed up to play in Utah. (
Tonight, however, you could see an intensity in the players to hold on to that lead and not let go and it was exciting to watch, if not exactly pretty.
Gary Smith, who has already been through some dodgy moments in his fledgling managerial career, showed a lot of guts in selecting Kosuke Kimura and Jordan Harvey to play in the backline, dropping Burciaga and the ever present Erpen. This is someone who is clearly not afraid to make the right choices for the team on any given day. Leaving Christian Gomez out is another tough decision and has to be respected even if you don't agree with it because it is not easy to leave out your most expensive, talented and experienced player. In addition, it was good to see Terry Cooke and Pablo Mastroeni back although Pablo was taken off early in the second half, hopefully more as a precaution with that hamstring injury.
The team now has a nice layoff after a seemingly very busy last couple of weeks. A few days off before preparing for two difficult home games in a row against Chicago and New England. Much needs to be done to secure the momentum gained from this improbable victory but, for now, let's get the beers in.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where Are All The Good Guys Going?

Kansas City in this case. The Colorado Rapids today traded Herculez Gomez to the Kansas City Wizards. I am personally gutted because Herc was always approachable and a damn fine footballer to boot. I understand why he is making the move although it is still unclear just how much say he had in it. There is always pressure in professional sports, obviously, to perform but I don't think that I am alone in thinking that Herc had been put under too much pressure with the limited amount of gametime that he was getting this season. It can be unfair sometimes to expect someone to perform at their best consistently when their opportunities are so few. He had expressed his frustration to me a few times this season. We heard how he was still battling back from last season's ACL injury even though the player felt he was among the fittest members of the squad. He just wanted a good run in the team to prove he still belonged and he never really got that. I shall personally miss him both on and off the field but I wish him only the best.
Interim head coach, Gary Smith, said the following about the trade: "We certainly wish Herculez all the best and appreciate everything that he gave to our club. We wanted to give Herculez an opportunity where he could be productive, while we look for the right combination of players up top for us. I think adding several draft picks allows us to add some spice in the future as well." We shall see. Right now, I would rather have the tried and tested than the promise of something unknown. But sometimes things have to move on and maybe it was just one of those things. Everyone knows it was not personal and just another professional decision. But the Rapids have lost a fan favorite and that will take some time to replace.
As a token of respect, I am adding the link to the matchup for the game tomorrow night as per the Rapids website. It will be the last time you see Herc lining up for us.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

If It's Thursday, It Must Be Dallas

Crikey! Didn't we just play a game? The Colorado Rapids have a very quick turnaround this week and will be off tomorrow for the game on Thursday night against Dallas. Unfortunately, that gives me no time to get up to training due to work commitments to suss out camp mood and get an idea of the line-up. Most of you are pretty depressed about the latest defeat away at Real Salt Lake. The Reserves fared no better the following day when they were thumped 4-0, all the goals in the first half. Clearly, things aren't working too well. Unfortunately, the Rapids are hamstrung, literally, by some major injuries. Terry Cooke and Pablo Mastroeni are still recovering from their hamstring problems and will not make the trip, at least according to the Rapids website. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if Pablo did at least get on the bench. That may be a bit ambitious but he appears a lot further along with the healing process than does Cooke. Mehdi Ballouchy and Ugo Ihemelu are still listed as out with concussions but I am trying to find out how updated that injury list is. Ugo, at least, was on the verge of making the trip to Salt Lake last week. In terms of international call-ups, Bouna Coundoul is in Senegal right now before the national team flies off for its World Cup qualifying game against Algeria on Friday. Omar Cummings does not appear to have made it into the Jamaican team for its games against Mexico and Honduras. The Reggae Boyz have had to switch their weekend game against Mexico to Mexico City after Hurricane Gustav damaged the national stadium in Kingston, Jamaica.
So, what does that leave? You can't really make radical changes when so many people are out injured or are unavailable. But changes need to be made. Desperate times call for drastic measures. Surely, Christian Gomez must start and Kosuke Kimura deserves his chance. Tom McManus should maybe start upfront with Conor Casey. Thoughts?
INJURY UPDATE: According to the Rapids' press office, Pablo and Terry Cooke are listed as probable so they may play a small part in the game. Ihemelu, Greg Dalby and Ballouchy are all described as questionable.