Thursday, October 23, 2008

Warm Hearts, Cool Heads

Gary Smith, head coach of the Colorado Rapids, sat with a small group of his most experienced players at training on Thursday just as the reality of one of the biggest games for the team in recent years gets ever closer. He was no doubt pressing on the likes of Pablo Mastroeni, Mike Petke and Cory Gibbs the importance of such experience in such a vital game when so many of your fellow players around you are young and have not faced such pressure before. I am sure the veterans repaid him with assurances that they will be there for him and the rest of the team when the Rapids trot out to play Rocky Mountain rivals Real Salt Lake this Saturday. It’s a simple equation. Win, and the Rapids are in the playoffs against Chivas. Draw or lose and Salt Lake will take their place. “I think the scenario may affect their tactics more than us,” said Smith. “They won’t want to open it up too much.” The game will be a tight affair with probably few goals, he added. What will be vital is the resilience of the players, especially if the Rapids were to go a goal down, a scenario that Smith has looked straight in the face this week. “That is one scenario we need to break this weekend if necessary,” the coach said, referring to the team's awful record this season when they go behind. “The players have shown tremendous character since I came in. I think they underachieved in the early part of the season and they want to make up for that.”
Of those veteran players, Gibbs will still be out injured. Others, like Christian Gomez, also remain unfit. There are likely to be few changes in this weekend’s line-up though the home advantage may see one or two, Smith said, anxious at such a crucial time not to give too much away. There is much speculation about who will start upfront with Conor Casey after the game-changing substitution of Omar Cummings for Tom McManus against Chivas last week. Much may still depend on McManus’ state of health. The Scotsman has not trained for two days because of sickness.
Whoever plays, it will be a time for controlled passion, hopefully in front of a sellout crowd at DSG Park. I know the players will be up for it and there needs to be a sea of burgundy to greet them and intimidate those Utah guys. Due to very bad planning on my part, I will be following the game in England this weekend and so will be unable to file a match report. Please do send in your observations whatever the result. Come on boys!!!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rapids Repeat Chivas Victory to Keep Hopes Alive

It's deja vu all over again. Needing to win at Chivas for a second straight season to keep playoff hopes alive, the Colorado Rapids went to LA and emerged with a brave 2-1 victory. They had some luck, they often played quite predictable soccer but they played with great heart and they deserved the victory. Chivas are a pretty nice team with a good streak behind them and this was a great effort to get the three points.
The Rapids, as they had to, took the game to Chivas and, but for a short period following the opening goal, played consistently attacking soccer. They didn't exactly dominate the game but they did have the lion's share of possession for basically the whole match. You just got this nagging feeling that it would all come to naught and that Chivas would break and score. However, a solid header from Colin Clark from a perfect Omar Cummings cross gave the Rapids the lead in the 67th minute. Colorado needed to do something to break down the Chivas defense and it was substitute, Terry Cooke, who put Omar in a good position to make the cross with one of his trademark slide rule passes. We almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a few minutes later when we sat back too much just as Chivas stepped up a gear - a bad combination. Chivas equalized and we had to wait nail bitingly until the 85th minute for Conor Casey to knock a penalty home following a good run by Cummings. This penalty was deserved. The first one, subsequently missed by Tom McManus in the 55th minute, was one of the softest penalties you will see and it was fitting that the Chivas goalkeeper pulled off a good save. There was nobody happier than McManus when that final whistle blew.
Now, all we have to do is beat Salt Lake in Colorado next Saturday. Who cares about the Rocky Mountain Cup? Just get in the playoffs.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Bouna's Back in Town

And he will start in goal for the crucial game against Chivas tomorrow. Bouna Coundoul, the Senegalese goalkeeper recently back from a traumatic time in his native country, will start for the Colorado Rapids between the posts for the first time since August 9. Fan favorite, Bouna, who had had to swallow the pain of his country crashing out of the World Cup and African Nations' Cup qualifying, not to mention the wrath of angry fans in Dakar last weekend, gains the chance to reclaim the number one spot from Preston Burpo. In front of him will be Mike Petke and Ugo Ihemelu with Jordan Harvey and Kosuke Kimura as full-backs. Head coach, Gary Smith, was planning on moving Cory Gibbs to left back and dropping Harvey but Gibbs pulled a groin muscle in training yesterday and will not travel. Upfront, Conor Casey will be back after his red card suspension and will play alongside Tom McManus who played very well last weekend. Omar Cummings, on duty with the Jamaican national team for two games in the past week, will very likely feature with his speed in the final 20 minutes or so. "I told Gary it will be just like last year," Cummings said, referring to his 89th minute winner from a Casey cross which gave Colorado an unlikely 2-1 win away at Chivas at a very similar stage of the season last year. "I'd be very happy with that," Cummings said.
The midfield is a little less obvious. At the request of Gary Smith, I cannot mention specifics, but there are likely to be some changes. What I can say is that the formation will revert to 4-4-2. Pablo Mastroeni is fit to play after withdrawing from the US national team this week following a knee injury picked up against LA Galaxy. Greg Dalby, who turned an ankle yesterday, and Christian Gomez are unfit and will not travel.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Differing World Cup Fortunes for Rapids Players

Some vital World Cup qualifying games in the past few days involving Colorado Rapids players. Back home in Kingston, Omar Cummings played in both Jamaica games on Saturday and yesterday with the Reggae Boyz winning against both Mexico and Honduras 1-0. Omar came on as supersub in both games for the last 20 minutes. The results mean that Jamaica is back in the hunt for qualifying for the next round but it will be an uphill struggle. They will have to hope Mexico beat Honduras away at the same time as themselves beating Canada at home next month. Things were less happy for Bouna Coundoul with Senegal. The West African team, quarter finalists in the 2002 World Cup, crashed out of qualifying after drawing with Gambia in Dakar last weekend. Senegal were up 1-0 with three minutes to go and would have qualified for the next round given Algeria's draw with Liberia but an equalizer from their West African neighbors saw the Senegalese down and out. Bouna did not get any game time. Maybe the disappointment of one of the better African teams not making it could give the opportunity for Bouna to lock down the number one spot in goal next time round?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

He's In, He's Out, He's Good For Chivas

Pablo Mastroeni, Captain Marvel for the Colorado Rapids, was initially called up for the US team to play Trinidad and Tobago tomorrow but will now be staying in the Rockies. Pablo injured his knee in the LA game on Sunday and won't make the trip to the Caribbean island having been called into the squad after the 6-1 trouncing of Cuba. You can bet he will be fit for the vital game against Chivas.
It's good to see country and club apparently working well together. Mastroeni was not called up for the Cuba game because it would have meant him probably missing the Galaxy game or at least only playing a bit part as Donovan did. He was then called into the midweek game which would actually have had little impact on him making the trip back to LA to play Chivas this weekend, injuries notwithstanding. The fact he is not now going to Trinidad allows him more time to recover, however, and this can only be good for the Rapids.
Mastroeni appears relaxed about prospects with the national team. He told me at training last week that national team coach, Bob Bradley, realizes that Pablo is of more value to Colorado in the tightening playoff scenario than he is for a US team that is already in the next stage of World Cup qualifiers. "It's not like he is going to call me every game I am not picked," he said. His focus is on getting Colorado to the playoffs and then he will deal with his own dreams after the season. If he is still fit in two years time, wherever he is playing at club level, he will almost definitely have a role to play with the national team in South Africa but, as we all know, so much can happen in that time. Bradley is obviously still thinking about Pablo as a major part of his squad and appears to be giving the midfielder adequate flexibility which can only be a good thing.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rapids Lose Game in Ten Minute Spell

Two defensive errors in the space of ten minutes late in the second half and this game was over. The Colorado Rapids lost 3-2 to the Galaxy in LA for the second time this season and now the playoff hopes are dimming. The Rapids simply have to go to Chivas next weekend back in LA and win so that there is not too much pressure in that last home game against Salt Lake.
The Rapids started very well and dominated the first 15 minutes. LA were barely in the Rapids' half. Tom McManus, who hustled well all night, had the first of many chances in the opening 30 seconds but could not convert, the ball eventually finding its way to Kosuke Kimura who shot wide. LA then began to control the game more and took the lead in the 35th minute, a lovely pass from Franklin finding its way to the prolific Edson Buddle who shot wide of Preston Burpo. We went into half time with a lot more hope after Cory Gibbs buried one with a header into the corner from, you guessed it, a Terry Cooke corner.
The second half started brightly with McManus hitting the post from a Colin Clark cross but the crucial ten minutes saw Burpo missing a free-kick cross which curled into a desperate Ugo Ihemelu just yards from the goal and he could do nothing about it. Then, Jose Burciaga, who had just come on as a substitute, lost the ball carelessly in midfield which led to a fantastic strike from the LA player from well out. We did get one back from a McManus penalty but it was all too late.
We just seem to make too many mistakes at the wrong time. Last week, we did it at the front end of the game, this week at the back end when we were looking good for a possible road win. Burpo rescues us often when he is coming off his line to meet through balls on the ground and he also made one fine save early in the second half but he does seem to hesitate often when coming out to meet crosses. Burciaga's mistake was somewhat lazy. I'm sure Gary Smith will be reminding him that an experienced professional should not be losing the ball so easily just in front of the defensive line. That's not to pick on those players. It's just that we seem to make too many errors at such crucial times when we can't afford to be making them. We're still in it but our chances are somewhat dented and it will be an uphill struggle from now.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Brits (and Others) Can Do It

Conor Casey suspended, Omar Cummings on international duty. Landon Donovan and David Beckham away internationally too. Add to the mix that the Colorado Rapids have only one half-fit true striker available and, at first glance, you have to wonder where the goals are going to come from in tomorrow's game against the LA Galaxy. We should add also that the ill-fated Christian Gomez, who probably would have got some contribution in in tomorrow's game, turned his ankle in training this week and will not be making the trip. His days as a Rapid may be over.
So, where is the creative spark going to come from, arguably on both teams? I believe that the Galaxy will miss their two stars more than we will miss our absentees. Gary Smith, Rapids' head coach, said yesterday he was still undecided about the final line-up but was leaning towards playing just Tom McManus up front. When I asked how fit he was feeling after recent injuries, McManus joked that he would be good for about 20 minutes if Smith does go with one forward. "I'm not 100 percent but needs must," he said. The other option is to have Jacob Peterson partnering McManus and essentially keeping the same formation. "Jake has been looking very sharp and bright in training this week," Smith added.
There will be a change in defense. Kosuke Kimura and Jordan Harvey, the butt of some unjustified criticisms in the last two games, will continue but Ugo Ihemelu will definitely come in, probably at the expense of Mike Petke. That will largely depend on the fitness of Cory Gibbs who has been sick this week. The midfield will be made up of Pablo, Terry Cooke, Colin Clark, Nick LaBrocca and Mehdi Ballouchy and don't be surprised to see one of the Reserves such as Nico Colaluca coming off the bench for some pace and invention. The Reserves will be paying Galaxy Reserves immediately after tomorrow night's game so there will be many options for Smith.
The final eleven will depend on the formation with Ballouchy making way for LaBrocca in a 4-4-2. Whatever the final starting eleven, we are going to depend on much of the creativity coming from the flanks, particularly Cooke. How many times have we seen this season Cooke assisting for Casey? This time, it will be McManus on the end of Cooke's perfect crosses. Let's just hope the Scot has the confidence to turn some of those crosses into goals. It won't be easy coming off injuries and Smith noted that McManus may be suffering from a lack of confidence given his inconsistent run in the team. You'd never know it from the chirpy Scot who has a big role to play tomorrow and we wish him all the best. May the Flower of Scotland bloom and send them homeward to think again!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bouna Off to Claim What Is His

When you are enjoying your Starbuck's double tall non-fat this Saturday morning, spare a thought for Colorado Rapids' favorite, Bouna Coundoul. Bouna is currently in his native Senegal preparing for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Gambia which kicks off at 10am Mountain Time. Senegal have to win to have any chance of progressing to the next round of the marathon that is African World Cup qualifying. Why Africa with the same number of teams competing as Europe for a spot in South Africa 2010 should only have five teams that eventually make it while Europe has 13 still beggars belief but that is for another day.
As we all know, Bouna has been struggling in his professional life both for the Rapids and for the national team. He has not played for Colorado for several games now having lost his place in goal to Preston Burpo. He is also still firmly the number two with the national team and you would have to say, that with such a crucial game this weekend, he is unlikely to see any game time against Gambia. He told me last week at training that he would be going to Senegal to claim the starting position. There had been much criticism of the current goalkeeper, Tony Sylva, he said. Reading through the Senegal newspapers online, it is clear that there are defensive problems with the Senegal team. However, the interim head coach has said he is unlikely to change much for Saturday's clincher. Added to this that Bouna has not been playing much competitively recently and it looks as if his admirable optimism may be somewhat misplaced, for now at least. This is one talented goalkeeper who has found himself in a tough spot. I watched him play against Dallas Reserves and I've seen him in training and his form is excellent. He told me it had to do with fasting through Ramadan and, while his faith is all important to him, you know that it also has to do with a burning desire on Bouna's part to be the number one both at home and for his country. This weekend's game against Gambia and the few remaining games for the Rapids may not be quite the right time for him to get where he wants to be which makes it all the more likely that we may not see him at DSG Park come next Spring.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Yellow Team Sucks!

Everyone is up in arms about the Conor Casey sending off on Saturday. It was not a great call but I don't think it was actually the worst one of the night. We have to remember that we always think that calls that do not go in our favor are always thought of as worse than calls that benefit us. Casey had an open hand raised, not an elbow. It was a physical challenge for an aerial ball. Players instinctively raise their hands when jumping. His fault was that he moved the hand towards the Houston player whose theatrical dive should also have received a yellow. It is this that annoys me more than anything. The theatrics caused the referee to lose his judgement and overreact. Decisions like this cost games. Maybe the Rapids were already out of it by then but we were definitely out of it with a man down and only just into the second half.
Casey's red aside, there were other calls that showed a lack of quality on the part of the referee. Mike Petke should maybe not be sliding into an attacking player in the penalty box but he clearly withdraws his feet close to the impact with the ball/player and there is no real contact. Thankfully, Preston Burpo made a good save to keep us in the game at that point. Our penalty at the death was also never a penalty. When will referees go back to reading their FIFA rulebook and work out that a handball has to be intentional to warrant a foul? Omar Cummings simply plays the ball into the chest of the Houston player (I don't think it even touches his arm). There is no intention and this was not a penalty.
This leads to the dumbest referee of the week which, though you might not believe it, was not our esteemed friend at DSG Park on Saturday. If anybody was watching the joker in the San Jose Dallas game (I changed channel given the extreme boredom aroused by the oh-so scripted VP debate), he must surely win World's Worst of the Week. Not only does he not send off Dallas defender, Davino, for a blatant handball which prevents San Jose from taking the lead, he also gives another penalty from a non-handball (simply because it hit the hand/chest of a SJ defender) in the 89th minute to give the very unfortunate San Jose a major setback in their playoff aspirations. Fans are always ready to criticize referees worldwide, not least, as I say, for a decision that does not go in their favor. But the quality of MLS refereeing can be decidedly poor and needs to be addressed if this league is going to carry some clout worldwide.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rapids' Setback as Houston Ease to 3-1 Win

Well, maybe it's a bit broken now. Defensive lapses in the opening 20 minutes of this game put paid to the Colorado Rapids' recent unbeaten streak. Brian Ching showed his class as he scored twice in the opening seven minutes, the Rapids both times giving him far too much room. A poor clearance from goalkeeper, Preston Burpo, in the opening minutes found its way to onrushing Houston forwards and the defense could not keep up with Ching. Minutes later, from a dangerous free-kick, he had a free header which crashed against the bar and was then bundled in. In between, Conor Casey had knocked one in for the home side via another Terry Cooke cross from a corner and there were shades of last week's crazy game. Houston made it 3-1 with a beautiful shot from Ricardo Clark who had acres of space to curl one in past Burpo. And that was all in the opening 18 minutes. The game was effectively won. Houston had the luxury of missing a penalty early in the second half with a good save from Burpo. Casey was sent off for a second yellow in the 54th and Houston shut up shop. Cooke crashed one against the bar late on and then missed a penalty with the last kick of the match. Lots of frantic pushing forward by the Rapids but Houston were always in control after that crazy first 20 minutes. Very unfortunate.
The Rapids, with Chivas winning and Salt Lake drawing, now face an uphill battle in the final three games. The next two are away in Los Angeles with the Galaxy first next Sunday followed by Chivas. There may be changes in the defense following the laspes last night but, perhaps more importantly, we have major difficulties upfront. With the red card, Casey will miss the LA game as will Omar Cummings, last night's man of the match and a player in very good form. Cummings has been called up for the Jamaica national team for the next two World Cup qualifiers. That means an injured Tom McManus and probably Jacob Peterson upfront, an untried partnership. Maybe the formation will be changed and Christian Gomez may get a chance to be at his creative best and maybe save his career in an attacking midfield position just behind a lone striker? I'll keep you posted.

Friday, October 3, 2008

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Big, big game tomorrow for the Colorado Rapids. Having played in an unforgettable epic last weekend, thoughts must turn now to MLS big guns, Houston. The Texans visit DSG Park tomorrow night for the second time this season having drawn 0-0 back in June. Gary Smith, head coach of the Rapids, acknowledged how tough this game will be. "We are up against the most efficient and most organized team in the league," he said after training today. There may be some weaknesses to probe, however. Houston have played four games away from home in the past two weeks and could be fatigued. They will also be without Bobby Boswell, a player whom Smith rates highly. "Maybe their rotation may give us some options up front," he said, adding that Houston's defensive depth was not their strongest point.
The Rapids will make just one change. Terry Cooke, rested because of persistent hamstring problems last week for the game against New York, will return to the starting line-up at the expense of Nick LaBrocca who will be on the bench. Smith admitted this was tough on LaBrocca who had a magnificent game against the Red Bulls. "Nick was fantastic," he said. "It's just that Terry will help the balance of the team more at home with his delivery." So, despite murmurings over some recent defensive lapses, the back five will be unchanged. Mike Petke is trying to shrug off an injury but will be fit for the game. Smith defended recent criticisms of mistakes by Cory Gibbs, one of which gifted the Red Bulls an equalizing goal last week. "The trouble is that people forget about all the good things and focus on the bad," he said. "Cory has come on so much in the past few weeks given all his injuries over the past two years." I have to say I agree with him. It does not make any real sense to make changes at this vital stage of the season when the team is unbeaten in four games and playing well together. Here's hoping for a packed crowd tomorrow night. Kick off is at 7.30pm. Together we rise, indeed.