Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Focus Shifts to Midfield as Rapids Travel to LA

Last week, I wrote a piece on Gary Smith discussing the need for the Colorado Rapids to have deeper options upfront (March 25 blogpost). The head coach has addressed that situation, at least for now, by signing Gregory Richardson and Ross Schunk as backups to Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. The focus now may be on other areas of the park. Smith has said the defense continues to be a work in progress and he was slightly alarmed at the vulnerability of the flat back four in last weekend's game. He is also concerned about the lack of creativity in the midfield, especially in the first half, a situation not resolved until Terry Cooke entered the game in the 65th minute and turned it on its head.
Much of the creative focus is on Mehdi Ballouchy and Smith believes the 25-year-old Moroccan has all the necessary qualities to play that role. He is just lacking consistency for now. “Mehdi is a very talented player with a great attitude and who is a really good team player,” Smith said after training today. “I’ve looked at the game again today and you can see he is working very hard for the group with the interceptions he makes and the moves he instigates.” Smith does concede, however, that Ballouchy is not yet the finished product. “In terms of creative play and in being a consistent goal creator, he still has some way to go. Sometimes, he is not just quite making the right choices.” Ballouchy, for his part, says he is under no more pressure than normal with his higher profile in the team. "I am happy with the way this team is going," Ballouchy said. “It is a team of eleven guys, not one, there is pressure on everyone and I am very happy with my role." Please do read more on the midfield situation over at www.mlsnet.com where I should have an article in the next day or so on this.
Expect few changes in the line-up for this weekend's game against LA. Pablo Mastroeni should be back but much will depend on the extent of his playing time for the US tomorrow against Trinidad and Tobago. The Rapids' coaching staff said they understand that Mastroeni will be playing in the World Cup qualifier tomorrow so they will see how quickly he can recover before Saturday. It is therefore not inconceivable that the club captain may not start in LA. Will Terry Cooke start for the first time after his scintillating performance as sub against Kansas City? Maybe, maybe not. But Smith said today Cooke will be instrumental in the game so we will have to wait and see. Minor injuries to Casey and Cory Gibbs after the weekend saw them miss training today but they are expected to be fine for the weekend.
The Rapids will stay on in LA after the weekend in view of the Open Cup game next Tuesday against the same team. Smith said the players on the bench for Saturday's game will likely play a big role in the cup game and they will be reinforced by calling in a couple of players who will be staying in town this weekend. Here is the projected line-up for this weekend's game according to the Rapids' website.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cooke Brilliance Saves Rapids

What is it about opening game at DSG Park and Terry Cooke? Last year, he outshone his more illustrious countryman and former teammate, a certain David Beckham, as the Colorado Rapids dismantled the LA Galaxy 4-0. Yesterday, against Kansas City, he came on as a substitute in the second half, scored with his first touch of the ball from a brilliant free kick and proceeded to turn the match upside down. "The game was lit up by Terry," coach Gary Smith said after the game. "He gave us a more creative edge and he upped the ante. The ball for Colin Clark (which led to the winning goal) was absolutely wonderful." It truly was. With his back to the goal, Cooke found Clark with a beautiful ball. Clark did well to beat the Kansas City defense and passed to Omar Cummings who hit it first time into the corner. That was a candidate for MLS Goal of the week for sure. The goal capped a busy ten minutes in a hitherto lifeless game which sprung into action as Cooke took the field. Smith said the decision to send Cooke on had already been made and was not determined by the fact that the Rapids had a free kick just outside the penalty box. Nevertheless, Cooke came on, promptly stepped back a couple of yards and stroked it majestically into the top left hand corner. "I asked Mehdi (Ballouchy) if he wanted it because I didn't feel warmed up enough but he was asking me if I wanted it," Cooke said. "Luckily, I hit it sweet and it went in the top corner." That is an understatement. I don't know of hardly anybody else in the MLS, let alone the Rapids, apart from Beckham, who could have come on and done that. It was a great moment which was then topped off by Cooke's pass to Clark and the Cummings goal ten minutes later to win the game. In between, Kansas had scored a well taken goal on a mistake by captain for the night, Cory Gibbs.
The win was tight. Cooke's performance hid a lot of glaring gaps, particularly in the first half. Smith said he was far more disappointed in the overall performance yesterday than in the defeat against Chivas last week and conceded that one or two players "needed a kick up the backside" after the first 45 minutes. "We are a decent all round team," Smith said. "But are we going to keep a clean sheet? It doesn't look like it at the moment. We are not clinical in our finishing and we are not creative enough." The Rapids looked vulnerable on most Kansas attacks with a very flat back four and there was very little creative spark until the entrance of Cooke. It is going to be a probem replacing Christian Gomez despite all his inconsistency. Ballouchy has a lot to prove and Nick LaBrocca, who did play one lovely pass to Clark towards the end of the first half, is more defensive minded. Maybe Smith will find a more complete role for Cooke to add that creative genius in the midfield?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

DiRaimondo Follows Gomez to DC

One door closes, another opens. John DiRaimondo, midfielder with the Colorado Rapids until just three days ago, has been signed by DC United where he could link up with former Rapids' misfit, Christian Gomez. Here's the story from the Washington Post.
It seems that some of those players waived from the Rapids are finding good homes. DiRaimondo now and previously Stephen Keel who has an interestng future ahead of him with new MLS team, Portland. I also had the story yesterday of Tom McManus joining Derry City in Ireland. Just have to find out about Bouna now. And Erpen, Burciaga etc.

Friday, March 27, 2009

McManus Swaps Sun For Mud

Instead of playing in seventy degrees (and more) in sunny Colorado, Scottish striker Tom McManus looks like he will be playing in the mud on cold Tuesday evenings in Northern Ireland. The former Colorado Rapids forward is signing for Derry City of the League of Ireland, according to a report in the Belfast Telegraph. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/football/local/derry-move-to-snap-up-scottish-striker-mcmanus-14245771.htmlWe all wish him well, of course, but I know where I would rather be playing, and not just for the weather. No disrespect intended but Irish league football is not universally known for its quality. Can't help but feel this is a big step down for McManus. Tom became a fan favorite in his short stay in Commerce City, gave his all on the field and was always very entertaining with his thick Scottish brogue. He just wasn't happy with the terms the Rapids were offering him going forward and so decided to ply his trade elsewhere. Wonder what his model girlfriend thinks of the modelling opportunities in Derry? See George Tanner's site over at www.ColoradoSoccerNow.com for more on that from your blockbusting News of the World.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

DiRaimondo Waived as Holody Signs

OK, now it's official. The Colorado Rapids have signed draft pick Michael Holody to a developmental contract and waived midfielder John DiRaimondo. Holody played in the game against Metro State last night and will give the Rapids another defensive option. DiRaimondo looked to be establishing himself in the midfield alongside Nick LaBrocca early last season but later struggled to keep a spot. A well-liked and hard working member of the team, he will be missed. It was clear that he was one of the more vulnerable players given the demands of the reduced roster size. I did say that either he or Nico Colaluca would be anxiously looking over their shoulders when Stephen Keel was waived (March 13 blogpost). I have found out since then that Colaluca can only be traded because of his Generation Adidas contract. He cannot be waived. Hence the reach out to New York Red Bulls earlier this season when he was practicing with the team with regard to a possible trade.

Smith Still Seeking Answers to Forward Question

Gary Smith, head coach of the Colorado Rapids, is still tinkering mentally with his roster days ahead of the home opener against Kansas City Wizards. Nowhere is his mind maybe more focused than on upfront where last night's friendly against Metro State allowed him to take a good look at Gregory Richardson and Ross Schunk, the obvious back-ups to frontline strikers Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. The replacements did well enough, both scoring two second-half goals each as the Rapids raced to a 6-0 victory over the college team. Richardson showed plenty of skill and Schunk was strong in holding off defenders. Richardson will clearly be the number one back-up for now, understandable as Schunk is fresh out of college. "Gregory is a very laid back character and he possesses an awful lot of talent," Smith said after the game. "He has nice creativity but what I'd like to see less of is him dropping off deep into areas where he is less effective." Smith was also pleased with Schunk but justifiably conceded it is "maybe a little bit early for him." As he has made no secret of in the past, Smith reiterated his desire to bring in another forward with more experience and caliber. And that forward may come in sooner than the summer, he suggested last night.
Another area that remains up for grabs is the right side of midfield where Terry Cooke and Jacob Peterson are competing. Cooke was named Man of the Match last night for a strong performance which included a fine shot for the opening goal as well as plenty of trademark crosses. Peterson also scored a goal early in the second half. "Jake has a lot of pace and athleticism but may be lacking that finer polish in the final third," Smith said. "Terry showed terrific delivery but, at this stage in his career, he's not going to threaten regularly by getting behind the defense." So, we shall see. I fancy Cooke to start this weekend. Smith said there will be few changes for the Kansas game with the notable exception of Pablo Mastroeni not being available as he is away with the national team in El Salvador. "What's for sure is that it will be a very young midfield," Smith said. "More of the same is what we are after," he added, referring to what he saw as a positive performance against Chivas last week. "We will press Kansas early and make full use of our home turf and of the altitude."
Talking of rosters, expect an announcement in the near future from the Rapids. I cannot say more for now as it is not yet official but there will be a new signing in the next day or so.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Chivas Pounce to Take Game Away From Rapids

It kind of reminded me of watching the England national team. Some very good moments when taking the game to the opposition but a seeming inability to keep the pressure on for the full 90 minutes, so allowing the opposition to get crucially back into the game. There's a lot to be impressed about the season opener for the Colorado Rapids but we lost the game in a crucial five minute period when some concentration went awry, we gave the ball away to Chivas and Paulo Nagamura finished fantastically well to bury us. I don't think Matt Pickens will be beaten from 25 yards out too often this season and that was a great strike for Chivas' opening goal. Kosuke Kimura will be having some nightmares about his header out of defense which led to Nagamura's second but these things happen and we and he shouldn't get too disheartened by it. Just head it away from the center of the field next time, Kosuke! The Rapids played very well in the opening 45 minutes, scoring the opening goal of the game when Omar Cummings latched onto Zach Thornton's mistake to poach one close in. They also never gave up and came back furiously in the last quarter to try and get a deserved equalizer. It wasn't to be but the team was aggressive and confident for the vast majority of the match and this bodes well. As one of the Rapids' non-traveling players told me at SoBo yesterday, there are another 29 games to go and there is much to look forward to. For what it's worth, it would have been good to see Terry Cooke on at the end. We could have done with one of his trademark crosses in from the right onto Conor Casey's head. The game was crying out for it as we pressed for that equalizer. I wouldn't mind betting Cooke will be given the nod for the home opener and the wide expanses of DSG Park next week.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Club v Country; Mastroeni Called Into US Squad

Pablo Mastroeni, club captain of the Colorado Rapids, will not be playing in the home season opener next Saturday because he will have the small matter of marshalling the midfield for the US national team in deepest El Salvador. Mastroeni has been called up by national team coach, Bob Bradley, for the vital World Cup qualifying games against El Salvador and then, four days later, at home in Nashville against Trinidad and Tobago. I wouldn't mind betting that Pablo will be released for the Trinidad game. There seems to be a pattern emerging of picking him primarily for the really difficult games away from home where his experience and toughness are perhaps most needed. Granted, he was not able to play in the Mexico game last month because of suspension but there does seem to be this trend emerging. It begs the question as to whether Mastroeni will simply be a convenience in the US set-up while they aim to qualify for the World Cup and would then promptly be dropped for the tournament itself. Of course, if he plays out of his skin during the qualifying games, it could be that Bradley would have no option but to take him to South Africa. But there is this nagging feeling and it is not something that is lost on Mastroeni himself who has to weigh his loyalty to both club and country, two entities he both desperately wants to play for. "It is kind of difficult with the Rapids," he told me this morning. "Clearly, it is everyone's dream to represent their country. We'll just have to see where I am in the big picture." If I was a US fan, which I kind of am a very distant second to England, I know who I would like in my team as Didier Drogba came hurtling towards me with his Ivory Coast teammates. The US will need someone of Pablo's experience in midfield for what will be a very difficult tournament next year in unfamiliar surroundings.
In other news, the Rapids confirmed today that they have signed Gregory Richardson and Scott Palguta, completing the 24-man roster for now. Richardson could well be on the bench tomorrow as the Rapids face Chivas in the season opener.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Phoney War is Over, The Battle Begins

Two days to go before the Rapids' first game and the MLS season starts proper tonight with an exiciting game in Seattle as the newly franchised Sounders take on the Red Bulls. I haven't been this excited since Mehdi Ballouchy crossed that ball over to Conor Casey's outstretched foot in the final minutes of last season's crazy 5-4 victory over New York. Well, I do remember blasting one myself into the top corner with the left foot just as Everton's Tim Cahill was strolling by at DSG Park but that's another story.
It's always natural to be filled with optimism at the start of a new season but I have to say the MLS looks increasingly exciting each year. Not only do we have the Sounders and Philadelphia next year but now there is Vancouver coming in and talk that Portland will be confirmed as early as tomorrow as well. Great cities to have soccer in and great places to visit also.
Expect the Rapids to trot out a similar line-up against Chivas to that which started against Seattle last week in preseason. I am not sure if Jacob Peterson will start ahead of Terry Cooke and it could be that Ballouchy starts ahead of last season mainstay, Nick LaBrocca. I do have concerns about upfront because there is no experienced back-up to Casey and Omar Cummings. The Rapids will sign Gregory Richardson, subject to visa requirements, but there could be some sharp intake of breath and some crossed fingers if Conor or Omar gets injured early on and either one is out for a few weeks. Good luck to the boys in burgundy and blue!
I want to point you all also to my friend George Tanner's new blog, www.ColoradoSoccerNow.com. George, the editor of the FC Rocky blog at the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, is a true soccer fan and was instrumental in encouraging me with my blog. I wish him all the best in his new venture and encourage you to check it out now and through the season.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Summer Striker From Abroad?

Gary Smith may be waiting until the summer for a big signing from Europe if unconfirmed reports of new signings for the Colorado Rapids turn out to be true. Last week, the Rapids signed draft striker Ross Schunk to the team, waiving defender Stephen Keel who has reportedly signed with the Portland Timbers franchise. That left them with one very inexperienced back-up forward to Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. Now, reports say that Gregory Richardson has inked a contract with the Rapids. The Guyanese player hit the headlines last year when he spanked the New England Revolution for a few goals. Head coach Smith may therefore be waiting until the summer for a bigger name, content to have Schunk and Richardson as back-ups until then and probably praying that neither of his frontline strikers get really bad injuries. Schunk and Richardson have zero MLS experience so it will be tough for them if they do get called in. There are also reports out of Rochester that Scott Palguta (see March 11 blog post) has signed a contract. He would be a back-up defender to Jordan Harvey and Ivan Guerrero as a left-sided back. Here's the link to a Guyanese report about Richardson.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Keel Waived as Forward Schunk Signed

Stephen Keel may be spending a bit more time on the trendy Denver singles scene now that he will no longer be playing for the Colorado Rapids. Keel, who was recently featured as one of Denver's hottest singles in 5280 magazine, was unfortunately waived by the Rapids today as they signed draft striker, Ross Schunk. Don't be surprised if more established players like Keel continue to be waived as Gary Smith puts his final pieces of the puzzle together. Smith said to me after the preseason game against LA March 4 that such established players with little prospect of making many first team appearances this year may have to make way as the team looks particularly for more striking options. Players like John DiRaimondo and Nico Colaluca may be anxiously looking over their shoulders after today. Always a shame for decent people to be let go and Keel is a decent person. He also showed some capacity for good blogging recently on www.rapidsundercurrent.blogspot.com. Keel started off as a regular in the centre of defense last year but gradually made way as injured players came back. We wish him well in his future soccer career just as we do Schunk who is probably still phoning all his friends and family to share the good news that he has a professional contract. We still look a little light upfront though with only a draft pick to back up Casey and Cummings. Coach Smith may still pull out a surprise upfront before the season opener. I'll try and get up to traning next week to see what is going on.

Rapids Reveal Likely Starting XI in Win Over Seattle

The Colorado Rapids went to Seattle and scored a 1-0 victory over the Sounders in their last preseason game yesterday. More importantly, the line-up revealed the very likely starting XI for the opening game of the season next week against Chivas and the way coach Gary Smith is envisaging his optimal team for the campaign. No real surprises apart from the fact that Jacob Peterson looks as if he could be playing a bigger role than many expected, possibly at the expense of Terry Cooke starting. It's also interesting to note that Mehdi Ballouchy could get a start with the Rapids playing a more attacking midfield and Nick LaBrocca possibly on the bench. The most clear choice is at goalkeeper. Matt Pickens will almost certainly start against Chivas and has the chance to lay claim to the number one spot ahead of Preston Burpo for the season. You couldn't really say that is a big surpise. Pickens is, after all, a player in the US national team squad. Goalkeeping coach, David Kramer, said on last week's From The Pitch radio show, that the choice of starting goalkeeper would be made by the time of the Seattle game. Choice made, therefore, at least for now. The Rapids won last night's game on a Conor Casey first-half penalty. Here is the starting line-up courtesy of www.rapidsundercurrent.blogspot.com
Colorado Rapids Lineup: Matt Pickens, Jordan Harvey, Cory Gibbs (Ivan Guerrero 66), Ugo Ihemelu (Ty Harden 66), Kosuke Kimura, Pablo Mastroeni (Nick LaBrocca 66), Colin Clark (Terry Cooke 66), Jacob Peterson, Mehdi Ballouchy, Omar Cummings (Gregory Richardson 66), Conor Casey (Ross Schunk 66)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rapids May Sign Back-up Defender from Rhinos

An interesting piece of news out of Rochester, NY. It looks as if the Colorado Rapids may be signing another left-footed defender as a back-up to Jordan Harvey. Scott Palguta of the Rochester Rhinos is currently on trial with the Rapids. The Steve Guppy connection with Rochester is obviously alive and well. Looks like this guy is pretty highly rated. Look for some news from the Rapids in next few days.
Here's the link to a Rochester paper. The Rapids travel to Seattle today for a preseason friendly against the new Sounders team tomorrow.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Beckham to Stay at Milan - No Trip to DSG Park

The saga is finally over. David Beckham will extend his loan stay at Italian giants AC Milan and won't therefore be back in the MLS with the LA Galaxy until July. That means no trip to DSG Park for the Galaxy game against the Colorado Rapids in April. The 4-0 thumping of LA by the Rapids on opening day last year could therefore be the only time the Rocky Mountain faithful will ever get to see the England superstar, one brief appearance at the 2007 All-Star game excepted.
What very few people seem to emphasize about this whole episode is that Beckham was on a very poor LA team. The chemistry was bad and the locker room atmosphere was reportedly terrible. Add to that a poor coaching choice in Ruud Gullit and it was a recipe for disaster. You can't really blame Beckham for wanting to stay at AC Milan with the likes of Maldini, Kaka et al. He is a very ambitious professional who remains super fit and wants to play for England at the World Cup next year. Playing with such greats at Milan clearly helps him with that. You just get the feeling, however, that, if he had been with a better run team in the MLS, the dilemma would not have been so difficult. It is going to be very tough for him to come back to LA because the fans may not be all that forgiving. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his decision, the perception with some is that he has turned his back on a signed contract and was only ever interested in money. I don't subscribe to that point of view but many do.
Here is a good link below on the BBC website. Steve Nichol, the New England coach, is clearly overstating the importance of Beckham to the MLS while Ivan Gazidis has to say what he does. He's not going to admit that Beckham's absence is a disaster for the MLS, is he? Check out the thoughts of Andrei Markovits. The aimiable professor (I met him once at DU) manages to combine academia and soccer. Not a bad combination.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rapids Cruise Past Galaxy

It was just like opening day last season when we stuffed the LA Galaxy 4-0. The Colorado Rapids went to LA today and put five goals past the unfortunate Beckham-less Galaxy who responded with two goals of their own. Today's game had even more of a ring of that opening game last year because Terry Cooke got on the scoresheet just as he did in 2008 for the only time last season. Mehdi Ballouchy, Conor Casey and Omar Cummings (twice) also netted. "It was very pleasing to hit the back of the net five times," said Gary Smith, head coach, speaking from LA. More importantly, Smith said the starting XI today was close to what we can expect come opening day against Chivas, March 21. The XI that started: Burpo in goal, a back four of Kimura, Ihemelu, Gibbs and Harvey, a midfield of Petersen, Mastroeni, Ballouchy and Clark with Casey and Cummings upfront. After about an hour, the entire back four was changed to Wawa, Dalby, Holody and Guerrero with Cooke and LaBrocca coming into the midfield and new boy Richardson taking a turn upfront. "He's not been here that long and he has a lot going on in his life," said Smith of Gregory Richardson, aka Jackie Chan. The Guyanese may have to do some strength and conditioning to make himself ready for the rigors of MLS. "There's not much of him - he seems like a decent lad," Smith said.
Whether Richardson will make the team as another striking option remains to be seen. Smith said he is still looking at one unidentified striker to come in before the season starts. That could leave Richardson's status with the team up in the air though Smith said that some established players could also make way for more forward options and to help keep some of the draft players on board.
Some of those more established players did leave some room for younger draft players Monday when they were waived by the club. Justin Hughes, Cesar Zambrano and Kwame Sarkodie are no longer Rapids players. Smith said that Hughes has attracted interest from a USL-1 team and that he could also likely get on the Real Maryland squad. Zambrano is being courted by sister club Maryland while Sarkodie is using the links between assistant coach, Steve Guppy, and the Rochester Rhinos to pursue dreams there.

Monday, March 2, 2009

No More Juice as Rapids Slim Roster

Justin Hughes, one of the unluckiest players for the Colorado Rapids, now has to rethink his soccer future after being waived from the club this afternoon. The Rapids had to make themselves roster compliant by today and decided to waive the unfortunate goalkeeper. Cesar Zambrano and Kwame Sarkodie were also waived. Hughes, aka The Juice, was out injured all last season. A badly injured groin initially kept him on the sidelines for much of the season. Just as he was about to come back, he promptly injured a shoulder in training and never made it onto the pitch. When you think of all the difficulties deciding between Bouna and Preston Burpo as to who would play between the posts last season, it would be reasonable to think that Hughes could also have made a strong case for inclusion if he had not been so injured. Now, he is deemed surplus to requirements after a season of inaction. The Rapids decided to sign draft player, Steward Ceus, as another goalkeeper. Maybe the decision is purely financial. Neither Hughes nor Ceus looked likely to get much action with Burpo and Matt Pickens apparently slugging it out as to who will start. Hughes was not on the greatest money but it might have been time to offer him something better and Ceus will undoubtedly be cheaper as a rookie. It's a great shame on a personal note. Justin is a top guy who always treated me with great respect and friendliness. I'll miss him as I know many of the players will. He was one of the most popular players in the squad. We wish him all the best for the future and hope he will comment occasionally on this blog which I know he reads. Good luck Justin.
I didn't know Zambrano and Sarkodie. Zambrano played once for the first team against Toronto last season and performed pretty creditably given the extreme inexperience of the defense that day. Sarkodie played in the Reserves last season as a midfielder. Good luck to them both in their futures. The Rapids now have 22 players on the roster leaving some space for future acquisitions. The Rapids beat San Jose 2-1 today in another preseason friendly - see www.rapidsundercurrent.blogspot.com for details. They play LA on Wednesday and I aim to speak to Gary Smith after the game for some insights.