Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rapids Given Wings as Swallow Up Red Bulls

Pablo Mastroeni grabbed Conor Casey in a bear hug at the end of yesterday's game because he knows how valuable the striker is to the Colorado Rapids and he was grateful to the big fella that he can go and attend MNT camp knowing that his team are very well set after yesterday's victory in New York. Mastroeni will miss next week's game against Real Salt Lake on US duty but he can have some confidence that the Rapids can go to Rio Tinto and get something next week. It's hard to overstate the importance of Casey and everyone is praying that his good health and good form continue because the Rapids are still shallow when it comes to forward depth. What if Casey does get called up for the US? Surely, he must be in consideration for the Confederations' Cup or Gold Cup squads, at the very least. Matt Pickens is another who has no doubt been in national team coaches' minds and let's hope yesterday's almost inexplicable error that led to the second NY goal will not be overstated. Let's not forget his great save in the opening minute that could have seen Angel give the Red Bulls an immediate lead.
I think the Rapids played much better against Seattle last week, at least in terms of attacking football. But they made the most of not a great defensive opposition yesterday to deserve the 3-2 victory. Yes, the penalty was a bit debatable but so was the one given to NY. A return yesterday to pretty poor officiating. I loved the tenacity of the second goal which saw Colin Clark and Jordan Harvey battling for the ball when it seemed lost and Harvey delivering a nice pass to Omar Cummings who planted a great cross onto Casey's head. Cummings continues to struggle in front of the net but his assist play is so good this season and his time to score will come. Expect large smiles on that Jamaican face when he does. I can't really think of a better strike partnership in MLS right now.
I talked yesterday and last week of the problems in communication about how to protect a lead. Gary Smith then shocks us all with using Terry Cooke as a sub when the Rapids are 3-2 up only to return to form by replacing Cummings with Greg Dalby who is really the equivalent of a closing pitcher in baseball. Just comes on at the end to wrap everything up.
Other notable happenings included another solid performance from Mehdi Ballouchy - good to see him get the penalty. He does do a lot more work than people generally give him credit for and fully deserves his place in the team. More of a burden will fall on him next week when Mastroeni will be absent. Nick LaBrocca ran everywhere and was in the penalty area thwarting a last minute attack from the Red Bulls as they tried for an equalizer.
An impressive victory that leaves the Rapids just a point behind Seattle with a game in hand.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Bus Left And I Wasn't On It

I was planning to go up to training today to offer you penetrating insights for tomorrow's big game but I got a message that the team bus was leaving for the airport just as I planned to be there so grateful I didn't waste a trip. As a result, though, my insights will be less than penetrating. Nevertheless, the game tomorrow for the Rapids against New York remains intriguing. The Red Bulls are having a pretty miserable season and the Rapids are afraid of nobody. Simple victory for the Rapids then, on paper. But, we play on grass not paper, or artifical turf anyway. The key to the game could be the opening 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes. This season, the Rapids are typically piling on the intensity from the get-go whether at home or away. It means they can often take a lead. The question is, can they hold it? Do they know how to protect a lead? Last week was somewhat revealing in that there seemed to be a lack of communication between Gary Smith and some of the players which led to different approaches as to how to protect a lead. Go more on the defensive to protect a one goal lead or more on the offensive to stretch a lead and make sure of the game that way. Hopefully, the team has been communicating better in practice this week. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Rapids can get on top "early doors" and go into halftime ahead. What will the strategy be then as the second half wears on?
I am not aware of any injuries to likely starters so I wouldn't expect too many changes from last week. My guess is that it will be the same starting eleven as played against Seattle last Saturday. I would think Terry Cooke would likely get some action in the second half but that could well depend on the state of the game. Seems hard to believe that Cooke would come on if the Rapids are ahead and in control. Cooke is a game changer when coming on as a substitute and better known for his glorious attacking skills than his defensive ones. Can't wait. Hope to see you at SoBo tomorrow night.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rapids Scratch Heads as Victory Eludes Them

That was some game. The overriding feeling from the Colorado Rapids players and coaches was higher than average disappointment but, as a spectacle, it was the best game I have seen this season in terms of good football and entertainment. Not great football for the Rapids in terms of letting slip the lead but there were times yesterday when it was a real pleasure to watch two teams playing attacking and attractive soccer. Let's discuss the disappointment first. Gary Smith, head coach, took a long time in the dressing room last night before emerging downcast for the press conference. Having talked to both players and staff afterwards, it is clear that there was some lack of communication about the gameplan in the final part of the game. Does the team press forward and secure the win at 2-1 up or does it hang back and ensure the victory? "We spoke about it in the changing room," Smith said. "There is a fine line between going for the third goal and leaving yourself vulnerable and we got it slightly wrong." Smith was clearly of the mindset that the Rapids needed to ensure victory at 2-1 rather than continue their attacking play but some of the players instinctively pressed forward. It allowed for continued attractive soccer but it proved the undoing in the end as a series of mistakes and ill fortune saw Nate Jaqua score the equalizer in the 76th minute. "Everything got shot down," said defender Cory Gibbs afterwards. From Colin Clark failing to appeal successfully for a handball to Scott Palguta getting cramp to Kosuke Kimura having to make a decision which of two men to go for, everything did indeed shut down and it was 2-2. But for a tremendous save from Matt Pickens in the last five minutes, it could have been even worse.
Clearly, there was some frustration all around, among both the players and the coaches, but hopefully the team can learn from it. In every relationship, there is a lack of communication at times and it would be surprising in any team not to have this crop up from time to time. You have to make the mistake to learn from it. What is most important overall is to recognize that this is a very good Seattle team, that the Rapids are extremely disappointed not to have taken all three points and that the team has the confidence to truly believe that they can beat any MLS team. That is a big step compared to recent times.
I could write so much more about this game as there are so many dicussion points but, in the interests of brevity, I'll mention just a few points quickly. Omar Cummings may be frustrated he is not scoring but he was putting in some beautiful passes yesterday and played extremely well. Mehdi Ballouchy has responded magnificently to being dropped the other week and worked incredibly hard yesterday, putting in a beautiful pass for Cummings which led to the first Colorado goal. Pickens is proving to be a goalkeeper of national team caliber (don't be surpised if he is called into either the Confederations Cup or Gold Cup squads). Ugo Ihemelu was out of puff last night, perhaps finding the right back position demanding a different level of fitness to center back, and asked to come off in the second half. Up to then, he had done a great job neutralizing Steve Zakuani so much so that the young Seattle flyer had been moved to the right side to focus on Jordan Harvey instead, a point noted by a relieved Seattle head coach, Sigi Schmid, afterwards. That explains why the substitution occurred because it seemed strange at the time to bring on an attacking right back in Kimura when the team was 2-1 up and comfortable. Pablo Mastroeni did what Pablo Mastroeni always does, working incredibly hard and getting into the heads of the opponents. The veteran capitain has been called into the US team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Costa Rica but will be available for next week's Rapids game against New York. That's it. It's getting too long but at least there is a lot to talk about. Send me all your thoughts.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ljungbergless Seattle to Offer Stern Test for Rapids

No Freddie Ljungberg! Major blow. It would have been a real thrill to see the former Arsenal man playing against the Colorado Rapids tonight for the Seattle Sounders but persistent migraines will not allow him not travel to Commerce City. But this Sounders team will still be a stern test for the Rapids who will seek to preserve their unbeaten run at home so far this season. Not only Montero in the midfield but also Zakuani upfront as well as a tight defense and a classy, experienced goalkeeper. Gary Smith knows they will be a formidable opponent. "They have started the season incredibly well and are full of confidence," he said at training this week. "They have lots of energy and adrenalin from their home games and they are trying to implement that on the road." But Smith knows that the Rapids will also provide a stern test for the Sounders, sterner than that offered by Dallas last week when the Texas team was reportedly very lucky to escape with a point. Smith likes the consistency the Rapids are showing and the choices they are making. "They know when to push the buttons and when to be a bit more frugal," he said. "I think this group is looking pretty accomplished and well organized."
Competition within the team for a starting spot remains intense, no more so than on the back line. Smith is a man who doesn't like to reveal much of his starting line-up but he did say this about last weekend's half-time substitution of Kosuke Kimura who was replaced by Cory Gibbs. "We needed a change and I thought we looked better," he said, noting that the team "loses a bit going forward" when Kimura is not playing. He also noted that Ugo Ihemelu would be an ideal opponent for Zakuani on the left to stop the youngster's dangerous runs. Scott Palguta continues to play well in the center and Jordan Harvey appears to have locked down the left back position. Upfront picks itself and the only other question is what role Terry Cooke may have tonight. Cooke, as you probably all know, has been in England visiting his son who was injured in a car accident. Thankfully, his son is doing well and Cooke was back training this week. He had been away for some time, however, and Mehdi Ballouchy arguably had his best game of the season last week against New England. If I was a betting man, I think Cooke will come on in the 69th minute and curl one past Kasey Keller into the top corner.
It should be a pretty packed house tonight by all accounts, Denver Nuggets home game notwithstanding, so let's get behind the team because those Seattle fans will bring plenty of passion. Kickoff is at 7.30pm.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rapids' Disappointment Good; Seattle on Horizon

From Gary Smith quotes to comments from soccer scribes, the idea that the Colorado Rapids are a different proposition this season compared to the last few, notably on the road, is picking up traction. The overriding feeling after Saturday's 1-1 draw with New England was disappointment that the Rapids had not picked up all three points. While the Rapids did manage a 1-0 victory on the road against the Revolution last year, I think we can all safely say that was a bit of a shock and not part of a pattern that emerged. This year, against an admittedly injury-ravaged side that saw one of the best MLS defensive midfielders in Shalrie Joseph bizarrely playing up front, the Rapids clearly believed they could win and were frustrated they didn't. Here is an article from with some thoughts on that.
The Rapids really took the game to New England in those opening ten minutes which saw the Colorado goal from Conor Casey, a tremendous header from quite a long way out with the ball behind him. Unfortunately, the dynamics changed after New England scored from a penalty after 17 minutes. Although the Rapids apparently outshot their opponents for the rest of the game, it wasn't really until the final ten minutes or so that Colorado really dominated again. If, as a good friend of mine said, we could have bottled up those bookends of the game and played like that for the rest of the 90 minutes, there is no doubt that the Rapids would have come away victorious. It's very hard to do that, though, when the penalty came after that opening spell when the Rapids threw everything at New England.
I know all games are important but this weekend's homer against Seattle is shaping up to be a cracker and perhaps somewhat of a watershed for the season. Clearly, if we look at the Western Conference, Chivas are playing the most consistent soccer. Houston will always be in the mix, leaving Seattle and the Rapids to battle for the bronze. The only other team that has shown glimpses of being with these two is Real Salt Lake but they have apparently dropped off a cliff with coach, Jason Kreis, saying this week that he might have to look at himself after what he described as the team's worst ever perfomance at home last weekend. San Jose and Dallas look the weakest teams and LA just cannot win and probably won't be victorious too often this season even with Mr. Beckham returning.
That makes this weekend's game extremely intruiging. I personally cannot wait to see Ljungberg on the field - a great midfielder at his peak with Arsenal. The only thing I will miss is the phenomenal home support for the Sounders though they will probably have a very good and noisy sample of fans making the trip. When I watched their game against LA the other weekend, it felt like I was watching a Premiership game in terms of the atmosphere. Now, if we could bottle some of that up and transport it to DSG Park.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Team in Reasonable Shape as New England Awaits

Apologies for the lack of posts this week. Annual work conference for three days this week, coincidentally here in Denver. There was a lot of work and a lot of drinking. It meant I couldn't get up to training to check on how things are going after a week off last weekend for the Colorado Rapids. What I can offer are some thoughts fom Gary Smith both on new boy, Rob Valentino, and where the team is after a tough opening stretch of games. Smith said he would have been happy with the current position of the team if that had been offered to him at the start of the season. And he didn't just mean where they are in the league. "If I could have had a picture of where the team is in terms of points, physical state, form and consistency, I would have taken this at the start of the season," he said. With the tough opening of all those games on the road, Smith said his team is one that is in "reasonable shape" in terms of finding the form needed to make the playoffs. He is particularly happy with the improved defensive ability of the team. "I have been more pleased with what we have been able to achieve in terms of clean sheets and being frugal," he said. Tomorrow at New England, injuries and form aside, will be a further big test of that defensive strength. The game kicks off at 5.30pm Denver time.
One player unlikely to be traveling, unless there are any last minute major injuries, is new signing, Rob Valentino. The former New England player was due to be training with his new teammates this week in Colorado but, with first choice players like Cory Gibbs and Ty Harden appearing to be back on the mend, there is not much room left on that bus. The week off has given players like Gibbs a great opportunity to get back to fitness and it would seem he will play some part in the game tomorrow. Smith sees Valentino as a player with great potential but one that is unlikely to be called on that much this season. What he wants is a "little bit of a conveyor belt" of central defenders coming through. He certainly seems to have that now as he concentrates on defense and getting a new striker, his midfield core apparently pretty settled. Tomorrow's game will be hosted by GB Fish and Chips on South Broadway. See you there.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pickens Wouldn't Rather Be Fishing

Matt Pickens is a big fisherman in his spare time but you sense he would be happy to have a car sticker this weekend that says "I'd rather be playing soccer." The Colorado Rapids goalkeeper is relishing the chance to swap his goalie gloves for some rods back home in his native St. Louis this weekend as the team enjoys some well-earned rest on a bye weekend. However, Pickens knows that he needs games under his belt as he seeks to consolidate the number one spot between the posts. "It is frustrating not to have a game," he said after training yesterday. "I really want to get consistent and I want to get that rolling by playing consecutive games." The 27-year-old knows he has a tough fight on his hands after he watched some impressive displays by teammate Preston Burpo while recovering from a back injury. Gary Smith, head coach at the Rapids, is grateful to have, as he terms it, two "first choice goalkeepers." Last week, Smith benched Burpo in favor of Pickens as he felt Burpo had slightly slipped on his own high standards. Pickens managed to keep the team's first clean sheet of the season in what was a professional and competent display by the team. "We played a very sound defensive game with a lot of discipline," Pickens said. "We knew each other's strengths and we played it simple." Such sound defensive work meant Pickens didn't really have to do a lot during the game. Now, he just needs more games to improve his own consistency and hold on to the position. "I feel it is my job to lose," Pickens said. "I love competition; I have had it through my entire career and so it is nothing new to me."
If he does develop some sort of consistency over the next few games, it is not inconceivable that Pickens could be called into the national team set-up for the upcoming Confederations' Cup and Gold Cup tournaments where the US is unlikely to field first-team squads as it concentrates on World Cup qualifiers. He's been there before, taking part in the training camp ahead of last November's World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in Colorado. All he can do for now is get a run of good games under his belt for his club, something he will no doubt be thinking about as he catches a few trout this weekend. The Rapids next play New England on the road May 16. More of this interview should be available at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Colaluca Leaves Rapids; Defender Signed

In not the world's biggest surprise, midfielder Nico Colaluca has been traded to the New England Revolution. In return, the Colorado Rapids have signed defender Rob Valentino from New England. In what is turning out to be a pretty settled midfield, there was little prospect any of the players outside of those who have played there so far this season would get any game time. First, John DiRaimondo was waived, now Colaluca is traded. Don't be surprised if Ciaran O'Brien, another Generation Adidas player, is on his way soon either.
I'll try and find something out about Valentino and where he fits in to the defense strategy of the Rapids. The team does seem somewhat overstocked in that area but it may be that the injuries are mounting up and some kind of extra back-up is required there for now. Valentino was drafted by the Revolution in the first round (13th overall) in the 2008 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Last season, he did play in US Open Cup games as well as nine Reserve Division matches.
Colaluca was selected in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft and appeared in just four games for the Rapids during his career here. He was a regular member of the reserve team and a significant figure in Colorado’s 2007 MLS Reserve Division championship team.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rapids Professional Without Being Dominant

Real Salt Lake came to Colorado trying to solve their conundrum of blitzing everyone at home and struggling on the road. After a dramatic first half in which they went 1-0 down to an early goal, lost their goalkeeper to a hand injury and had a player sent off, it wasn't about the conundrum anymore. As Salt Lake's coach, Jason Kreis, said afterwards, it was then about the character of his players. "All evaluation went out of the window," he said. In the end, the Rapids had control of the game throughout the second half, solidifying the very large upper hand they had gained after that first half. They stroked the ball around calmly, exhausted their ten-man opponents and added a second goal from, of all people, Kosuke Kimura, who slammed a great shot home from the edge of the area after Terry Cooke laid the ball off to him. I think he was rather pleased. Gary Smith, Rapids' head coach, was pleased with the result without being excited. That is part of his make-up anyway but it is the right reaction because, while we should be pleased with the result, we are still some way off dominating a team at home. The reaction of Ugo Ihemelu maybe sums the performance up. He was delighted with the shut-out, partly because it was his self-confessed mistake last week which led to LA's equalizer. But it also shows satisfaction at a professional performance rather than delight at a dominating one.
The line-up was interesting. After a run of a few games between the posts, Preston Burpo was left out in favor of Matt Pickens, the original number one choice at the start of the season. Mehdi Ballouchy, who has been a constant in the midfield, was dropped to the bench with Nick LaBrocca, scorer of the first goal, getting the start. Both Burpo and Ballouchy had not quite lived up to their own high standards in recent games, Smith said. It was time for a change. The Rapids have a bye next week before going on the road to play New England.