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Rapids are best in the West
by Ridge Mahoney, May 16th, 2008 7AM



By beating Real Salt Lake, 2-0, Thursday night with two second-half goals, the Colorado Rapids confirmed their status as best team in the Western Conference.

Scoff if you will at their 4-4-0 record, good for a three-point lead over FC Dallas (2-2-3). The Rapids aren't scintillating enough to scare people, but they're good enough to win. Omar Cummings, who burnishes the reputation of Jamaican soccer far more times than be blemishes it, netted a winning goal with a crisp re-direction of a low, well-hit Colin Clark cross, and Christian Gomez put away a penalty kick to bump up the final score that well-represented the relative performances of the teams.

More important than any one result or overall record is that Pablo Mastroeni is fit again and played with more heart and soul than he has during most of his time in Colorado, Jacob Peterson justified his inclusion with a solid game as Terry Cooke sat out another match, Nick LaBrocca kept it simple and tidy, and, of all people, Facundo Erpen tackled well and won balls in the air, and limited his inevitable glitches to a careless ball played over the end line for a corner kick.

Oh, and speaking of Clark: good player.

RSL could have taken over first place with a win or stayed tied in second with a tie, but while head coach Jason Kreis sent out a fairly talented lineup, the pieces didn't seem to mesh. Sweat and spirit ran astray, and with Andy Williams spending far more time chasing Mastroeni than the reverse, his few effective touches came on corner kicks.
Kenny Deuchar bounced one of his serves wide with a header that right back Kosuke Kimura cleared anyway with an athletic leap, and defender Matias Mantilla  -- whose languid handball provided Gomez with the PK -- missed badly despite getting a clean look at the frame. Another chance for Deuchar late in the match floated a yard over the crossbar.

The prototypical targetman is rugged, honest, and determined, but needed proper support. Fabian Espindola, an excellent player in many regards, likes to drift wide and hit crosses, but he and Deuchar seldom deployed themselves so the Scottish doctor could go for goal. And nobody -- Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Dema Kovalenko - could get forward quickly enough to latch onto knockdowns that Deuchar might have won. When Espindola ranged to the flanks, Williams seldom pushed high enough to provide additional options for him as well as Deuchar, who only occasionally peeled away from Ugo Ihemelu and Erpen.

The insertion of Robbie Findley for holding midfielder Kenny Cutler came with about 20 minutes left, but he and the other attackers never sorted out their positions and roles. Mantilla's handball of a Herculez Gomez flick with seven minutes left enabled the other Gomez to end all doubt. Only the last of RSL's three shots on goal tested Bouna Coundoul, whose supple full-length save turned aside Espindola's wickedly skipping free kick in the 89th minute.

Earlier, the keeper had provided a classic Bouna TimeBomb, by lackadaisically tracking a cross, only to explode into action at the last instant to fingertip it away. There's seldom a dull moment during Bouna Time.

Cummings menaced the RSL goal with his powerful, determined runs, and willingness to attack any ball. His sharply bouncing header of a Christian Gomez corner kick midway through the first half forced a two-handed reflex save that just barely sent the ball looping onto the roof of the net.

Given another chance, he tallied a striker's goal. Christian Gomez played the ball out wide left to Clark -- who had started the game on the right side - and Clark touched it once before slotting it low behind the back line to the near post, where Cummings had timed and angled his run, and also set his feet to merely deflect the ball on frame with the inside of his left foot.

Given a similar chance, perhaps Deuchar or Espindola or Findley could have done the same. RSL wasn't short of effort, as Beckerman worked and cajoled tirelessly, Kovalenko and Nat Borchers battled, and Chris Wingert scrapped. But aside from Williams' corners, and Espindola's last-ditch free kick, they lacked the quality and confidence to deliver the telling ball.

When asked that same question, the Rapids came up with the answers, and for another week at least, they stay tops.



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