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Rapids win tightens up the West
by Ridge Mahoney, September 5th, 2008 7AM

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[MLS] Colorado and FC Dallas, two of the three Western Conference teams to shake up their organizations with coaching changes this season, are just noses apart in the race to reach the playoffs after Thursday night's 1-0 Rapids victory at Pizza Hut Park.

Mike Petke, so unmarked he would have had time to re-dye his hair, headed in a Terry Cooke corner kick near the hour mark to separate a pair of teams whose new head coaches have yet to stabilize their squads. The Rapids' rather miserable 8-12-3 mark (27 points) is good for a share of third place along with Chivas USA; FCD (6-8-8) is fifth, just one point behind. Five points separate second-place Real Salt Lake from Los Angeles and San Jose, which are tied for last with 25 points.

Despite winning, Colorado turned the ball over dozens of times in vulnerable spots, and despite sending waves of attackers forward, FC Dallas seldom tested Colorado keeper Preston Burpo, whose own misadventures offer further opportunities. Yet Burpo and his teammates held out for the shutout that ended a nine-game winless streak and provided interim head coach Gary Smith with his first MLS victory.

Smith left Christian Gomez on the bench at the start of the game for the fourth straight time and the 2006 MLS MVP never moved from that position except at halftime. FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman's running battle with Andre Rocha prompted his exclusion from the 18-man game roster, a decision the coach may have regretted after sending out substitutes Eric Avila, Dax McCarty and Dominic Oduro in a futile effort to get a goal.

Hyndman included seldom-used Michael Dello-Russo, Anthony Wallace and rookie Bruno Guarda in his starting lineup and through perseverance and luck, FCD outshot Colorado, 15-9. But squandered chances betrayed their efforts.

Burpo stormed out of his goal in the 35th minute and lost a race to the ball, but Jeff Cunningham couldn't find the empty net with his shot. A low, sizzling shot by Kenny Cooper four minutes into the second half forced a good save from Burpo, but from the ensuing corner - one of 10 on the night for FCD - nothing materialized.

Colorado nearly broke through two minutes before Cooper's shot when FCD couldn't clear the ball during a scramble and Conor Casey turned to strike a shot on net. Aaron Pitchkolan, stationed on the goalpost, got his leg on it.

Besides Cunningham's miss, the best FCD chances came on two balls delivered by McCarty to defender Drew Moor but in neither case could he put the ball on the frame. He misfired from a corner kick, and on a flighted serve after a short corner, Moor -- as alone as Petke had been -- somehow headed it well wide from just yards away. Another good serve from McCarty dropped for Oduro to balloon over the bar.

The Rapids couldn't match FCD's offensive thrusts but their set plays brought results. A first-half corner kick from Cooke yielded a Tom McManus header that Dallas goalie Dario Sala turned over the bar, but all the keeper could do was stand and stare when Cooke's corner in the 60th minute found Petke, who carefully guided it back across the goal and into the far top corner.

Both teams face Eastern Conference opposition next week; Dallas travels to D.C. United, the Rapids host Chicago. No matter how much the placings may have changed by then, the conference race won't be any looser.



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