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2. MLS COUNTDOWN: Rapids join stadium club
March 21st, 2007 1:17AM

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(Soccer America begins its countdown to the 2007 MLS season, which starts on April 7 with a look at the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids open with a nationally televised game against D.C. United, the first played at their Dick's Sporting Goods Park.)

By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor
Soccer America

The next MLS team to play in its own stadium completed the foreign portion of its preseason Tuesday night in one of the more renowned European edifices.

Colorado, which opens the season April 7 against D.C. United at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, lost to Valencia, 4-3, at the Mestalla, in which Valencia has played since 1923 and which attracted notice March 7 when David Navarro sparked a brawl by running on to the field and punching Inter midfielder Nicolas Burdisso in the face.

Aside from former Tampa Bay striker Mamadou Diallo getting into a shouting match with an Hispanic fan and big crowds for July 4 fireworks, not many Rapids games at their previous homes -- Mile High Stadium and Invesco Field at Mile High -- have conjured up memorable moments.

The team's colors have been changed to a claret-and-blue motif reminiscent of English clubs Aston Villa and Burnley, and a partnership formed with Arsenal did not include a nickname change, although it came close.

Once the novelty wears off, Coach Fernando Clavijo and his players face the same task they did last year: how to parlay an upset of Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals into their first MLS Cup appearance.

With a new facility comes a fleet of new players, led by ex-Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton, former Galaxy forward Herculez Gomez and defender Ugo Ihemelu, and ex-Dallas defender Greg Vanney. Panamanian striker Roberto Brown adds another threat up front to that of Nicolas Hernandez, who tied for the team lead last year with seven goals, and puts pressure on Jovan Kirovski and Clint Mathis to earn their playing time. Former D.C. United defender Brandon Prideaux adds depth to a back line that last year was short on experience.

Kirovski has looked sharp in preseason and notched two of the goals, one with a penalty kick, against Valencia. In the absence of Pablo Mastroeni, who stayed in the United States to attend the birth of his second child, Kirovski played some of the match in midfield supporting the frontrunners. Brown played the first hour rather ineffectively; his replacement, Jamaican draft pick Omar Cummings, livened up the attack with some incisive runs.

"I think we have upgraded in every position," says Clavijo of the 11-13-8 team that knocked off regular-season conference champion Dallas before losing to Houston in the conference final. "We get a little younger and a little stronger and we have addressed some of the issues that we have."

In 11 seasons, the Rapids have never won their opening game, either home or away, in any stadium, and this year's opener is against D.C. United.

"We have a core group of guys who've been together, this is the third year under Fernando," says midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who went off the charts last year by scoring seven goals and nodded in one of the goals against Valencia. "We've picked up some good guys in the offseason. We just need to click from the start, from the first game."

The pairing of Beckerman and Mastroeni in the center of midfield won't be broken up unless either or both are called away by the national team. Clavijo traded for Vanney, Ihemelu and Prideaux so he wouldn't need Mastroeni in the back if injuries hit. Stability in midfield is essential if the Rapids are to fully exploit the crosses of Terry Cooke, who led the league with 12 assists despite missing nine games.

"Last year was kind of weird," says Beckerman. "We didn't really go on those runs that we're used to.We didn't really know which formation was best for us. We went 4-4-2, then 4-5-1, and we were dabbling with this and that. It's exciting this year, the new colors, the stadium, it's a big buzz about the team."

COLORADO PRESEASON ROSTER
Goalkeepers
NO. PLAYER ('06 TEAM)

1 Zach Thornton (Chicago Fire)
24 Bouna Coundoul (Colorado Rapids)
30 Justin Hughes (Univ. of North Carolina)
Defenders
NO. PLAYER ('06 TEAM)
2 Hunter Freeman (Colorado Rapids)
3 Greg Vanney (FC Dallas)
4 Dan Gargan (Colorado Rapids)
6  Brandon Prideaux (D.C. United)
12 Mike Petke (Colorado Rapids)
13 Stephen Keel (Colorado Rapids)
16 Chris Wingert (Colorado Rapids)
18 Ugo Ihemelu (Los Angeles Galaxy)
26 Jordan Harvey (Colorado Rapids)
33 Daniel Wasson (Colorado Rapids)
Midfielders
NO. PLAYER ('06 TEAM)
5 Kyle Beckerman (Colorado Rapids)
7 Jovan Kirovski (Colorado Rapids)
8 Yherland McDonald (Fredrikstad, Norway)
9 Clint Mathis (Colorado Rapids)
11 Terry Cooke England (Colorado Rapids)
21 Nico Colaluca (Univ. of Virginia)
22 Nick LaBrocca (Rutgers Univ.)
25 Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids)
27 Kosuke Kimura (Western Illinois Univ.)
28 John DiRaimondo (Saint Louis Univ.)
Forwards
NO. PLAYER ('06 TEAM)
10 Herculez Gomez (Los Angeles Galaxy)
15 Jacob Peterson (Colorado Rapids)
19 Roberto Brown (Tacuarembo, Uruguay)
20 Niko Hernandez (Colorado Rapids)
23 Colin Clark (Colorado Rapids)
- Omar Cummings (Univ. of Cincinnati)


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