By Paul Gardner
Watching Thursday night’s Colorado vs. Columbus game was not an easy experience. After all, this game really meant something -- particularly for the Colorado Rapids. This was their chance, in the opening playoff game, to score a few goals, the theory being that they will need that cushion as they now have to go to play the return leg on Columbus.
The theory is a good one, it makes total sense. So how is it that the Rapids, after a brief period at the beginning of the game when the Crew was in charge, had long spells when they were totally dominant ... yet managed to score only one goal?
This is playoff soccer, as we shall be reminded again and again in the coming weeks . . . but does it have to be like this? Why is it that Colorado can have 10 shots in the first half (to Columbus’ one) -- yet only find the net once?
To get one thing out of the way immediately -- all that nonsense about Columbus having to play with a goalkeeper who hadn’t played all season. This, we were told -- twice -- at the beginning of the ESPN2 telecast was the No. 1 Story.
As though it presented a calamitous state of affairs. It may do -- but only to those who constantly overemphasize the role of the goalkeeper. Andy Gruenebaum is not a raw rookie -- we know that he is a good keeper -- and that is all that is required.
The fact was -- and those goalkeeper-prophets may have a job swallowing this -- that Gruenebaum had very little to do -- one save, not a difficult one. He was not to blame when Pablo Mastroeni slid in to score Colorado’s lone goal. He was not a factor in this game. In fact, the only crucial save was made, late in the game, by Colorado’s Matt Pickens when he batted away a header from Andy Iro.
Actually that save of Pickens’ more or less summed up the overall ineptitude of this game. And that was the mainly worrying thing -- about both teams: their ineptitude when it mattered.
Iro had an awful game, giving the ball away, miskicking his clearances, mistiming his tackles. Painful to watch -- and yet he suddenly finds himself in a position -- unmarked at a corner kick! -- to score the tying goal for Columbus. So he makes a hash of it, heading straight at goalkeeper Pickens, who had no time to get out of the way and made one of those arm-flailing, self-defense-type saves.
As for Iro’s errors -- one might cite inexperience as the reason for his fragile play. But what, then, is one to make of the veteran Frankie Hejduk who had a nightmare of a first half, peppered with banal mis-kicks and giveaways. To say nothing of Shaun Francis, who was the weakest point of this rickety defense, as Colorado’s Omar Cummings threatened to run riot down the right wing.
The guy you might hope would restore some order, heck, some soccer , to this mess was Guillermo Barros Schelotto -- but he too played poorly. Up front with him was Steven Lenhart, who might just as well have been sitting on the bench. A non-presence.
Going back a little -- how was it, anyway, that Iro was in a position to score? How was it that, at that point in the game -- the 84th minute -- Columbus was putting on the pressure? Why was it not Colorado doing the attacking -- particularly as they had, in Conor Casey and Cummings a very-dangerous-looking strike force?
How could Colorado not win this game by three or four goals? The main reason, I repeat, was sheer ineptitude. No, they were not as hopeless as Columbus, but they showed little ability to play composed, coherent soccer.
As the game wore on, it seemed that Colorado became bemused by its own lack of effectiveness (and who else but themselves could they blame, given that they were confronted by a suicidally error-prone Columbus defense?) and started playing as though they were satisfied with a 1-0 win.
Now . . . maybe 1-0 will be enough. But it seems a strange mentality to suddenly acquire, in a game when more Colorado goals seemed to be there, just waiting to be scored. Whatever, with about 15 minutes to go, we got a U-turn in the game, and it was, quite illogically, Columbus that was applying all the pressure.
This looks like an incipient problem for Colorado. Because when it gets forced on to the back foot, you can bet that Mastroeni will step in with a crunching tackle or two. He obliged, and finally -- a good deal later than he should have done -- got himself yellow-carded in the 92nd minute. There were clear signs of Colorado wilting under the strain -- as a bulging-eyed Jeff Larentowicz (not far behind Mastroeni in the physical play department) found it necessary to scream at referee Jair Marrufo.
On the whole, then, a thoroughly unsatisfactory game -- scrappy and fragmented, low in goalscoring, short of good soccer, and not much of an event on the entertainment side.
Playoff soccer. Something happens to the coaches and players when the playoffs begin. One would normally suspect caution, but that wasn’t what we got here. There was no discernible attempt by either team to play defensively. Colorado wouldn’t anyway, as they were seeking to exploit the home field advantage. And the mere idea of Columbus relying on this defense is laughable.
What we got was more like a pervasive nervousness that affected both teams and that virtually ruled out good soccer. The return game does, of course, present Colorado with the option of playing defensively to hang on to its 1-0 lead. That sort of calculation is bound to be involved in a playoff series. I trust Gary Smith -- who once assured us that he wanted the Rapids to play like Arsenal, but seems to have fallen abysmally short of the mark -- will not make that choice.
The wider, more worrying thing about this game is simply what it portends for the rest of the playoff games, particularly the two-game series. Though why nervousness should become a deciding influence, I have no idea. Except that it makes more sense than going on about goalkeepers.