[MLS] No team wins a championship without talent, endurance, determination, spirit, luck, good coaching, and various other intangibles. For the Colorado Rapids, other elements of their play proved indispensible as they captured their first MLS championship.
BATTLE ZONE. Lots of teams try to take advantage of attacking the near post, where balls arrive earlier and thus increase pressure on defenders, but few utilize a mix of flank thrust and goalmouth brawn as effectively as Colorado.
Even when deployed up front with Conor Casey, Omar Cummings often finds starting points out wide to embark on slashing dribbles or piercing runs off the ball. At times during the season Brian Mullan, Wells Thompson, Macoumba Kandji and others have lined up on the right side, where the furious, tireless energy of right back Kosuke Kimura ratcheted up the pressure. Thompson also played on the left, where Jamie Smith’s injury problems limited him to two postseason starts, but given the start in MLS Cup he served up the cross from which Casey tied the game in the 51st minute.
In the playoffs, the Rapids’ prowess at exploiting the near post carried them to the title. All five goals resulted from attacks to the short side. None of the five crossed the line identically but each arose from similar situations.
Pablo Mastroeni knifed through the goalmouth to score in the first leg against the Crew; Casey, arriving at the near post, set up the chance by dummying Cummings’ low ball across the goalmouth, and nobody picked up Mastroeni as he came in behind a cluster of players to stab the ball into the net.
In the second leg at Columbus, with just six minutes left and Colorado trailing, 2-1, on aggregate, Cummings got free near the right-wing corner flag and delivered another low cross into the path of Casey barreling in at the near post. The odds of scoring were slim -- the angle was tight, as Casey was near the edge of the goal area, and a defender slid in desperately to get a clearance or a block, but still Casey’s redirection steered the ball past keeper Will Hesmer.
Colorado controlled play for lengthy periods in the conference final against San Jose without much reward. Cummings clanged the crossbar and shot straight at keeper Jon Busch on two other occasions, and Casey also failed to finish. But Casey’s wrestling bout with defender Jason Hernandez and lunge for a Kimura inswinger distracted Busch; he hesitated, and in that moment the ball bounced clear of him and inside the post.
In the final, again, the opposition’s protection of the near post cracked. Casey tied the game sitting on his butt after crashing the you-know-what in pursuit of a left-wing cross delivered by Smith. In a grounded, tangled trio, keeper Kevin Hartman and defender Jair Benitez failed to corral the ball, and Casey poked out his right foot to prod the ball over the line.
Two minutes into the second overtime, FCD’s season collapsed in a cruel twist of fate. Substitute Mac Kandji, sent on about 10 minutes earlier, nutmegged Benitez on the right flank and shed his tackle to veer toward goal. Hartman guarded the near post and couldn’t react in time when Kandji’s hard cross caromed off the outside of George John’s thigh and floated over the goal line.
“I was always taught the first run you make is to the near post,” said Casey, who was in that area when Kandji delivered the ball. “It’s just ingrained.”
Said coach Gary Smith, who sent Mehdi Ballouchy to New York in exchange for Kandji a day prior to the Sept. 15 trade deadline, “I’m ever so pleased for Mac Kandji on the second goal. He was ever so fortunate but he made something happen. When there’s not a lot of creative play that’s how games can be decided.”
‘IT’S A MINDSET.’ Colorado’s unorthodox methods of scoring goals in the playoffs mirrored a resolute stubbornness that imbued players with mutual confidence and belief regardless of results. Down a goal to Columbus on aggregate in the conference semifinals and trailing by a goal again in the final, both times the Rapids prevailed. When it squandered opportunities to subdue San Jose with a second goal, it preserved that precious 1-0 lead to the final whistle.
Only once did the Rapids come back from a goal down to win in the regular season – against the Galaxy in the 29 th game of a 30-game season – yet captain Mastroeni believes that even if that feat hadn’t been attained he’d have been confident it could be done in the playoffs. “Coming from behind it’s not so much the result at the end, but the belief that you can get the result,” says the 34-year-old midfielder who played 13 seasons and 312 games before reaching his first MLS Cup.
“Too often in this game it’s too easy to be down a goal or two and just quit. We finish every game 90 minutes, it doesn’t matter if we’re on the wrong end. It’s a mindset. You lose a lot of games in the season but you learn from those games. You realize you’re not far away from getting the result you want. We did it late in the season against LA and against Columbus, to come back, and today was another example of that.”
Moments after Kandji’s bank shot, he hobbled off injured, leaving his teammates to fight off desperate FCD attacks with 10 men. Keeper Matt Pickens broke FCD’s hearts with a stunning, diving parry of John’s blistering low shot, and defender Drew Moor cleared an attempt that might have been going wide but presented danger nonetheless.
“I just reacted and thankfully I came out on top,” said Pickens modestly in the locker room just before shaking up a bottle of champagne, one of more than a dozen to be sprayed and poured on Mastroeni, surrounded by his teammates, as he danced and laughed with the team’s new trophy.
A few of his teammates praised not just the save, but an excellent season for which he’d received scant praise. “Matt was someone who deserved much, much more credit,” said Jeff Larentowicz, the ex-Rev whose own contribution drew heartfelt acclaim amid raucous, joyous horseplay in the locker room.
“That’s a compliment to Drew and Marv [Marvell Wynne] who played in front of him all year. They took all the defensive accolades but Matt was always there, and tonight our jaws dropped, because it was an unbelievable effort.”
Early in overtime, center back Julien Baudet had replaced left back Anthony Wallace, dinged up and slowed by a hamstring strain. Moor moved to left back. In the final minutes, as FCD crashed the goalmouth again and again, with Pickens’ save and Moor’s block and a few howitzer headers from Baudet and Wynne, the Rapids held on.
“It was the longest 10 minutes ever,” said an effervescent Kimura, saturated in bubbly and exuberance. “Even after the 10 minutes passed in overtime, but still they had extra time, added minutes, and we had no idea what’s going on. It seemed like they were never going to blow the whistle. They had a couple of good chances, but Matt Pickens, Julien came in and did well, Marvell and everybody did their job. That’s why we got it.”
DYNAMIC DUOS. By combining for 27 goals during the regular season, Casey and Cummings stamped themselves as the league’s top forward tandem. Arrayed down the spine of the team, two other pairings proved strong enough down the stretch to nudge Colorado past Dallas at the wire.
Mired in an out-of-contract stalemate with the Revs last winter, Larentowicz requested a trade. Smith pounced, sending backup keeper Preston Burpo and defender Cory Gibbs to New England in exchange for the Larentowicz and Thompson. Right way, the Rapids toughened up their sometimes soft belly as Larentowicz’s range, bite, and savvy buttressed Mastroeni’s playmaking instincts and occasional bursts into the penalty area.
In a 2-2 regular-season tie with Dallas in mid-October, Larentowicz bagged both goals. In the final, the central midfield pair squeezed space to limit the options of playmaker David Ferreira, and closed quickly to claim balls jarred loose by solid tackles or deflected passes or blocked crosses.
“Jeff and Pablo have been the heart of his team all year,” said Moor, who played every minute of all 34 regular-season and playoff matches. “They just tear the hearts out of other teams’ midfields, get in the passing lanes, get back to help on checking forwards, and they’ve scored a couple of goals and got a couple of assists this year, so they’re complete players.”
In the back, another trade swung by Smith revamped the spine once again. Two days before the regular-season opener at Chivas USA, Wynne arrived from Toronto FC in a trade. Another bombshell quickly followed the trade itself; Smith deployed Wynne at center back, not the right-back slot from which he’d launched marauding runs for UCLA, the U.S. U-20s, the national team, and TFC.
“Maybe I didn’t want to see the signs, but there were a bunch of moves being made, a lot of them with Colorado,” recalled Wynne of Preki’s housecleaning during a brief reign as TFC head coach. “It honestly didn’t cross my mind even though guys were going and guys were going that way.
“I was thinking, ‘Who’s going to be here at the end of the season? Then I got the call and realized it wasn’t going to be me.”
The Rapids beat Chivas USA, 1-0, one of 10 shutouts – including playoffs – they recorded this season. Colorado cut down its goals-allowed from 38 to 32 – not a huge difference – but increased its standings points from 40 to 46, good enough to crack the playoff octet. Wynne added speed, strength and experience that Moor feels filled another hole.
“He had never played in there and he just jumped straight in with two feet and was fantastic all season long,” said Moor, himself acquired in a trade with Dallas in August, 2009 to beef up the back. “I owe him so much credit because he had my back all season long. He’s a huge part of this.”
BACKUP. Mastroeni said that opening-game win gave him a jolt of belief he’d seldom felt in his nine seasons with the Rapids. Despite an seven-game league winless streak, bolstered by the coaching staff and a stronger marketing push from the front office, noisier if not necessarily bigger crowds began turning up at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
An aggressive marketing and advertising campaign yielded a boisterous crowd of 17,779 on a frigid night for the conference final against San Jose, and unlike numerous do-or-die situations in the past, on this date with destiny the Rapids didn’t waver. Kimura scored the third goal of his MLS career in 74 games (including playoffs) from near the touchline, and Pickens and Co. fended off the few salvos managed by the Quakes.
“We’ve come a long way just in the last couple of weeks,” said managing director Jeff Plush, who plucked Smith from the Arsenal coaching staff. “The support we’ve put in on the business side had paid off. We delivered a big crowd, they delivered a big result, and we’ve made real strides this year. It’s real rewarding, but I’m proud of my staff and proud of the team. It’s a privilege, it really is.”
The players and Smith also thanked technical director Paul Bravo, assistant coaches Steve Guppy and David Kramer, and operator-investor Kroenke Sports, which arranged for players’ families and team staff members to travel and attend the match. What it means long-term can only be guessed, for now, euphoria and fulfillment will suffice.
“I think we matter,” says Plush of what winning a title might do in a market sluggish to embrace MLS. “I think we matter more than we did even eight hours ago. It’s our job to run with it. You saw it in our team and our staff up in the crowd, a bunch of people about 70 or 80 deep when you count it up, so excited and desirous, I guess, of working hard for each other.
“That’s what a great club is made from. We’re on our way. It’s never easy and you’ve got to take it one day at a time. But now we can start dreaming bigger than we’ve been dreaming.”
Said Smith, formerly employed by another of owner Stan Kroenke’s sports investments, an English team called Arsenal: “The relationships have been built and the end result is there for all to see.”