[MLS]Against San Jose last Friday in San Luis Obispo, Colorado coach Gary Smith fielded the same starting XI he used last November to win MLS Cup. Despite outshooting the Quakes, 13-6, the Rapids lost, 1-0, for their first defeat of the preseason as front-line partners Omar Cummings and Conor Casey failed to produce a goal. Smith gave some indication as to how much depth his team could have this season by bringing on five subs, and then using a squad of backups the following day in a 3-0 defeat of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Quincy Amarikwa, who replaced Cummings at halftime against San Jose, scored twice.
Not available in either match were forwards Macoumba Kandji, who is rehabbing a knee injury he suffered setting up the winning goal in MLS Cup, and Caleb Folan, whose move from Hull City has been in the news for weeks but has yet to be consummated.
The increased competition for places up top doesn’t faze Cummings, who has netted 22 goals in the last two seasons after scoring just eight in 2007 and 2008.
“There are always going to be new players, so we just try to welcome them,” says Cummings, who is one of only a handful of players to stay with the team since his rookie season. “When guys move on, it’s sad to see a guy go, but when guys come in, they’re part of the family as long as they work hard and try to win for each other.”
In MLS, winning carries consequences as well as rewards. In addition to an expanded 34-game schedule, up from 30 the past few seasons, as league champion Colorado will be one of four league entries in the 2011-12 Concacaf Champions League competition that begins in August. Some fans may be concerned the Rapids are stocking up on forwards to compensate for the possible loss of Cummings, who was a transfer target of Mexican club Necaxa last summer and was denied a loan deal with Aston Villa in January because of work-permit requirements.
The Villa opportunity came six months after Mexican club Necaxa reportedly offered MLS $750,000 for his rights and was turned down. “We nearly lost him in the summer window and we sat down with Omar and talked about that possibility with him,” said Colorado technical director Paul Bravo.
Cummings has two years remaining on his MLS contract, so to generate any substantial transfer fee MLS would probably have to sell him this year. It could also offer him a richer, long-term deal that would take him into his early 30s. He earned only $80,250 last season, less than the MLS average. His partner, Casey, took down $350,000.
At 28, his next new contract might be his last one, yet Cummings knows that strong, consistent play for Colorado will serve him best regardless of what happens.
“I have to say focused on what I’m doing here,” says Cummings, who says he’s been asked by Smith and assistant coach Steve Guppy to display more leadership. “I can’t predict the future, I don’t know what’s going to happen. For me, if I keep doing well, maybe things will change. I love what I’m doing here and I’m still happy to be a part of it.
“Gary’s more of a defensive coach, he concentrates more on the defense, and Steve is more offensive. They told me they believed in me and had confidence in me, and that I should have confidence in myself and be willing to lead the team by scoring goals and help the motivation as a senior player. I don’t really see myself as a senior player but they told me, ‘Like it or not, you are.’”
The Rapids and Sounders are playing in a charity match dubbed the “Community Shield,” modeled after the English curtain-raiser that matches the league and cup winners. Playing a high-profile game before the season even starts is good preparation, says Cummings, for the treatment Colorado will face in every game this season.
“Right now, having defending champions on our back, we’re going to have to come out ready for every game,” he says. “We’re not going to have a game where two teams are just playing; it’s going to be a rival game every game. It’s going to be hard. Teams will have that extra push to defeat the defending champions. We have to be up for that, to realize every game is going to be a battle, and come out roaring.”
The Sounders are also coming off a pair of losses to Northwest rivals Portland and Vancouver at the Cascadia Summit last week; those games were played at the team’s Starfire training facility before rowdy yet small crowds of 3,100; a larger throng, if not the usual sellout, is expected at Qwest Field. The prospect is also one that Cummings welcomes.
“I love going to Seattle, Toronto, LA, New York, or Chicago, they have some of the better fans. I love playing in front of a packed crowd, it makes the game that much more fun. It’s that much more exciting, and more interesting for me. I think my game improves a little bit when there are a lot of people.”