[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW: COLORADO-COLUMBUS] In a rematch of their conference semifinal showdown last year that went to penalty kicks, Colorado and Columbus play a wild-card game Thursday (10 p.m. ET, Direct Kick). Here are some key points regarding the second MLS wild-card game between, the winner of which advances to play Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City ...
A YEAR LATER. Strong pairings down the middle of the field helped propel Colorado to the title last year, but those duos won’t be aligned this time around when the Rapids start their quest to repeat.
Burly striker Conor Casey is injured and the partnership with Omar Cummings that produced 27 goals last year isn’t available. Cummings has just three goals this season.
By scoring a goal in the regular season finale at Vancouver, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz finished as team leader with seven goals. “There’s no doubt the forwards have been going through a bit of a sticky patch and, when that happens, you have to find the goals from somewhere else,” Rapids coach Gary Smith said. “Once again, Jeff scored a very important goal.”
Veterans Pablo Mastroeni and Larentowicz formed one of the best central midfield tandems in the league in 2010. Mastroeni hasn’t been quite as influential this year as injuries have ripped through the Rapids roster, and a concussion suffered Oct. 14 has most likely sidelined him for this game.
Centerbacks Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne formed a rugged, reliable core last year. Getting consistency at left back has been a problem in 2011, so Moor has taken over that position and veteran Tyrone Marshall is Wynne’s partner.
Crew coach Robert Warzycha spent much of the season rebuilding a team that lost veterans Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Jeff Cunningham, Brian Carroll, Frankie Hejduk, Steven Lenhart, Eric Brunner and Adam Moffat during the winter. This year, he has the potent forward duo of Emilio Renteria and Andres Mendoza, who have scored a combined total of 21 goals.
“The two guys we had up front in the last game and the game before, Emilio Renteria and [Andres] Mendoza, I think they are finding the partnership pretty good,” said Warzycha. “Hopefully, we give them the ball at the right moment and the right time and they can finish.”
HOLES IN THE MIDDLE. A second caution in the final minutes last weekend against Chicago resulted in the suspension of Crew midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo. Warzycha says he’s leaning toward using Danny O’Rourke and Dilly Duka as his central pairing.
Rookie Rich Balchan is more polished than O’Rourke but playing a one-off game away from home, Warzycha may favor ruggedness and experience. His game plan is to squeeze Colorado in the middle third and when the ball is won, get it forward to Mendoza and Renteria, or wide to Eddie Gaven.
The selection is especially critical given the absence of Mastroeni. Smith doesn’t have any direct replacements, but can tweak the midfield to utilize Wells Thompson, Sanna Nyassi, Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan in various combinations to lessen the holding burden on Larentowicz.
PENALTIES, PENALTIES. The Crew held the favorite’s role last year, but after losing, 1-0, at on the road, a 2-1 win at Columbus Crew Stadium left the teams tied on aggregate, 2-2, and sent the series to penalty kicks.
Colorado hit all five of its kicks and beat the Crew, 5-4, on its way to winning its first MLS Cup. If the teams are tied after regulation and 30 minutes of overtime Thursday, the same scenario will unfold.
Warzycha believes penalties are not a good subject for cramming the night before an exam; he prefers regular study. “Basically, we practice them every day,” he said in conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We make a competition after practice and you take the guys so they are serious about it. The losing team is punished.
“During the season most of the times players are staying after practice to take the penalty kicks, too. Maybe not as much as right now, but knowing last year we lost in the penalty shootout we have to be well-prepared, because I think the team that scores five penalties in a row is going to win and go on to the next round.”
NO SNOW. Hopes that MLS would roll out the orange balls arose when a snowstorm dumped a few inches on the Denver area Tuesday night, but the snow has been cleared from the playing surface at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, so the only white stuff on view should be piled up outside the sidelines and behind the goals.
Since both the Rapids and Crew are based in cold-weather cities, neither would seem to have an advantage. But temperatures are projected to dip below freezing Thursday night, which will rekindle memories of the chilly conditions present last November in Toronto when Colorado beat FC Dallas, 2-1, in overtime in the final.
NEXT UP. Had FC Dallas (No. 7 in overall points) beaten New York (No. 10) in their wild-card match Wednesday, FCD – as the highest seeded winner – would have drawn Sporting Kansas City. The Galaxy would have played the Rapids (No. 8) or Crew (No. 9).
Under rules of the revised playoff format, the Galaxy – as No. 1 seed – plays the lowest-seeded survivor of the wild-card round. SKC is seeded second as the Eastern Conference champion and thus draws the higher seeded wild-card winner.