Many of the names and faces are the same, but the team of Colorado Rapids who departed from Buck Shaw Stadium Saturday night after a 4-1 lashing by the San Jose Earthquakes didn't much look like the 2010 MLS Cup champions.
Matt Pickens, Drew Moor, Jeff Larentowitz, Conor Casey, Brian Mullan, et al, left the locker room sour and somber. The loss left them with a league-high 16 losses (8-16-2) and in eighth place of the Western Conference with 26 points, barely half as many as the 50 accumulated by conference leader and overall points boss San Jose (15-6-5, 50 points).
Not present was Pablo Mastroeni, the heart and soul of the team for many seasons but sidelined this year by post-concussion problems. His health and future have cast clouds over a season that started promisingly with a new coach preaching a new style in a new formation with new players. The good days are long gone.
"We have been rushing, because the beginning of the year was a little bit hectic," said Coach Oscar Pareja, the man who replaced Gary Smith after the 2011 season. Smith had coached Colorado to its first league title the previous season, then departed in a dispute with management.
"I was just getting in the team and it was almost the preseason so we were trying to fix things along the way," said Pareja. "All of these experiences have helped us realize the players that we have and see what we need for the project. It seems like a big project now."
San Jose's skyrocketing season is one of the league's hottest subplots this season. The fall of the Rapids is no less dramatic, particularly since these teams were on equal terms heading into the 2010 playoffs.
Colorado and San Jose both finished with 46 points that season, and filled the seventh and eighth playoff spots. Colorado took the seventh seed in the head-to-head tiebreaker, and after both teams knocked off Eastern Conference opposition in the first round of the playoffs, the Rapids beat the Quakes to earn a spot in MLS Cup 2010. The Rapids fairytale story reached a happy ending with a 2-1 overtime victory for FC Dallas.
The Rapids slipped last season to fifth place in the conference yet still got into the playoffs. That didn't save Smith, who hit an impasse with technical director Paul Bravo and departed. The Quakes had slipped to seventh, but management stuck with general manager John Doyle and head coach Frank Yallop, who engineered a series of offseason moves to make up for a few that fizzled out the previous winter. While San Jose has shot up the standings, Colorado has plummeted.
Pareja acquired players to instill more technique and skill, and there's little doubt that Martin Rivero, Luis Zapata, Jaime Castrillon, and rookie Tony Cascio have been upgrades in those departments. He taught his players a 4-3-3 formation in preseason and it seemed take root, yet after that initial surge of success, the system started sputtering offensively and leaking defensively.
Since June 5, in league play the Rapids are 2-11-1. They lost three in a row, then belted Portland, 3-0, then lost six more before managing a 1-0 defeat of Rocky Mountain Cup rival Real Salt Lake. The past three games have produced a 3-2 loss at FC Dallas, a 1-1 home tie with Chivas USA, and the thumping in San Jose.
It's too simplistic to say the 2012 team, like that in 2010, is overly reliant on the forward pairing of Omar Cummings and Casey. Yet with Cummings not in the lineup against the Quakes, and Casey playing up top with Castrillon and Mullan out wide, the Rapids' inability to keep possession and build attacks left the front line starved of service. Unfortunately the defensive side of Colorado's game was even worse.
"We have to be, I want to say, humble, the players and the staff," said Pareja. "We looked poor in the back today. You cannot work out with four goals a game and be happy or be defending your position as a defender.
"But all the time the defensive work is a [collective] effort, it's not just the back four, it is everyone. As a team we didn't defend well at all today, and it was something that we were doing good in the last games. The team was kind of showing a different face defensively. We had a good shape and everybody working.
"Today we got exposed."
Alan Gordon scored two goals, set up another goal for Simon Dawkins with a great diagonal ball, and simply outworked and outhustled the Rapids he faced. Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca controlled the midfield, and left back Ramiro Corrales saw enough of the ball to earn three assists.
Trailing, 2-0,at halftime, Colorado got a goal back when defender Tyrone Marshall headed in Rivero's corner kick and just when the Rapids looked capable of getting a tie and forcing the Quakes into another last-minute cliff-hanger, San Jose riddled their defense to score twice more.
"I thought we got back into the game in the second half, for maybe 20, or 25 minutes," said Pareja. "But then when you start going and proposing more and sending people forward, you start seeing some holes.
"San Jose did a pretty good job on their part, taking advantage of any good opportunity that they had. While we were trying to equalize the game they have some situations and they punish us. That's the quality of the team that we faced today and I have to respect that."
The rough stretch has given Pareja and his staff plenty of data about their players, and who will stay and who might leave after this forgettable season. Pareja signed a three-year contract and while his status seems secure that won't be the case for everyone.
"All of these experiences have helped us realize the players who we have and see what we need for the project," he says. "It seems like a big project now."