By Ridge Mahoney
For their final preseason match of 2013, the Rapids took 32 players to Southern California for split-squad games Friday against the Los Angeles Galaxy and UC Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara.
Since 10 of the players are unsigned draft picks and trialists, one can assume there are still some major decisions to be made. Colorado has already traded several mainstays of its 2010 MLS Cup championship team as it rebuilds following a seventh-place finish and 11-19-4 record last season.
Jaime Castrillon played a key role in the 4-3-3 formation originally envisioned by head coach Oscar Pareja, but the loss of midfielder Pablo Mastroeni to concussion issues for all but two games and other personnel matters forced changes that affected the team’s continuity and cohesion. Though Mastroeni has recovered sufficiently to participate fully and is with the team in Southern California, other players haven’t been so lucky.
Preseason preparations have been hampered by injuries. Castrillon, whose attacking zeal produced a team-high eight goals and four assists in an otherwise lackluster season, underwent knee surgery earlier this month and isn’t expected back until May. Martin Rivero, the team leader in assists with eight who is on loan from Argentine club Rosario Central, suffered a broken foot during a preseason game with Portland and is out for at least another month.
Missing several of its starters, the Rapids lost, 3-0, Chivas USA in Las Vegas last week. Given the injuries and extensive roster changes, they may need several months of the regular season to show what they’ve got.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Conor Casey, Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz -- all starters on the MLS Cup 2010 championship team -- and Tyrone Marshall are among the departed. Atiba Harris, Nathan Sturgis and Edson Buddle along with returning Rapid Nick LaBrocca add many years of league experience. Pareja expects Ecuadoran defender Diego Calderon to bolster the back line and versatile Chilean winger Kevin Harbottle to flourish in his attacking philosophies. Rookies include Jamaican Deshorn Brown, taken with the No. 6 pick in the SuperDraft, and homegrown signing Dillon Serna, who is with the U.S. U-20s in their Concacaf qualifying campaign.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Though there are question marks because of Mastroeni’s condition and the injuries to Castrillon and Rivero, there’s also a potentially potent mix of experience and talent. The Casey-Cummings tandem had passed its peak and the future lies in younger players like Tony Cascio, who has the tools to improve on the three goals he scored in 29 games (18 starts) last year, and Brown. Midfielder Hendry Thomas, yet another member of the growing Honduran contingent in MLS, showed his value in eight league appearances last year.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Castrillon is a big loss, but even if he returns early, Colorado lacked cohesion in many games last year, and the defending just wasn’t good enough. Only four teams conceded more than its 50 goals allowed and none of them made the playoffs. Unless defenders Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor, who may be paired in the middle with Calderon, can come closer to their level of performance in 2010, when the Rapids conceded just 32 goals in 30 games en route to winning the title, and the entire team tightens up when not in possession, there will be a lot of high-scoring ties and defeats.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? The Rapids are great to watch when their attack is clicking and Rivero, Castrillon and Kamani Hill get into the flow. Without the massive presence of Casey to bash in the goals, the skillful, possession game preached by Pareja should get at opposing teams and create chances. There’s also reason to root for Mastroeni, whose service in MLS and for the national team deserves a full recovery and a proper completion to his playing career.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: New England | Philadelphia
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Portland