Rapids anxious to avoid repeat of last two years

[MLS] As has been the case the last two seasons, Colorado plays its final game against Real Salt Lake, and by any means possible the Rapids don’t want to come down with another case of deja vu.

That scenario didn’t play out so well in the final days of the 2008 and 2009 seasons; on both occasions, whatever result the Rapids needed to nail down a playoff berth, they didn’t get. The odds of that occurring again a week from Saturday are remote, but not impossible.

Kansas City thumped Chicago, 2-0, on Tuesday to move within six points of Colorado with two games to play. On Saturday, Colorado has a tough road assignment at Los Angeles, and could come away with nothing; only a win at New England will keep the Wizards’ hopes alive, but like the Fire, the Revs are already out of playoff contention.

A point short is as good as a mile, as far as Coach Gary Smith, the Rapids staff, and the players are concerned. It seems like it’s all but over, but ….

“You can say that, but I’m not going to say that,” said technical director Paul Bravo, who left the Galaxy after the 2008 season to join the Rapids, for which he played from 1997 to 2001. “Until we are actually secure, that’s something we have to be very cautious about because of how things have gone over the past two seasons.”

In the 2008 finale at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, RSL came away with a 1-1 tie to finish two points ahead of Colorado (38 points) and in seventh place overall. New York grabbed eighth place a point behind RSL. Last year, at Rio Tinto Stadium, as it turned out all the Rapids needed was a tie, and of course, they lost, 3-0, to finish in a three-way logjam with RSL and D.C. United (40 points) for eighth place. When the tiebreaker smoke cleared, D.C. and Colorado were out, and RSL thus embarked on its championship run.

“I don’t know if we put too much pressure on ourselves like when we played Salt Lake, our greatest rivals, at their place, knowing basically we had to come away with a tie to go through,” recalls veteran Pablo Mastroeni of the bitter end to the 2009 season. “I guess it was unsettling and it showed in the first 15 minutes. They took control of the game early and scored the goals they needed to get the result.

This season, the Rapids (11-8-9) have already accumulated 42 points but have yet to clinch. A revamped roster – since the end of last season Smith has traded within MLS for Jeff Larentowicz, Wells Thompson, Marvell Wynne, Brian Mullan, Anthony Wallace and Macoumba Kandji at different phases – has a plus-10 goal differential of 39 scored, and 29 conceded.

“Another thing we talked about during the offseason was adding that toughness, that strong mentality, and bringing in guys accustomed to winning and being in the playoffs,” says Bravo. “Getting Jeff [from the Revs, along with Thompson] was a big offseason move for us. He’s a great person off the field as well, but you see him in practice, getting after guys if they’re not sticking to the game plan. Those kind of guys are infectious and certainly been a positive influence on our group and the team in general.”

Last year, the Rapids were plus-4 with 42 scored and 38 conceded, and the lower goals-allowed total in 2010 is a major factor in the Rapids’ rise. Paired in central midfield with Mastroeni, Larentowicz has performed at All-Star caliber, and the acquisition of Wynne from Toronto two days before the start of the season soon yielded another tough duo when Smith moved him into the middle alongside Drew Moor instead of his normal position of right back.

“We ended up making the [trade] on Thursday,” recalls Bravo. “On Friday, Marvell’s with us in LA and starting at center back [against Chivas USA] and was fantastic. We kind of slotted him in and out and he’s done very well.”

Kosuke Kimura has kept his right-back slot, for the most part, and all concerned seem pleased with the alignment.

“It’s been a lot easier than I expected,” says Wynne, who came to Colorado from Toronto in exchange for midfielder Nick LaBrocca in one of the many moves engineered by Preki before he was dismissed as TFC head coach. “I’m not going forward so much and working on my passing both long-range and shorter. Communication was quite difficult to start off with, but the way Drew Moor and Kosuke Kimura helped me on my first day really got me into the groove of things.

“It may go unnoticed, but Drew’s heading is phenomenal, and so is his leadership. When he moves, I move, and I’m confident that if I make a mistake he’ll be there to clean up, and he has the confidence in me so if he goes up for a ball I’ll come in to help out. That partnership has really been able to develop.”

Moor has also played every minute in every league game, with astonishing stats of just 13 fouls and one caution.

A team with Conor Casey and Omar Cummings – combined totals of 23 goals, five assists -- is already strong offensively, yet Smith swung trades to nab midfielder Mullan (from Houston) and attacker Kandji (New York) just before the trade deadline. Smith prefers Cummings and Kandji up front, though both of them have been used in wide midfield roles, which is where Mullan has excelled for most of his nine MLS seasons, and Jamie Smith has contributed a team-high eight assists.

“Both players are probably better up front,” says Bravo. “Mac had a lot of time in New York as a midfielder and kind of slotted in up front, but when we watched him and talked about him, we always thought he’d be a better forward option. Running around and causing havoc on the front line is always where Gary and I thought he’d be best.

“It’s kind of the same thing with Omar. We’ve tried him wide and he’s done some good things, but when we moved back to 4-4-2 and played him up top with Conor is really when he exploded and that’s when he was at his best last year as well.”

And that’s about all the talk of last year this team wants to hear.

Says Bravo of being so close but not quite there, “We can’t take anything for granted. The approach of the staff is, ‘Let’s go out and win the next game, and worry about everything else once the season’s over.’”

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