Losing skid reveals Rapids' flaws

By Ridge Mahoney

Injuries, sophomore slumps and a rookie head coach will be the primary causes cited if the Colorado Rapids don’t make the playoffs, which looks likely after a seven-game losing streak dragged them down the standings.

A 2-2 tie in Portland Saturday halted the losing skid but did little to boost their postseason chances. They are seventh, six points out of the playoff tier, with six games to play, and next up is a visit to Rio Tinto Stadium Friday to face Real Salt Lake.

Only three teams have a worse goal difference than their minus-9, and memories of the 2010 MLS Cup championship under former head coach Gary Smith have long ago faded. Smith resigned after a dispute with team management after the 2011 season, and last January another coaching change moved former Rapid and USA midfielder Pablo Mastroeni into the top job.

The momentum and promise stemming from last year’s 14-11-9 season and fifth-place finish departed with the move of ex-head coach Oscar Pareja to FC Dallas, which is 14 points ahead of Colorado and within two or three games of clinching a playoff spot. The 2013 Rapids averaged 1.5 points a game; this year’s squad is hovering around 1.1.

Team management rebuffed FCD’s initial attempts to hire Pareja and when he did eventually leave in January, Mastroeni was named interim head coach. The formal announcement of his hiring didn’t come until a week before the regular season, and he’s been grappling with injuries and instability at several positions in his first year on the job.

Deshorn Brown and 2013 Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers haven’t dropped off from their excellent pro debuts. Brown leads the team with nine goals; Powers is tops with the same number of assists and has scored five goals. Yet after winning three of its first five games under Mastroeni, Colorado has sputtered. It has won only five of the last 23 games.

The causes are many. Here are a few reasons:

Left back Chris Klute was one of the revelations of the 2013 season, earning praise while starting 30 of his 31 appearances. A hamstring injury hobbled him at the start of 2014 and though he’s played 21 games (20 starts) his explosiveness and confidence have been sporadic.

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin took over last season when veteran Matt Pickens went down with an injury and Irwin responded so well he kept the spot when Pickens healed. This season, a quadriceps injury and Irwin’s spotty form has prompted Mastroeni to give John Berner a few starts, and he’s named the No. 3 keeper, Joe Nasco, to play against RSL. Nasco’s ejection after 33 seconds – the fastest red card in league history – triggered a 6-0 romp by the Galaxy Sept. 5 and suspended him for last week’s game, a 2-2 tie with Portland in which Berner got the start and Irwin sat on the bench.

In the 43rd minute Berner couldn’t handle a sizzling shot from about 22 yards out off the foot of Diego Valeri. The well-hit shot got underneath Berner’s left arm and squirted into the net to put the Rapids down a goal. Such scenarios haven’t been favorable this year; the Rapids are 1-10-3 when they give up the first goal and 0-8-2 when they trail at halftime.

They did rally to get the tie and got a break when a phantom handball goal yielded a penalty kick they converted, yet felt aggrieved that an apparent handball by Gaston Fernandez as he rushed forward to score the tying goal wasn’t called. A fine save by Berner in the final minutes helped them take the point in a match typical of many played this year; sporadic good periods marred by goofy bounces and costly errors.

On Monday, the team announced that forward Vicente Sanchez, who missed six weeks earlier in the season with a sprained right knee, would be sidelined again for two to three weeks. Though penalty kicks account for five of his six goals this season, the fact he’s played only 869 minutes has impaired the Rapids’ attack. Sanchez provides surprise and guile to the Rapids attack. His ability to float and glide in the attacking third, in contrast to the power dribbles of several teammates, turns typical situations into scoring chances.

Former No. 1 SuperDraft pick Danny Mwanga, acquired at the start of the 2013 season, wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities provided by injuries to other players. This year he was loaned to the New York Cosmos of the NASL. In 19 MLS games for Colorado, he has one assist and no goals. He could have picked up the slack left by DP Gabriel Torres, who was signed last year after lighting up the Gold Cup for Panama but has produced little.

A midseason conditioning program -- Torres lost 10 pounds -- revived him to some extent. Since returning in late June, he's scored two goals and recorded one assist in nine games; in nine previous games he had zeros in both departments. The Rapids were 6-5-4 when he came back to the squad -- they've gone 2-8-3 since then -- and he's not played in the last two games.

Designated Player Jose Mari has been battling an ankle injury, yet still the Rapids in July traded journeyman midfielder Nathan Sturgis, who played 26 games last year, to Chivas USA for Carlos Alvarez. Team management felt Sturgis was redundant, since Nick LaBroccaand Powers can play that position and Alvarez is an attacking type who can play wide. In seven games since the trade, Alvarez has earned one assist, in a 3-0 defeat of Chivas USA. Sturgis is no star but the glue he can provide in midfield has been notably absent.

A sprained MCL in his right knee had sidelined defender Shane O’Neill, another standout in 2013, for nine games prior to his return against Portland. Not coincidentally, in those nine games the Rapids lost eight and won only once while nose-diving out of the playoff tier. Rookie midfielder Jared Watts filled in a few times but the injury bug got him as well. 

On Wednesday the club announced it has reached a partnership agreement with the Charlotte Independence (USL PRO) for the 2015 season. That should aid the development of younger players, but solving what went wrong in 2014 is top priority.

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