The last time the Colorado Rapids played the Portland Timbers, Tim Howard posted a shutout in his return to MLS on the Fourth of July. It was the second straight 0-0 tie for the Rapids, and the sixth time they had blanked an opponent. They were in first place.
Since then, the teams have more or less performed at the same level. Yet their forecasts for the rest of the regular season differ dramatically. Before that meeting, the Rapids had won nine games and Portland six. For Colorado, a moderate performance has been good enough to stay near the top. Portland’s title defense, for the most part, has been a tiptoe along the postseason cutoff line.
The Rapids have accumulated three wins, three losses, and six ties, which works out to 15 points in 12 games for an average of 1.25 points per game. Tied for second place with the Galaxy (48 points), Colorado has two games in hand and thus has a very good chance to finish second and avoid the Knockout Round. It can still win the Supporters' Shield.
For defending champion Portland, the Knockout Round is realistically the best it can do. It has won five, lost six, and tied two since the July 4 game; the 17 points in 13 games is an average of 1.31 per game. Seattle’s 1-0 defeat of Chicago pulled it into a sixth-place tie with Portland (41 points), and on the first tiebreaker, most wins, Seattle holds a 12-11 advantage..
A win or tie clinches a playoff spot for Colorado, which is unbeaten at home (9-0-5) and still has a fair chance to overhauling conference leader FC Dallas. Getting out of a rut of ties –- four in the last seven games –- is one of head coach Pablo Mastroeni’s primary tasks for the last month of the season, especially after a 3-3 tie with Vancouver on Saturday.
The Rapids scored three goals for just the second time this season and are the league’s stingiest defensive team (27 goals conceded), yet blew each one-goal lead it took. Vancouver scored two of its equalizers in the absence of defender Kendall Waston, recipient of a red card in the 56th minute. Howard, enraged, stormed off the field at the final whistle.
“I don’t think it was entertaining at all,” said a peeved Mastroeni after the match. “I think we dropped two points. I think we had this game under control. Unfortunately, one of the things we take most pride in is defense, it let us down today. I think it just leaves a sour taste in your mouth as you prepare for the game against Portland next week.”
The result – and Mastroeni’s ire –- should sharpen the Rapids’ focus for a stretch run that includes a season finale against Portland at Providence Park. Portland pummeled the Rapids at home last year, 4-1, and of their last three meetings in Commerce City, Colorado has won none of them. Colorado's last victory in the series occurred at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in March of 2014, and was also Mastroeni’s first triumph as a head coach.
Sentiment won’t be on his mind Saturday. Two bad seasons as head coach -- the Rapids were last of 10 Western Conference teams last year and eighth of nine teams in 2014 -- stick in the memory, and squandering victories as the Rapids did against Vancouver remind him of how tricky a game can be.
That July 4 game was also the last appearance by Jermaine Jones, sidelined by a LCL injury and still not ready to return. The Rapids have won just three games since he left the lineup and probably need to win at least that many more to win the Supporters’ Shield.
“The only way to get to the Supporters' Shield is to play every game,” said Mastroeni. “So preparation starts today for Portland, and that’s where you go. You can’t jump to the end of the season, we’ve got to play every single game.”