Sneak Peek: Colorado looks to build on 2016 success

MLS is not a league where teams stand pat. The constraints of the salary cap make it difficult to keep players for long. But the Colorado Rapids were the most consistent team in MLS last season, surprising everyone by finishing second in the Western Conference in the regular season and playoffs, so they've largely kept their team together, beginning with head coach Pablo Mastroeni, who was rewarded with a new contract that keeps him in Colorado until 2019.

Opening day ...
Projected XI -- MacMath; Miller, Watts, Sjoberg, Burch; Azira, Cronin, Powers; Badji, Doyle, Hairston.

By MLS standards, the Colorado Rapids' offseason movement was modest. The big loss was inspirational midfielder Jermaine Jones, who left after one season to join the LA Galaxy, close to his family that settled in Southern California after his move from Germany after the 2014 World Cup.

Also gone are a pair of MLS veteran attackers, Sebastian Le Toux, who signed with D.C. United as a free agent, and Marco Pappa, who returned to his native Guatemala.

The Rapids had the best defense in MLS in 2016 by a large margin -- its 32 goals allowed were seven less than the next two teams, Toronto FC and the Galaxy -- and everyone returns.

Tim Howard is still out after missing the last two games of the playoffs with a groin injury, but backup Zac MacMath was excellent in goal for the first 16 games of the season (0.74 goals-against average) before Howard arrived from Everton. In his second season out of college, Swede Axel Sjoberg emerged as one of the most best defenders in MLS.

The problem in 2016 was scoring -- just 39 goals, tied for the second fewest in MLS -- and Mastroeni hopes young Ghanaian midfielder Nana Adjei-Boateng and veteran forward Alan Gordon will help. Adjei-Boateng already has five pro seasons under his belt at Norway's Stromsgodset but isn't expected to start right away. Gordon has scored 52 goals in 13 MLS seasons but never started more than 17 games in the season.

In the final of the Desert Diamond Cup, the Rapids went with a 4-3-3 formation --  change from the 4-2-3-1 with which they had so much success in 2016 -- with Dominique Badji, Kevin Doyle and Marlon Hairston up front. One key to the Rapids will be the play of the 22-year-old Hairston, the lone player in MLS now that Justin Mapp was not re-signed. The winger had three goals and six assists in his third MLS season and saw a lot of playing time in preseason.

Who's in ...
GOALKEEPERS: none. DEFENDERS: Kortne Ford (Univ. of Denver, Homegrown). MIDFIELDERS: Adjei-Boateng (Manchester City/ENG, Transfer), Ricardo Perez (Creighton Univ., Homegrown). FORWARDS: Caleb Calvert, Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy, MLS Free Agent).

Who's out ...
GOALKEEPERS: none. DEFENDERS: Joseph Greenspan (Minnesota United, Trade), Sean St. Ledger. MIDFIELDERS: Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy, Trade), Marco Pappa (Municipal/GUA, Free Agent), Zach Pfeffer. FORWARDS: Conor Doyle (Puerto Rico FC, Free Agent), Sebastien Le Toux (D.C. United, MLS Free Agent).

First five games ...
March 4 -- New England Revolution
March 11 -- at NY Red Bulls
March 18 -- Minnesota United
April 1 -- FC Dallas
April 9 -- at Sporting KC
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