2011 Colorado Preview: Rocky Mountain high

The Rapids are eager to prove their MLS Cup run was no fluke

The Tweet and the Lowdown:

Defending MLS Cup champs have the same core of grizzled veterans and established players of 2010, with key additions to add depth for a super long season.

Setting the Scene:

Colorado can’t do much better in 2011 after overachieving spectacularly last year and winning their first MLS Cup. There are always areas for improvement, however, and while it's very difficult to be consistent, the team will be hoping to avoid the kind of periodic swoon they have experienced in recent years with unduly long winless streaks.

The Rapids got their mojo going at exactly the right time last year when key trades for now five-time MLS Cup winner Brian Mullan and Macoumba Kandji coincided with a great run down the home stretch. The Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni central midfield partnership could not have gelled any better in its first year, the duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings were scoring threats all year and the defense was rock solid.

The Rapids have not made many changes for 2011. Julien Baudet was the most high-profile player to be dealt, but the club also added Joseph Nane, Sanna Nyassi and Tyrone Marshall.

It will also be interesting to see how Caleb Folan fits into this team as a third striker with Casey and Cummings. The Irish international’s strength and skill will be sorely needed as a complement to the established Cummings-Casey tandem, especially given Kandji’s extended absence after tearing his ACL during the MLS Cup.

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Key Changes:

Players in: Sanna Nyassi (Seattle), Tyrone Marshall (Seattle), Joseph Nane (Toronto), Mike Holody (unattached), Steven Emory (Metro State Univ.), Eddie Ababio (Univ. of North Carolina), Caleb Folan (Hull City, England)

Players out: Julien Baudet (Seattle), Danny Earls (Seattle), Claudio López (waived), Ross Schunk (waived)

Star Attraction: Omar Cummings

When people like Thierry Henry say we should be paying attention to the Jamaican striker, people better sit up and take note. After a slow start last year, Cummings burst to life just when it mattered and notched 14 goals in the regular season alongside partner-in-crime Casey (13). His confidence boosted further following a training stint with Aston Villa during the offseason, and Cummings is ready again to torment MLS defenses with his outrageous speed, dribbling skills and spectacular finishing abilities.

Unsung Hero: Drew Moor

Marvell Wynne has more pace, but nobody can beat the consistency of the Rapids’ other center back. The soft-spoken Texan played in every minute of every MLS league game last year, assumed a vocal leadership role in the absence of Baudet and was the epitome of the group's stingy defense.

Barely flustered all year, Moor also excelled at left back when needed. Deceptively quick and strong, he proved to be a vital cog in Smith’s championship team and, at only 27 years old, may continue to be one for several years to come. If his form continues, a recall to the national team would be just deserts for his outstanding consistency and skill since joining the Rapids from Dallas in 2009.

Ready for Primetime: Andre Akpan

The Harvard graduate had a very quiet rookie season last year, but that was not exactly his fault. He had limited opportunities while backing up an established strike pairing and appeared in few competitive games outside of MLS league matches.

Now, with the reserve league coming back, more international call-ups for Cummings likely and CONCACAF Champions League games for the MLS Cup winners, Akpan will have chances to stake a claim for some first-team action.

He has scored very well in preseason and faces a battle with Quincy Amarikwa for playing time off the bench. The coaching staff showed faith in Akpan by renegotiating a multi-year deal during the offseason.

Storylines to Watch:

Cummings and Casey should continue to be among the most feared strikers in the league, and it will be interesting to see what Folan can do and how he will fit in. There is a powerful and skilful trio with Akpan and Amarikwa chomping at the bit for their piece of the action and Kandji is anxious to play his part once he is back from injury. Pace, power, skill and tenacity upfront from multiple sources will make the Rapids forwards a major test for opposing defenses.

The Rapids will rely heavily on Cummings and Casey for the bulk of their goals, but it will be a major boon for the side if the midfield can contribute more offensively this year. Mastroeni scored more goals last year than any other season in his nine-year career with Colorado, and Larentowicz was no slouch either, notching four goals. With a year of working together behind them, watch for more offensive production from this duo.

Mullan, Smith and Thompson also have the benefit of a solid period of experience with the team, last year and there will be expectations of more goals from them. Nyassi, who did well in Seattle before he was traded, will be an exciting option out wide for head coach Gary Smith.

What He Said:

“It’s going to be a big test for us. We have the silver ball that follows us around. But we have the same players back and that is great for us. The players know their roles.”

– Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz

If Everything Goes Right:

The Rapids should qualify comfortably for the postseason, and are looking to win the Rocky Mountain Cup from rivals Real Salt Lake for the first time in forever. Defending their MLS Cup successfully will be a mighty task, but Smith has kept a talented group together and added strategically where it matters. The doubters will always place them below New York, LA and Seattle in the glamour stakes, but the unflashy Rapids will be eager to surprise everyone again and prove 2010 was no flash in the pan.