Pareja faces tough decisions with depth up top restored

Returning players add to competition to gameday roster spots up front

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – It’s a problem that Colorado Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja has been looking forward to for a long time.

With strikers Omar Cummings and Conor Casey closer to recovering from injury every day, the battle for the three coveted starting striker spots atop Pareja’s 4-3-3 formation is already underway. The established veterans Casey, Cummings and Brian Mullan are expected to claim the three spots, potentially leaving Rookie of the Year candidate Tony Cascio, new signing Edu and productive newcomer Kamani Hill scrapping for playing time off the bench.

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“[To] keep everybody happy is impossible, first of all,” Pareja said on Tuesday. “You cannot pretend that everybody is happy. But actually if there are players that are not, it is better because that means that they are going to push. You’re hoping for them to push and make it competitive within the team. So it will come a little harder to make the 18 and that is great. The competition is there.”

Cummings, Casey and Mullan trained with the first team at practice on Tuesday. Cummings is recovering from a sprained ankle that has kept him off the field for nearly two months, but the Jamaican international told MLSsoccer.com that he’s hopeful he’ll be able to start Saturday night against Portland at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (7 pm MT, TICKETS).

“I’m feeling better, definitely getting my fitness back,” Cummings said Tuesday. “There are times my ankle can get a little sore, but [I] not try to overdo it, overwork it too much.”

With Cummings set to return to the starting lineup, the man likely to make way appears to be Cascio, who has established himself as a Rookie of the Year candidate and started 13 of the Rapids’ first 14 games this season. He didn’t make the bench for last Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to San Jose.

“I definitely think I hit a wall and they noticed it and my level of play’s gone down a little bit,” Cascio told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “So ... they decided to give me a rest, we’ll see how long that continues. I don’t know. I’ve been practicing with the second team, so we’ll see if it was a rest or kind of a way to get other people on the pitch because people like Omar are getting healthy.”

But for Cascio, Edu and Hill, the path back into the starting lineup remains clear. When asked Tuesday how he will choose who starts and who sits, Pareja kept it simple.

“The best player and the player who fits the team well,” Pareja said. “I think that those things are important.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.