As we count down 2011, ColoradoRapids.com is taking a look back at the Top 5 Moments of the Rapids' 2011 campaign. It's by no means an exhaustive list, since we can think of many other highlights that will be remembered from the past year.
Claiming the #1 spot on the Top 5 Moments of 2011 is the Colorado Rapids improbable victory in El Salvador over Isidro Metapan that kept their CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) hopes alive.
Hollywood hasn't yet called the Rapids, but this story of a group of underdogs overcoming challenges and adversities last fall is one that will be remembered by Rapids players, staff, and fans for years to come.
Let's set the scene heading into the match…
In League play, the team had four regular season games left - three of those at home - but had yet to clinch a playoff berth. In CCL play, with only two group games remaining, the Rapids faced the daunting task of needing points on the road in El Salvador against Isidro Metapan and / or Mexico against Santos Laguna in order to have any chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Following the home CCL loss to Honduras' Real Espana, coach Gary Smith said that he had given "more credibility and credence to the Saturday (MLS) game than to the midweek game (CCL)." The comments were not well received some fans, and his decision to not travel with the team to El Salvador the following week brought more criticism from not only Rapids fans, but also media and even other MLS coaches.
Smith stayed in Colorado with a core group of veteran players and sent assistant coach Steve Guppy and reserve team coach Brett Jacobs to Central America to direct a team made up mostly of reserve players, including some who had yet to make their pro debuts. Metapan had already recorded shutout home victories over Santos and Espana, and the Rapids needed a win (or tie, with help) to avoid elimination.
After a 13-hour trip, the young Rapids arrived into San Salvador less than 18 hours from kickoff. The players knew that not many people believed they could win, and after the pre-game meal, midfielder Wells Thompson gave the group a motivational speech, telling them to seize this opportunity to show everyone that they could play.
It took two hours on bus to get from San Salvador to Metapan on game day. Once they arrived, the team realized the players’ cleats were left at the hotel. In the spirit of Fair Play, the Metapan team lent the Colorado players some previously used cleats. It was just another obstacle to overcome.
Commentary: On self belief and fair play
Rookie Eddie Ababio, making his professional debut, gave the Rapids the lead with a goal from the right side after 30 minutes. The home side equalized shortly afterwards on an indirect kick after a rare 6-second infraction was called on Rapids ‘keeper Steward Ceus.
Many fans back home had been following the Rapids trip through the team’s facebook photo gallery, and when the game began, many were glued to their TVs, discussing on the online chat, or following the match through the various tweets and posts on facebook. The belief was growing by minute.
After changing into their own cleats – which had arrived right at kickoff – the Rapids came out in the second-half and added goals from Quincy Amarikwa and Omar Cummings to secure the 3-1 improbable win. Not lost in the contest was another pro debut – that of midfielder Davy Armstrong – who became the first player to graduate from the club’s youth system and appear in a first-team match.
No coach, long travel, inexperienced players, tough road conditions, hostile environment, missing cleats, backs against the wall, and not much faith from outsiders = no problem. And despite keeping players home to rest and concentrate on the weekend, the win turned out to be the medicine the rest of the team actually needed.
“The guys going away midweek and really performing in what I think is the most difficult environment that we’ve played in all year, and coming out with that positive energy coming back to the club, it just lifted all of us playing in this game today,” captain Pablo Mastroeni said after defeating FC Dallas three days later.
It was a great win, but more than that: it was a great example how a group that works hard and believes in themselves can overcome challenges and adversity. It was a great example of the type of players that make up this Rapids team.