COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – For novice Colorado Rapids fans and ultra die-hards alike, correctly guessing head coach Oscar Pareja’s weekly lineups is about as easy as picking winning Powerball numbers.
From Day 1, Pareja has preached accountability from his team, pulling players for dips in form while also encouraging competition and opportunity for those who show well in practice, leading to constantly shuffling lineups and, at times, formations as well.
In the Rapids’ 2-1 win over FC Dallas on Saturday night, for example, veteran midfielder Nick LaBrocca, a starter in Colorado’s 2-1 road win over the Galaxy the week prior, didn’t even make the bench. Atiba Harris started in his place, with Anthony Wallace selected in the midfield option off the bench over him.
Veteran Vicente Sanchez debuted on the left side of the midfield, and Dillon Powers moved into a central attacking midfield role after playing deeper the week prior as Nathan Sturgis moved back into the lineup after missing the LA game with a hamstring issue. Creative midfielder Martin Rivero, who has played the last four matches off the bench after missing eight with a quad injury, did not even play.
The primary reason for all that movement? Pareja said he wanted to go with a bigger lineup against a tall FC Dallas side, leaving the smaller Rivero and LaBrocca out while giving Harris and the more physical Powers a chance in the midfield.
And it worked.
“[Lineups] depend on the opponent or the plan of the game, depending on what we need or what we want,” Pareja said. “I want to say that one of the best players against Los Angeles was Nick LaBrocca. And Nick wasn’t in the roster [Saturday].”
In the second half on Saturday, Pareja took out holding midfielder Hendry Thomas in favor of another offensive option in Gabriel Torres. Later, he removed Sturgis and added a fifth defender to deal with Dallas' height in the final stages of the match.
Pareja’s version of musical chairs has helped the Rapids earn big results, particularly of late.
Heading into Friday night’s crucial encounter against the Timbers at JELD-WEN Field (8 pm MT; NBCSN), the Rapids have recorded a result in 11 of their last 12 matches, including three wins in their last four games, boosting them to the third spot in the West with only five matches to go in the regular season.
Playing matchups rather than players is a new luxury for Pareja and the Rapids, who are as healthy as they’ve been all year, which will likely keep the coach's lineups predictably unpredictable.
“That’s the way that we are working with this group,” Pareja said. “They know that they have a role to help the team. And everybody brings something different. And that versatility and that chemistry, that makes us as a whole a better team.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.