COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – At the beginning of the season, Colorado Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja was forced to throw rookies, inexperienced players, and others with limited playing time over the past year into his starting lineup, handcuffed by a seemingly never-ending list of injuries.
But now the Rapids are as healthy as they’ve been all year, and Pareja is going to stick with the group that has vaulted them into the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. With the Rapids one point ahead of the Earthquakes for the final playoff spot in the West and with a game in hand, Pareja said the players that got them there will have the chance to finish the job.
“They need to grow; they’re kids. That’s the way it is,” Pareja said. “You cannot exclude them from the responsibility that they have at the moment. These are the games that let them grow. You know that I always take the risk. For me, the results are important in this business, and results will keep us with the job or not. But if I want to take a risk for the young ones and give them the opportunity to grow and sacrifice the result, that’s me. They need to step up now as well.”
After a 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City in late August, captain Drew Moor, normally a quieter, lead-by-example type of player, addressed the team, calling on its younger players to take their game to the next level for the final seven games of the season. After Moor’s postgame speech, Colorado won two consecutive games before a 1-0 setback to Portland on Sept. 20. Like his coach, Moor believes the young Rapids are mature enough to handle the pressure of the playoff push.
“I think it’s important that we go back and remember what we did to get us there," Moor said. "It’s not a mistake that we’re in this position that we’re in right now. We went through the hard times at the beginning of the season where we weren’t getting the results we wanted to, and we survived a schedule with a lot of injured players. These guys that are now very good players for us, starters for us, starters on any team in the league, are ready to make that playoff push.”
From first-year MLS goalkeeper Clint Irwin, 20-year-old Homegrown center back Shane O’Neill, 23-year-old left back Chris Klute and rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown, the Rapids are filled with fresh faces who have cemented their places in the starting lineup over the course of the season. And don't forget Atiba Harris and Nathan Sturgis, who - combined - played just 12 games last season with Vancouver and Houston, respectively, but have been regular starters this year for the Rapids. Colorado's postseason hopes will be fulfilled – or fall by the wayside – based on the performances of this group down the stretch.
“I take the responsibility of the result; they know that,” Pareja said. “I take the blame if it at some point comes. But I would be happy to see [the young players] grow as they play.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.