Coming from England, I’m used to backing the underdog in most sporting events, and it’s always sweetly satisfying whenever the big boys, the team that so-called experts tip as odds-on favorites receive something of a bloodied nose.
That was pretty much the case on Saturday, as the Colorado Rapids opened with a 1-1 draw at the New York Red Bulls. Few outside of the Rapids organization – and the burgundy faithful – held out any hope of Pablo Mastroeni’s first game in charge as head coach being anything less than an uncomfortable experience.
After all, how could a team that only confirmed its head coach seven days earlier amid what some were suggesting were ‘chaotic changes’, possibly stand a cat in hell’s chance of claiming anything but a good hiding at the 2013 MLS Supporters Shield winners?
Add to all the supposed blood-letting and carnage, the Rapids wandered into Red Bull Arena without the goalkeeper who had shone so brightly in 2013, Clint Irwin. Instead, the job of standing between the sticks fell to a rookie, John Berner.
Oh, ye of little faith.
It’s all too easy – and a little bit blinkered – to assume that, unless due process runs its expected path, we should prepare for the worst.
So, I’ll ask you this … what looked out of place on Saturday? Um, well Homegrown Player Dillon Serna for one. And then there was José Mari and, of course, goalkeeper Berner – both making their league debuts. All ‘looked out of place’ in the sense that none had ever started a MLS game in their life.
And did any look out of their depth? Of course not.
Few teams will go into the Red Bulls back-yard this season and out-shoot them (18-11), as the Rapids did on Saturday. Few will pose a greater attacking threat, forcing four times as many corners (8-2).
Admittedly, it was a defensive lapse which allowed arguably the Red Bulls’ greatest threat – Thierry Henry – to ghost in unmarked at the far post to nutmeg Berner with a headed goal but, on the whole, the Rapids defense were well organized and resolute.
The Rapids were afforded little space in what was a congested midfield. Passing in this area may have been crisper and the first touch a little gentler, but José Mari combined well with Nick LaBrocca, while Serna looked comfortable, confident and creative.
Sharpness in the final third, one would hope, will improve, though against the muscle of Olave and Armando, our forward-thinking threat was always going to have its work cut out.
And so to the penalty kick which gifted the Rapids a share of the points. I suggested it was a soft call during the commentary, and I stick by that. That’s not to say I’ve never seen them given in my 25 years covering this sport and – as a Rapids fan – you’ll take them all day long, but don’t expect them every week.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is a new head coach in Mastroeni, and he’s aided by new assistant coaches in Steve Cooke and John Metgod, as well as goalkeeping coach, Chris Sharpe. There are a number of new faces on the field, and a good many new season-ticket holders in the stands. New, fresh, enthusiastic, energized and passionate. I saw plenty to be positive about.
Not all days will be filled with sunshine. Not all performances will be solid and assured. But, having seen the Rapids refuse to back down against one of the supposed top dogs in MLS, some may not be quite so eager to write off the 2014 season, as not all champions tread the same path to glory.
A point from the Red Bulls was gratefully received by most, and the result a surprise for many, though I doubt that was the case for the Rapids technical staff. They traveled wanting, nay expecting, all three points. And that’s the difference between those crying ‘chaos’, and those oozing calm. It comes down to belief, in your ability and the ability of those around you. It comes down to a greater understanding of what it takes to compete in this league, a greater knowledge of the sport and a greater sense of perspective.
I was labelled ‘crazy’ by a fan, after suggesting on twitter that ‘four weeks before the start of the season was not the time to panic’. And, for those prepared to listen, neither was there the need to panic seven days out. Top-level sport needs level heads at the top, on and off the field.
Keep calm … and carry on.