The Colorado Rapids are on the road this weekend, heading to sunny Southern California for a Western Conference clash against LAFC. For the Rapids, a winning streak is on the line as well as the chance to climb even higher up the table, where they enter the weekend in fourth place. In two road games thus far, the Rapids are 1-0-1 (W-L-D) and have yet to concede a goal. There’s always room for improvement, and you don’t win any trophies in May, but the club has to feel good about starting the season strong and playing from a position of strength. Not everybody is running at a canter with a clip of 2 points per game. 

One of the clubs looking up the table in envy of Colorado’s current pace is LAFC. The Black & Gold haven’t picked up a point in two weeks and haven’t won a match since Opening Day, a 2-0 victory over Austin FC. The quickest reason for this is they have been, for the most part, without former MVP and Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela. He left the first match of the year with an injury in the first half and made his return this past weekend against Seattle as a second-half substitute. Adding to that, they’ve played three road matches in a row; they got a point from Houston Dynamo FC before falling in back-to-back matches to the two teams at the top of the Western Conference, the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders FC.  
These are my keys to the game: 

Feed Diego Rubio 

Forward Diego Rubio has scored in two of the last three matches, both wins for Colorado. In fact, since joining Colorado ahead of the 2019 season, when Rubio scores, the Rapids are 9-2-3. That’s, uh, pretty good! And now that he’s started scoring in the 2021 campaign, fire up the conveyor belt of crosses that is Michael Barrios on the wing and get out of the way. And if that doesn’t work, it’s the set piece king, captain Jack Price, ready to whip in a perfect ball. The Rapids have some of the best chance creators in MLS, whether it be off set pieces or through open play, and they have a polished finisher in Rubio. If he can continue getting good looks on goal, then I’m going to guess he’s going to put away a fair amount of them.  

Keep LAFC Down 

Right now, LAFC is the prized fighting boxer who used to wear the belt but is presently flat on their back on the canvas, dazed and trying to stagger back to their feet. They have the potential to get back up, throwing haymakers - but they are currently down. For the first time in their brief but successful MLS history, they sit in last place in the Western Conference. Through five matches, they’ve scored just five goals, by far their worst start. In 2020 and 2019, they scored 15 goals in their first five matches, and, in their inaugural season in 2018, they managed 11. If you’re like me, you see the undeniable depths of talent on the LAFC roster and think it’s just a matter of time before they break out. They will eventually score goals, right? But if the Rapids come out and start the game the way they did against Houston, they can keep down the Black & Gold for another week. Score first, pressure their midfield and be physical with Vela, Diego Rossi and the other forwards. LAFC is a great team that is one or two balls in the back net away from remembering they can still land a knockout punch.  

Sam Vines 

That’s it. That’s the tweet. But in all seriousness, Rapids left back Sam Vines had his coming out party in June 2019, when the Rapids picked up their first win against LAFC. In a season that saw Carlos Vela obliterate the single-season goal record and where LAFC broke record after record for things like goals scored and goal differential, it was the Colorado native that kept the future league MVP in his hip pocket for 90 minutes. Since then, Vines’ stock has skyrocketed, and he’s refined his game.  

Adding to his defensive excellence, he scored his first goal in Burgundy last year and added another last weekend. In the last two years, he’s been getting more involved in the attack without sacrificing defensive responsibilities. He’s rounding into a complete player who has an outsized influence on games from a fullback position. He has pace, he can play 90 minutes even after bombing up and down the wing, he sees plays develop before they happen, and his defensive technique is great. It’s probably not a coincidence that since his return to the starting lineup, the Rapids are on a three-game winning streak. He’s not the sole reason, of course, but he does help provide that defensive stability that allows the Rapids to build from the back and begin attacking. If he has a good game in Los Angeles, it means he slowed down Vela and frustrated the LAFC attack. And if that happens, then the squad just needs Rubio and the offense to create and connect on a ball or two to find a match-winning sequence.