Keys_to_the_game_08.13

When the Colorado Rapids take the pitch Saturday night, they may be playing for an opportunity to jump above the playoff line. Sitting in front of the 10th place Rapids in ninth is the LA Galaxy, eighth the Seattle Sounders and seventh –- in that coveted playoff spot –– the Portland Timbers. Only the Timbers will have kicked off before the Rapids trod the sod at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park. Should they lose to Toronto FC and the Rapids dispatch the Crew, they’ll have clawed back to a playoff position, even if it’s only for a moment before Seattle and LA kickoff later.

If everything bounces Colorado’s way, they could wake up Monday morning and rub the tired out of their eyes to see themselves in seventh place. With 11 matches to and 33 points still attainable, it would be a small reward for a club that has hit speed bumps at various moments this season. However, with so many games left to play, barely scraping into a playoff position in August isn’t worth much; they don’t give out medals for most points at the end of summer.

It’s about climbing the ladder one rung at a time. Saturday night’s rung is the Columbus Crew. They won MLS Cup in 2020, missed the playoffs in 2021 and have been dynamic since summer began in 2022. Oddly enough, Caleb Porter has won MLS Cup on two separate occasions. Once with the Portland Timbers and then in the aforementioned 2020. His teams have failed to qualify for the postseason tournament in the following years. But now we’re in the year after the year after MLS Cup. And the Crew have found a little magic.

Lucas Zelarayan is a wizard, and they gave him another mage to stand beside him in midseason acquisition Cucho Hernandez. Zelarayan is the polished veteran at 30 years old, and Cucho is the upstart budding superstar at just 23. The former has eight goals and five assists on the year, and the latter has five goals in just six appearances.

The Crew have lost once in their last 11 matches. That’s one loss since a May 21st defeat to LAFC. Their consistency is impressive. Another way to illustrate it is in how they lose. They’ve lost six matches in 2022; only one of those losses is to a team currently below the playoff line, and it’s an Orlando City team level with Chicago on points for the seventh spot in the East. They win the games they should.

So how do the Rapids turn two wins into three and make it a bona fide winning streak? Scroll on for my keys to the game.

Integrate Gutiérrez

The newest man in burgundy, midfielder Felipe Gutiérrez, was able to make his Rapids debut last weekend against Minnesota as a halftime sub for Jack Price. He’s only on a short term loan for the rest of the season, and his talent was on display in just 45 minutes of action. He has a high soccer IQ, a gifted left foot and athleticism that frightens defenders. He can be a big part of the lineup, either as a starter or super sub, down the home stretch. With so many attacking options in front of him, he won’t have to search too hard for the right final pass. And with so many attacking options distracting defenders, he will have an opportunity to show off how goal-dangerous he can be. He did have 19 goals in 52 appearances in his two seasons with Sporting Kansas City.

Key in on Zelarayan and Cucho

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the dangers of Hany Mukhtar. He is typically the best player on the pitch whenever he steps between the lines. Everybody in the building knew he was a threat. He still sliced and diced the Rapids en route to Nashville’s victory. Two players similar to Mukhtar will step off the bus Saturday evening. I wrote that Cucho has five goals in his first six MLS appearances. He’s getting all the accolades and hype for a Crew team that is rounding into form and seems to have found another gear. But did you know Zelarayan has a similar silly stat of his own? The Armenian has four goals and two assists in his last four matches. You can spy Cucho because he’s the fresh face scoring some wondergoals, but ignore Zelarayan at your own peril. The Rapids' midfield and backline need to have a perfect game plan, and they need to execute it at a high level. Against the Red Bulls, the Rapids did a great job of eliminating Luquinhas from the match. If they can do something similar against these two, they’ve got a real shot at three points.

Don't Forget the Rapids Duo

Zelarayan and Cucho deserve all the hype and love they’re receiving. They’re playing like superstars. It’s good for the league to have stars in markets like Columbus. Great. But for Colorado, everybody outside the mile high market seems to be sleeping on the chemistry brewing between Diego Rubio and Gyasi Zardes. Zardes had a hat-trick last time out and has five goals in his last five games. Now he gets to face his former club. Fire: lit. And for my money, the Rapids MVP so far this year is Diego Rubio. He has a goal or assist in nine of the last 10 matches. That’s pretty absurd. He had a legitimate shout to be included in the MLS All-Star Game. But the Rapids likely won’t mind keeping his legs fresh without any midweek travel back and forth to the Twin Cities right as the season turns a pivotal corner and the finish line begins to come into view. The Rubio/Zardes partnership is beginning to blossom and bloom, and if nobody outside the Front Range wants to recognize it until it’s too late, that’s probably just fine by the Rapids. They’ll continue creating chances for each other, playing off one another and being the tandem of oxen carrying the cart for a team that’s all of the sudden begun to see their hard work not just lead to chances but balls rippling the net.