The Colorado Rapids are four games into their 2022 campaign. The team has shown they have strengths that can be the foundation for a great season, along with imperfections they’ll spend the next 30 games rectifying. The club is a work-in-progress. And that’s not unusual; there isn’t a single MLS team that would say they’ve maximized their potential and shown the best version of themselves.
What is unusual is having one of the most important games of the season, a massive rivalry tilt, in the fifth game of the year as Real Salt Lake come to Colorado to battle for the Rocky Mountain Cup. But this is what the scheduling gods have given us. It’s the only true rivalry game set for the weekend and will be the last game of the day to kickoff on Saturday.
By now, you know former Rapids midfielder and manager Pablo Mastroeni is the new permanent head coach of Real Salt Lake. You may have watched their cinderella playoff run just a few months ago when they beat Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting KC in successive road playoff games before succumbing to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference title game.
Then the off-season came. One of their best players, Albert Rusnak, left for Seattle; Mastroeni was given the full-time job in charge; perhaps most importantly, after 16 months of uncertainty, the club found new ownership in Smith Entertainment Group.
Real Salt Lake isn’t a team beloved by advanced metrics and data. Math says they shouldn’t be one of the better teams in MLS. And yet, they’ve begun 2022 on a tear with a 3-1-1 record and tied with LAFC atop the West. To hear them tell it, they fight. They throw out the stats because the stats can’t measure heart, commitment and fidelity to your teammates. The themes aren’t dissimilar to the culture within the Rapids locker room.
It’s always one of the most important home games on the calendar, the Colorado leg of the Rocky Mountain Cup. The Rapids have set the tone for the kind of home they want to build; this is an opportunity to strengthen it.
Take Care of the Ball
Both the Rapids and RSL are in the bottom six in MLS in possession percentage, per fbref.com. This doesn’t much bother either side. They’re built to win without the ball. And elevation won’t play a massive role in this one, as RSL also play higher up on the Earth. But even without the ball, RSL dictate games because of well they defend. The Rapids can use RSL’s strength against them by being perfect with the ball. RSL will work to force mistakes they can capitalize on, but if the Rapids don’t make unforced errors… Well then RSL are chasing and can’t do the things that make them good.
Put the Pressure On
Under Robin Fraser, the Rapids have made a name for themselves by being one of the better defensive sides in MLS. Whether it’s four at the back or five, the Rapids are able to morph to be whatever they need. They often need to be a single unit that presses as a cohesive unit. Per fbref.com, RSL are a team susceptible to timely pressure. Their short passing completion percentage is sixth-worst at 83.5%, medium is second to last at 81.3% and their long passing completion percentage is third from last at 48.7%. The Rapids should find success by forcing Salt Lake to pass their way around the Rapids defense, and then finding opportune moments to pounce on their errors.
Go Get the Cup
The Rapids can’t win the Rocky Mountain Cup in just 90 minutes. There is still a Utah leg at Rio Tinto slated for July 9th. In 2020, Salt Lake won the first leg 4-1 and claimed the Cup. Unfortunately for them, the Rapids won the second leg 5-0 and grabbed the Cup from right out under their noses. Anything can happen in this rivalry, but no matter what happens, the job won’t be finished after the final whistle Saturday night. However, there is a chance to put at least one hand on the trophy. The players know what the rivalry means to the fans, they know this game brings a little extra juice and has a little extra oomph behind it. Tap into that emotion whether you’re on the pitch in burgundy, waving a flag in C38 or listening to the game on the radio while driving along the Front Range.