In what's expected to be a new weekly feature on ColoradoRapids, long-time journalist Pat Shea delves into the flow of the Colorado Rapids.
It’s one thing to extol the virtues of attractive, attack-oriented artistry. But it’s refreshing to see coach Pareja take a realistic approach to this lofty goal.
MLS players need to combine sufficient technique to weather duress with enough athleticism to create some duress of their own. The pace and contact in MLS are no cakewalk, historically causing more than one star to head home with his tail between his legs. It’s a physical league, and not always pretty. After playing eight years in MLS himself, Pareja understands the rigors of the league. Every training exercise puts players under pressure, and the coach expects perfection.
Pareja on offseason roster changes
“My training is always about intensity, quality, and technique,” Pareja said. He demonstrates exactly what he wants each player to do, and he stays on them until the end of the drill.
“I will live or die by my idea of simply playing the game,” Pareja said. “Try not to lose the ball. Be intense, and let’s see if we can be an exciting team.”
After a year shining light on attractive play up front while darkness shadowed the back, the Rapids have a more pragmatic strategy this season.
“You may see a team Saturday that is not as fluent with the ball as we want it,” Pareja predicted. “But I want to see a team that is more disciplined and has everybody on the same page.”
Captain Pablo Mastroeni tried to put concrete language around these aspirations, noting a difference from the early Pareja days of offensive focus.
“I think it’s two-fold,” Mastroeni said. “We’ve been working on our defensive shape and making sure it’s a good foundation to build from. Before, we put the cart before the horse because we wanted to do things differently.
"I think this year the focus has been first, be nice and firm with everyone understanding their roles defensively. And then when we win the ball, find out how we transition into a dynamic, possession-oriented attack.”
The “back four” traditionally means two outside fullbacks, a stopper, and a sweeper. But the Rapids formation is a fortress of four stingy bouncers in the core. Diego Calderon and Drew Moor will sit behind Hendry Thomas and Mastroeni. Marvell Wynne will handle traffic on the right. The left back position has a revolving door near the bench for Brian Mullan, Chris Klute, Anthony Wallace, or Kory Kindle.
Moor said, “Pablo, Hendry, and Diego, defensively… they get into great spots. They break up a lot of plays, and their tackling is fantastic. But also they’re very good on the ball, very clean.”
Behind the Fourtress, Matt Pickens has trained fully the past few days after missing nearly two weeks with an injured limb, and Steward Ceus looks ready, if necessary, though he's being pushed by new signing, Clint Irwin.
Practice: Pickens aims at target 60 yards away
On defense, Colorado looks like a 4-5-1. When the wingers retreat from the 4-3-3.
In front of the core four, Kamani Hill or Dillon Powers are the top candidates for the low-forward/attacking midfielder role, and Nick LaBrocca fits in this spot too. Of course, this until Martin Rivero returns from his broken foot, I assume.
Options for the three forwards include a versatile cabal of attacking players: Atiba Harris, Kevin Harbottle, Tony Cascio, Jamie Smith, Andre Akpan, and Deshorn Brown, for now. Edson Buddle, obviously, will be a key component when he's back from his injury. And, so will newly acquired forward Danny Mwanga, though he's not likely to join the team until next week.
Two of the Rapids' homegrown players, Shane O'Neill and Dillon Serna, made their first start together with the United States Under-20 National Team on Friday in the 2-0 Semifinal win over Cuba. The team, which has already qualified for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey, now awaits the winner of Mexico-El Salvador to meet in the finals of the CONCACAF U-20 Championships in Puebla, Mexico.
O'Neill has anchored the back line in all four of the U.S. U-20 matches, while Serna made his first appearance of the tournament in the quarterfinals against Canada game late on the left side. With time-killing, injuries, and other delays, Serna didn’t get many touches, but he received the ball wide left in the box with extra time looming, cut back, and fired a right-footed shot off the crossbar. Perhaps those last few minutes were enough for coach Tab Ramos to give Serna the start on Friday, even if it was on the right side of the defense.
Moor and rookie Dillon Powers grew up cheering on the Dallas Burn, I mean FC Dallas. But playing in MLS themselves wasn't just an immediate dream for both of the Texan Rapids.
“I went to their first-ever game at the Cotton Bowl back in the old dribble-up shootout days,” Moor recalled. “To be honest, I didn’t imagine myself out there until later. I was always a fan of the team, and I played every day when I got home from school. I didn’t really consider being a professional soccer player until maybe I was in college. It’s all I want to do now, and I want to do it as long as I can.”
“That was always my dream to be out there,” explained Powers, selected by the Rapids 11th overall out of the University of Notre Dame. “It kind of slowly became a reality. There’s a certain point when coaches tell you you’re ready for the next level. I graduated early so I could be drafted and done with school."
They aren't the only two with Dallas connections. Forward Andre Akpan and defender Chris Klute also call Dallas-suburb, Grand Prairie, home. And besides Moor, Anthony Wallace and Atiba Harris also spent time with FC Dallas, as did Pareja and assistant Dave Dir, who was Dallas' head coach from 1996-2000.
Shea tried out for the Colorado Rapids in 1995 and, after failing to make a team, wrote a 1,000-word description of his unsuccessful tryout. He then proceeded to cover the Rapids for 15 years for various websites and local media outlets, up to and including the club's MLS championship in 2010. In between, he dared to try out again in 2002 and 2006. Send comments and feedback to Shea at firstname.lastname@example.org.