Hands up who missed the Colorado Rapids’ number seven these past seven weeks? In one flick and scissor-kick, Vicente Sánchez showed his worth to the side as they ended Vancouver Whitecaps’ unbeaten run.
To be able to view the field through his eyes must be a sight to behold. He not only thinks, but he does what few of us even have the ability to comprehend. His grasp of the English language is improving but he is a player that doesn’t need to express his thoughts in words. Others follow and are inspired by purely watching the master at work.
He is the spark which often creates an explosion of joy among the fans. His clever movement off the ball makes it tough for opponents to track. His vision is sublime, bringing others in to play and triggering panic within the ranks of their rivals and what he does is usually without warning.
That said, there were others who stood out for me on Saturday, none more so than Dillon Powers. The 23-year-old showed maturity and versatility in playing right midfield, on the shoulder of Deshorn Brown and then at left midfield. He charged around, broke up play, built-up moves and shouldered responsibility in a key area of the park.
He also scored the opening goal, just moments after watching his thunderous attempt come crashing back off the underside of the crossbar. His 20th minute strike was similar to that which condemned Montreal Impact to a heavy defeat last month, the fourth of the Rapids’ four goals. Powers has bags of confidence, is assured and knows exactly where he is and what his options are. That was critical in Saturday’s goal, as he did just enough to confuse his shadow, Russell Teibert, to swivel and score from 15-yards.
Brown may not have added to his five league goals at the weekend, but – for me – his contribution was equally crucial. His speed caught Nigel Reo-Coker by surprise, triggering a needless and reckless challenge from the experienced pro which led to yet another penalty for the Rapids. There was no doubt in the validity of the spot kick, and no doubt who was going to step up and stroke it home. Sanchez maintained his perfect pk record this season (5/5), to edge back ahead of Brown in the leading-scorer chart.
I also think Brown is becoming a cuter striker. Played as the lone wolf, the Jamaican international is having to work harder for the team, which means making intelligent runs into space, dragging defenders away to create space, dropping short to collect the ball, making himself big and staying strong to act as the target man and generally being savvy as well as speedy.
And then there’s Jared Watts. The greatest compliment I can pay Watts is that you forget he’s a rookie. The holding role in midfield is not the most glamorous. You’re there to offer additional help to the defense and play spoiler to the opposition. Watts does that very well indeed. He’s also got a great engine on him, and is not opposed to supporting any attacking play either.
There have been a couple of false dawns with this Rapids side this season, and there are creases which still need ironing out. Some results have been hugely disappointing and that’s because, as witnessed against the Whitecaps, we know just what this team is capable of when at full throttle.
Make no mistake, the Whitecaps were one of the in-form MLS teams entering the World Cup break. They were unbeaten in seven games, which included a 4-3 win in Portland (not many teams score four at Providence Park), and ties with both Real Salt Lake (at Rio Tinto Stadium) and Seattle. They had scored nine goals in three games going into the league shutdown. On Saturday, though they threatened more in the second half, it was not the kind which one felt should be taken seriously.
Sixteen games played, and the Rapids sit second in the Western Conference with a points tally that would place them top of the East. In 16 games, the Rapids have kept clean sheets in exactly half of them – more than any other side in the league.
With the exception of José Mari, who sustained an injury in training on Friday, the Rapids’ roster is fit and healthy (Dillon Serna is available for the Columbus game after serving a one-game suspension). There is again competition for places in every position, and confidence is again building.
A Canadian colleague said to me after Saturday’s game: “Well there was an easy three points for you guys.” It wasn’t easy, of course. You just had to hear the Rapids players at the final whistle, huffing and puffing. But planning, preparation and precise execution can often make even the toughest task appear easy … and that’s a skill in itself.