Fans of the Colorado Rapids, like those of so many other teams this year, are frustrated.
Injuries, which hampered the team in the year following its MLS Cup win, have even more drastically held them down in 2012. According to Jason Maxwell of Rapids fan blog View From the Couch, the 2012 Rapids have dealt with injuries at an alarming rate of 4.33 starters per game, as compared with 1.66 in 2011.
But a recent acquisition, Edu, along with Marvell Wynne and Conor Casey returning from injury, has given hope to fans that their team might finally return to the form that won them the MLS Cup two years ago.
Instead, the Rapids still aren't getting the results the fans have expected, returning from the international break with two losses and suddenly finding themselves in the 6th position on the Western Conference table. Oscar Pareja, who had promised an improved team built around a strong midfield and a 4-3-3 attack-oriented formation, has increasingly found himself unfavorably compared with departed coach Gary Smith.
That frustration has not been soothed by the fact that the Rapids turned in a dominant performance in their most recent loss, against the first place San Jose Earthquakes, nor that the Quakes' winner resulted from a dubious dive in the box in the 92nd minute by Alan Gordon, who at this point is basically the soccer equivalent of a natural 20. They are better than the 2-1 loss suggested, and they'll look to prove that point on Saturday.
Here's a breakdown of the Rapids by position:
This blog got some criticism before the start of this season from bloggers and newspapers alike for pointing to the Rapids' defense as reason for pessimism about their chances this season. Specifically, I had posited that, regardless of the personnel in the Rapids' backline, they might have a tough time adjusting to the 4-3-3 formation that Oscar Pareja prefers.
While the injury to Marvell Wynne had a slight impact, increasing the Rapids' goals allowed per match from 1.33 to 1.5, the far more significant determinant of the Rapids' defensive success has been the formation. In the eleven matches in which the Rapids have played with either a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 formation, the defense, relieved by a denser midfield, has allowed only a goal per match. Compare that to the 2.5 goals per match they have allowed when lining up with three strikers in a 4-3-3.
(I should note that I based the "formations" on mlssoccer.com match reports. So... yeah.)
Overall, by goals allowed, the Colorado Rapids are the third worst in the MLS Western Conference, with 21.
Jeff Larentowicz has few fans in Portland, after taunting the Timbers Army at Jeld Wen Field, but he has quite rightly been a hero for Rapids fans since his acquisition before the 2010 season. He is joined most frequently in the Rapids midfield by more attack-oriented international newcomers Jaime Castrillon (Colombia) and Martin Rivero (Argentina). I would expect to see those three start in a 4-3-3 formation on Saturday.
Behind them, Colorado's depth in the midfield is pretty impressive. 2012 SuperDraft pick Tony Cascio has had a very respectable rookie campaign so far, with Brian Mullan and Kamani Hill also providing some quality minutes. Pareja has a lot of options and is not afraid to make substitutions early in matches, in response to the situation on the pitch.
The striker corps has been the weakest part of the Rapids' formation in 2012, thanks to injuries to Omar Cummings and, of course, Conor Casey. It has been nearly a year since the two of them played on the same field at the same time. In their stead this year, such diverse replacements as Brian Mullan, Tony Cascio, Wells Thompson, Jaime Castrillon, and Andre Akpan have started, to varying degrees of success.
Moreover, Conor Casey has been slow to get back up to whatever speed is now attainable to him, given his advanced age and size. And we've yet to see anything too spectacular from 33-year-old Brazilian newcomer Edu since his signing in late April.
All bets will be off on Saturday, though, if Casey, Cummings, and Edu all line up side by side, in a realization of Pareja's preseason dream.