Not to be alarmist, but both the Major League Soccer regular season and the group stage for the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League are in the final stretches and the Colorado Rapids are not looking particularly healthy in either of them. Colorado, entrenched into the playoffs a few weeks ago, have now found themselves hanging on by a thread after losing their last three games to Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Meanwhile in CCL, the Rapids 4-1 loss to Santos Laguna ruined their best chance to clinch a spot past the group stage. Isidro Metapan has found a way to win games now as well, making them a potential Cinderella candidate to take the now wide-open second place slot in Group B if they can keep up the good work and the Colorado Rapids keep looking like they have against Real Espana away and in that home loss to Santos.That makes this week the most important week of the season, as the two games contained within these next seven days will determine whether or not the Rapids even have a glimmer of hope at snatching a trophy or even coming close to one in the 2011 season.
First comes the Real Espana home match on Wednesday. Coach Gary Smith said before CCL began that the Rapids were going to be looking for nine points at home in CCL and just let the rest of the results speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the terrible defense that he put out for the Santos match destroyed that particular plan even after a win over Isidro Metapan and a draw away in Honduras against Real Espana made it look like it was a decent plan to begin with. Indeed, twelve points will certainly be enough to advance through any of the groups in CCL; unfortunately the Rapids are stuck at only four right now, at third place in the group behind Santos and Metapan both sitting at six points per.
However, Real Espana have looked very much like the weak link in the group. None of the teams in the group are undefeated, but the Honduran side is the only side that has yet to actually win a match, their best result being that draw against the Rapids. Even in that draw, Colorado was clearly the superior side even as they spent the entire match with 10 men behind the ball and not even bothering to try and possess.
Three points against Real Espana in their final home game of CCL's group stage are going to be incredibly vital and if the Rapids don't get all three, you can likely kiss the Rapids chances of advancing good-bye. Meanwhile, a win against Espana would give the Rapids seven points and would mean they would only need to get a win over Metapan on the road - or perhaps a draw depending how they do against Espana in their second match against them - to advance. If they lose to Real Espana, they will most certainly need to not only beat Metapan but beat Santos in Mexico, which you may have heard is something American teams don't do all that often.
That's not enough pressure for you? Well then, bring on Saturday for some more fun.
Colorado's playoff picture is a bit murky at the moment and they only have two games that could be defined anywhere close to 'easy' remaining in order to get a handful of points and push themselves up to 45, which is what I said was the likely playoff pushing mark points-wise under the new playoff structure with the extra games in play. The second of those 'easy' games will be away at Vancouver on the last day of the season, but until then the Rapids would probably like to get some other points before then.
With tough matches against teams like FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake coming up, the only easy chance that they'll have is at home this weekend against the San Jose Earthquakes. San Jose was defeated by Colorado 2-1 last time they met and have not shown all that much this season after making the Eastern Conference Final last year, but are always a tough draw with a fairly strong offense featuring last year's Golden boot winner Chris Wondolowski. Either way, Colorado is the more talented squad and at home should take the game from the Quakes.
If not, they're probably dead in the water unless they can find it within themselves to produce another late season burst of form like they did last year when they took points from Dallas, Salt Lake and Los Angeles in the last few weeks of the season. If not, we might have to be watching scoreboards all weekend after playing Vancouver in order to see our playoff fates and that's something that quite frankly I think Colorado fans are rightfully sick of after 2009 and before.
So there you go. Two wins this week and the Rapids are 2nd in the CCL group B and right back in the playoff picture with a bigger point cushion than before. Two losses and both the playoffs and the knockout stage of the CCL will be not just in doubt, but in severe danger. I hate to call games 'must-win' but I think we've got two such cases right here.