Oscar Pareja earned plaudits for keeping the injury-wracked Colorado Rapids' noses above water early in the season. His deployment of patchwork lineups that picked up surprising results early were mentioned throughout the season by pundits and commentators as a big reason for his presence in Coach of the Year discussions.
Pareja had to get creative again in Colorado's knockout playoff match against the Seattle Sounders, but the results were miserable.
With Dillon Powers out with concussion symptoms and Vicente Sanchez sitting the bench with a nagging shoulder injury, Pareja put Martin Rivero at center attacking midfield and slipped Atiba Harris out on the wing. Both played terribly.
Rivero, whose 2013 campaign was a disappointing one (and not just because of injuries), was invisible and Harris was ineffective from the wing. Rapids fans kept waiting for a Harris substitution that never came, adding to a list of head-scracthing decisions by Colorado's skipper.
What's worse was Pareja, reacting to Marvell Wynne's troubling defensive display in the ill-fated season finale against the Vancouver Whitecaps, put untested German Mera at center back and pushed Shane O'Neill out at right back. Both played terribly.
Mera was doling out defensive gaffes like a sidewalk sausage vendor early on, leading to more than a few tense moments while the game remained deadlocked. O'Neill couldn't deliver a meaningful cross; one effort in the second half was unchallenged by Seattle's defense, but O'Neill still somehow shipped a clumsy cross way over the net.
It wouldn't be fair to pin all of Colorado's woes on Wednesday night, of which there were many, on the lineup. Regulars like Chris Klute, Drew Moor and Deshorn Brown who were counted upon all season for meaningful contributions, were off their game against the Sounders.
Klute was repeatedly out of position, misfired on several easy passes, failed to push forward much and couldn't cross the ball like he did in a regular season that saw seven assists come from the youngster. Moor rounded out a sloppy night from the Rapids defense, continuing a tough run for the veteran that started last weekend in the Vancouver game.
While Pareja can't be entirely faulted for his players coming out flat, his reticence to bring out reinforcements earlier was troubling. An expected halftime substitution to shake things up for the anemic Rapids never occurred. He waited too long to put Sanchez in, whose presence was a momentary boost. Wynne came in for Nathan Sturgis late in the game when the team needed an offensive spark, not a defensive mercenary. And Harris remained on the field for the full 90 minutes with little to show for his evening but a yellow card.
Look, Seattle's defense played quite well. But the Rapids didn't exactly do much to outmaneuver them. Their passing was lazy, their pace was off and their season is now over.
Pareja has done a wonderful job in his second season managing the Rapids. A playoff berth was more than most fans should have expected. During a few moments over the season, he would make moves that seemed a bit odd.
Unfortunately, Wednesday's playoff was a concentration of those puzzling moments for the second-year coach.