It's interesting to think about the season, and where it began versus where it is now. Like a leaf in the wind, it has traveled on a sporadic path in which no one could have predicted, adapting and giving into the inevitable, uncontrollable force of the breeze.
The Rapids season is that leaf. Uncontrollable injuries that have had nothing to do with conditioning have plagued the Rapids this season. The only team that has had more injuries are the San Jose Earthquakes, which may be why the season favorites are riding the 5th seed spot. The Rapids have had 23 different starters. That covers two starting lineups. Many of the injuries have plagued the season starters. Edson Buddle, Martin Rivero, Kevin Harbottle, Matt Pickens, Diego Calderon, Pablo Mastroeni, Deshorn Brown, and Marvel Wynne are some of the players of note.
The 2nd stringers, and even some of the 3rd stringers have had to step in and play their roles. It made fans and analysts wonder how fast the Rapids would fall. To much of our surprise, these "replacement" players have exceeded at least my expectations, holding us in the 6th spot, just outside of playoff contention. Now that they've played several matches together, and started to understand the nuances of each other, the starters have begun to set foot back into the lineup.
Though much more talented, I feel as though the Rapids will have to start from scratch knowing that many of these players have not seen much playing time with the Rapids, or even the MLS. Though more talented than many of those we've seen over the last few weeks, the cohesion with the players around them disappears. I'm not saying the Oscar Pareja and the Rapids should start the second stringers, I just think that we may fall to a few teams before the starters understand one another, being that soccer is one of the most team oriented sports in the world.
As we focus on the players returning, my mind narrows to two in particular with one other skating around my brain as well. Edson Buddle and Martin Rivero, at least in my opinion, are the two most important return of all the injured players that have fallen this year. I could add Kevin Harbottle to that list as another important playmaker, but that could/will change the entire formation. Let me add that the return of Matt Pickens may not happen this season unless Clint Irwin finds himself in a multiple game slump.
Let's focus on the two I find the most important since Diego Calderon won't be returning for possibly the rest of the season. Beginning with fan favorite, and arguable the Rapids best playmaker Martin Rivero. The vision that he has is unmatched by any on the Rapids roster. His skill with the ball is something that every team strives for in a player on the pitch. We've seen him the last two matches, and he is obviously playing tender. He takes on traffic like any other drawing players from the strikers because he must be accounted for as a threat anywhere on the field. He is the ideal CAM and is more creative than any other player on the field. Creativity is an aspect of the game Colorado is missing more than any other, along with finishing. That should return with Rivero, relieving that issue for the Rapids. These are many of the reasons, as we all know, that make Rivero's return one of the most important.
The other is Edson Buddle. A proven goal scorer and a veteran in the MLS, Buddle has the capability to hold the ball in the box allowing other players to find space to score goals. Someone with quick pace like Brown should be able to quickly find an open shot when Buddle dumps the ball off, solving many of our finishing issues. He can be a bully inside of the 18', something this team is lacking. His return may be more important than Rivero's.
We've seen the struggles at striker since Danny Mwanga and Atiba Harris have been starting, scoring a maximum of one goal since Portland in March. There has been no consistency at striker, and I feel, once Buddle and Brown find their cohesion, the goals will come. Buddle has been, in the past, a goal scoring machine, both with the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Columbus Crew. He is the only striker on this team that is a proven goal scorer. With that ability, and the ceiling the Deshorn Brown seemingly has, this team will be an attacking force to be reckoned with. But the Rapids need someone like Buddle to make space in the box. Along with Rivero, Buddle will bring that to this team, changing the entire identity of the Rapids. This is why these two players are the most important returns to the Rapids in 2013. Adding Kevin Harbottle to that mix will also add a threat if he is played in the correct position.
Notice I've not mentioned the defense at all. The back four are close to where they need to be with Calderon pretty much done.
I thank the back up players that have held us in the position we are, but the starters are starters for the reason and will bring another level of play to the Rapids game.