Preseason soccer has finally returned to Colorado Rapids and with it hope that a new season brings is upon Rapids supporters. It was hoped for a quiet and relaxing off-season, but with coaching changes and personnel changes, this was anything but a quiet few months in Commerce City. But are the Rapids a better team then the one that set a franchise records for wins and points in a season? Let's take a look at some of the challenges that face the Rapids as they attempt to improve upon 2013:
The biggest change, and one that will, perhaps, have the biggest impact on the fortunes of the Rapids is the departure of Oscar Parjea. I know that he has been a divisive figure for some supporters, but there is no argument that his brand of soccer was more exciting to watch, and more importantly, brought success to the Rapids in 2013.
Oscar certainly had his player rotation challenges (relying on the departed Atiba Harris is one that still baffles the mind) but overall did a fantastic job rebuilding the roster by jettisoning players and bringing in younger and hungrier replacements.
A number of former Rapids have been suggested as replacements, but the name that seems to be gaining traction is Pablo Mastroeni. This would be Pablo's first head coaching job in MLS and one has to wonder if he is prepared for the pressure and expectations that will come with this job. Make no mistake: Rapids fans will not tolerate a step backward in playing style, former, or a deep run in the MLS playoffs.
Every off-season brings changes to player personnel as contracts expire, players are waived, or traded. This is no different, but the disturbing trend is the possible (probable) loss of Martin Rivero and Hendry Thomas.
No one player or players makes or breaks a team, but there is no arguing the impact that Thomas had in his defensive midfield role. With him lining up (most often with Nathan Sturgis) in front of the center backs, the defense was significantly improved over 2012. Losing Thomas and his physical presence in the back will be a huge blow to the team.
They did bring in Marc Burch who plays in a defensive role, so it is possible that Shane O'Neill or Dillon Powers moves into the Thomas position. Regardless of who takes over for Thomas (again, assuming that he is gone) they will have big and important shoes to fill.
The potential (probable) loss of Rivero is tougher to gauge as he was hurt a good portion of 2013. His quality was on full display in 2012 and left Rapids fans wanting more. It is unfortunate that he played so little, but his loss will be felt. He was a true #10 that had been missing from the Rapids attack and I am not sure if a #10 is currently on the roster.
At the end of the day, this is a business and the Rapids have to balance the business needs of the team with putting a competitive and exciting product on the pitch. That being said, it is tough to see players leave of that quality.
In addition to the arrival of Burch, the Rapids added depth through the Super Draft in key positions such as midfield and defensive roles. It is tough to imagine that any of the draftees will have the impact on the field that Powers and Deshorn Brown had this past season. But unlike last year, the Rapids were not in such a dire need to start rookies.
Charles Eloundou is signed and in Colorado, so it will be interesting to see where he slots in. Gabriel Torres and Vicente Sanchez begin their first full season with the club and their partnership brought a lot of excitement to the team in the back half of the season.
The Rapids snuck up on a lot of MLS in 2013 and had several signature moments. From crushing Seattle in October to taking back the Rocky Mountain Cup to setting an attendance record at Dicks Sporting Goods Park, optimism was high at the end of 2013. But going into 2014 there is a good deal of concern and anxiety. Yes, this is a good roster and has key players in important positions. But, the simple fact is that that the Rapids do not have a coach and could be close to pulling the trigger on an unknown gaffer.
With the loss of Thomas and Rivero and a new (and possibly untested) coach on the way, the Rapids do not appear to be a better team on paper then when they ended 2013. However, there are a number of veterans on this team and the RapKids grew up and matured throughout last year. For this team to reach its goals, it will need to rally behind the new coach and continue to play a possession based attacking soccer. And nothing short of a deep run in MLS playoffs will be acceptable.