Last season, the Colorado Rapids were punished for having very little in the way of good depth, and it showed when they got injured to hell as the season went along and got destroyed by a healthy Sporting Kansas City team in the playoffs.
Fortunately, under new manager Oscar Pareja the team has already begun to add plenty of midfield options, to the point where there's actually so many good players we can argue about who should start. (This is not a problem, folks!) We're going to take a look today at all the midfield options and who will likely be starting in the new 4-3-3 system -- which I have a sneaking suspicion is actually going to far more resemble a 4-2-3-1 with the 'wingers' playing up.
Keep in mind that the central position in the midfield is likely going to be taken almost immediately by our mysterious 'true #10' type that we've been hearing about so we're going to assume he's on the team already for the purposes of this.
Jaime Castrillon - This guy is one of the reasons that the midfield is now so exciting. He's a smart midfielder with goalscoring prowess, picking up over 50 goals in over 270 appearances for his Columbian club Independiente Medellín. He'll likely play on one of the wings in Colorado in 2012, but he can probably fit in at the central spot as well if Mystery #10 has to miss any time. He's right in the prime years of his career as well, just another reason to expect big things from Jaime.
Brian Mullan - Brian is one of the old guard members of the team now, and he still has a lot of the talent that helped him win five MLS Cups with various different franchises. He'll likely be used mostly as a late game substitute on the wing when the Rapids are defending a lead, since he has plenty of defensive ability on the wings. He's probably the guy who will suffer the most lost playing time as a result of the new midfield rebuild, but at his advancing age it's probably a good thing for him that he won't be playing every game any more. Remember in 2010 that he looked absolutely gassed during the MLS Cup final after a long, grueling season for two different teams.
Jamie Smith - Jamie's injured right now, but he's probably going to be very happy to hear that he won't be the only one who can provide service on the team any more. On the wing he was fantastic in 2011 and he can even take the #10 role if everyone else is out. Smith is likely to be a utility man in 2012, getting a lot of minutes along the way and probably a stack of goals and assists to go along with it. It'll be interesting to see how so much of the offensive weight being taken off his shoulders will help his game out.
Tony Cascio - The Rapids first round draft pick is going to be slotted into the team immediately, though probably not as a starter right away unless the need comes up. The exciting pure winger out of UCONN showed some great promise and a willingness to shoot the ball in the MLS Combine, something that the Rapids seem to have been lacking in years past. He's pretty much the Tim Tebow to my Skip Bayless, as Ben pointed out a while ago.
Eddie Ababio - Technically Kosuke Kimura can also play on the wing with Ababio playing right back, but it's far more likely that the guy who was a college goalscoring machine for UNC takes on the role. Ababio showed his stuff in the CONCACAF Champions League game against Isidro Metapan, scoring a lovely goal on a volley. He's fast and smart with the ball, with the ability to cross well into the box. There's no reason to assume that Ababio won't be a wonderful utility player on the wings and then on the defense when it's required of him.
Omar Cummings - Anyone who remembers the first half of 2010 remembers that Cummings did an adequate job on the wings in Gary Smith's 4-5-1 formation. He's probably not going to be the top central striker in any situation -- he was absolutely awful at it in 2011, after all -- so we're going to need to get used to him being outside slanting runs into the box and crossing to Casey like he did in 2010 when he led the team in goals with 14. We'd all much rather see him scoring 14 per season again than three per season, right?
Quincy Amarikwa - According to the Rapids website, Oscar Pareja has been playing Amarikwa on the flanks this pre-season and he's been doing quite well for himself. He even scored a nice goal thanks to some help from Steven Emory in the preseason game against Chivas USA's backups. Perhaps a move to the flank is what's been needed for the frustrating Amarikwa all these years. If Pareja can take his undeniable talents and mold them correctly, perhaps Amarikwa can stop being a butt of jokes and start being a playmaker.
Mystery #10 - This guy will be doing the central duties, obviously.
Pablo Mastroeni - Captain and club legend Pablo Mastroeni isn't retiring yet, he's made that perfectly clear. He'll play a starters role as the deep box to box defender role until he does retire, and he's likely to continue to be pretty damn good at it.
Jeff Larentowicz - Larentowicz is the other consensus starter in the midfield on defense, and for good reason. The guy is a fringe USMNT player now and is still fantastic at taking the ball away in midfield and slotting passes through to start plays through the center and the wings. Plus, there's nobody better on the team when it comes to taking direct free kicks, a role which netted him seven (!) goals last season, the leading number on the team.
Ross LaBauex - Ross is a player that hasn't really found his place in the league as of yet. He was drafted originally as a DM candidate to possibly take Pablo Mastroeni's job when the inevitable retirement of the Rapids captain happened. A few wrenches were thrown into that mix, mainly the facts that Mastroeni had a career revitalization in 2010 leading to an MLS Cup and the fact that LaBauex began to quickly evolve into much more than a simple box to box defender.
Wells Thompson - Wells is probably the most 'odd man out' story on the team right now. He fit Gary Smith's defensive style very well, but hasn't shown much of a propensity for offensive flair in his career. His best fit will probably be as the first backup off the bench to take over D-mid duties from Mastroeni or Larentowicz, since his best game as a Rapid in 2011 was playing just that role against the Vancouver Whitecaps. That's why he's listed under this category, if he isn't going to be used in a defensive capacity where he belongs he'll likely not get used at all.
Joseph Nane - Probably the least outright talented player in the defensive list, but not an altogether awful selection for the Rapids if they're desperate. Not forcing him to play a box to box playmaking game like he was forced to do against FC Dallas last season -- his worst game of the year by far -- will help out as well. In the 4-2-3-1 he'd be required to mostly play the defensive ball stealing duties, more to his taste. The fact that he probably won't be the first immediate choice off the bench if Mastroeni or Larentowicz go down helps his case as well.
The favorites for the starting four behind the striker other than our mystery #10 are probably Castrillon, Mastroeni, Larentowicz and either Cummings or Cascio at this point. Jamie Smith will likely get a shot up on one of the wings once he's healthy, which will probably lead to a roster that looks like this:
Wallace - Moor - Wynne - Kimura
Larentowicz - Mastroeni
Castrillon - MYSTERY #10 - Smith
But hey, even if a bunch of players get injured, we have all sorts of options. Let's check out what the team looks like with a squad of all backups in the midfield looks:
Wallace - Moor - Wynne - Kimura
Thompson - LaBauex
Mullan - Cummings - Cascio
I think that's a lineup that could beat almost any MLS team out there. Even if we dig a little deeper into our options, we could get something like this lineup:
Wallace - Moor - Wynne - Kimura
Nane - LaBauex
Amarikwa - Cascio - Ababio
Still ain't too shabby, if not a bit too young of a squad there in the middle. The point here is, there's plenty of ways that the Rapids can keep their players fresh while still winning their games with the lineup they currently have.
There are other options as well in guys that we haven't actually signed or guys that aren't guaranteed any first team football this year, like Kohei Yamada, Josh Janniere, Davy Armstrong and Steven Emory. At least one or two of those guys will probably be inserted into the mix as the season goes along, making the options even more varied and the talent even more impressive overall. This is suddenly a very deep squad, and that's very exciting for a team that is looking to make waves in 2012 after an immensely disappointing 2011.