In earning a 1-1 draw with Houston Dynamo on Sunday, the Colorado Rapids again looked like the better team despite the final score. The Rapids hobbled into Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium, where Houston has not lost in its last 35 games. For any team going to Houston these days, a draw is an excellent result. But once again, the Rapids did not just play for a tie, they came out to win--and probably should have. Despite the frustrating result, Colorado head coach Oscar Pareja continues to impress with how well he prepares and motivates his team to compete every week.
Pareja's demeanor on the sideline--positive, active, always communicating with his players--has clearly been embraced and adopted by his players. Against Houston, the Rapids were focused from the first whistle, dominating stretches of first half with simple but very well executed passing, and timely, collective pressure. They moved as a team, defending in groups and attacking in waves. The players, even ones who have not seen much game action together, seem to be communicating well on the field. Pareja is also constantly talking, directing, and praising from the coach's box. He is intense, but controlled. Where other coaches might rail against the referees or his players for mistakes, he brings a positive, intelligent presence to the sideline.
Significantly, his players play hard, and are ready when called on. This weekend Jamie Smith and Kamani Hill were drafted into the starting eleven, and they stepped right in and played well, both looking dangerous at times. In addition, Danny Mwanga earned just his second start for the Rapids. No one doubts Mwanga's talent, but since being the first overall draft pick in 2010, he has played inconsistently, been traded twice, and generally underachieved. Not surprisingly, he plays with a lack of self-assurance. Pareja took a chance by starting him, but it paid off. Mwanga's confidence grew throughout the game. Early on he seemed a step slower than his teammates, and he showed his rust and uncertainty in the 37th minute when he should have settled the ball and tapped in for an easy goal. Instead, he rushed his shot and had it blocked by a desperation lunge by a Houston defender. Other coaches may have berated him at halftime, but I suspect Pareja did not. And Mwanga continued to settle down and play better. In the 54th minute, he coolly and calmly held the ball up on a counter-attack and played a nice ball to put Atiba Harris through to goal. Harris duly missed his chance, but Mwanga continued to play with more assertiveness and belief before tiring toward the end of the game.
Much like the injury news every week, it seems like a broken record to say that the Rapids deserved better than the final score. But the reality is that the Dynamo's Giles Barnes tied the game with a golazo against the run of play. It is telling that Houston, even with their home-field advantage, seemed content with the tie. In the 85th minute, Ricardo Clark was substituted. Rather than running off the field, he slowly walked off as if he were part of an underdog visiting team clinging to a result. In the end it was another somewhat disappointing tie for the Rapids, but also another game that shows the young team is heading in the right direction. The coaching of Oscar Pareja is no small part of that promising trend.