The Western Conference in Major League Soccer is tough. Brutal, in fact. 13 of 19 MLS Cup Championships have been won by Western Conference teams. Want to make the playoffs in the West? Plan on putting up close to 1.5 points per game. The West is stacked: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps--all playoff teams in 2014. All look strong again. Add in Sporting Kansas City, a rejuvenated San Jose Earthquakes squad, a Houston Dynamo team that always is competitive and a hungry Portland Timbers club. In a word: ugh.
So it has to be asked: Have the Colorado Rapids done enough to be a playoff team, let alone not finish last (as so many are predicting)?
In a word, yes.
When I look back at 2014 I see four major problems that derailed the year and how the Rapids have addressed them:
Bad Defense: There is no doubt that the Rapids were dreadful, defensively, in 2014. They certainly started well enough, but after players started to go down with injuries (Drew Moor and Shane O'Neill) players such as Jared Watts (who went down to his own injury), Grant Van De Casteele and Marvell Wynne were called upon to step up. The issue with this is that Watts and Wynne were not center backs and Van De Casteele was a very green rookie who was not ready to play. And sadly the injuries and inexperience really killed the season. The Rapids went out this off-season and drafted a huge CB in Axel Sjoberg and signed Michael Harrington and Bobby Burling and they also dumped Wynne and Zat Knight. There is no doubt that they have upgraded the defense and it should be better next year.
Terrible Offense: The Rapids struggled scoring goals and when they had opportunities they could not finish. They have players who can score, but they still do not have that natural goal scorer. Yet. They did improve things with the addition of Juan Ramirez and Gabriel Torres looks to be a new man. But they don't have a scorer that can put in 15-20 goals on this team based on past years performances. I think you see a very good year out of Torres and if Deshorn Brown could ever learn to finish, he could be special. But right now there are concerns on offense.
Lack of physicality: Sam Cronin, Lucas Pittinari and Marcelo Sarvas. Problem addressed. The three of them should all see significant time in the defensive midfield position and they will be welcomed with open arms. Opponents knew that they could go right up the middle on the Rapids with little or no resistance. But Cronin, Sarvas and Pittinari will add the destroyer mentality that has been missing.
Coaching: The biggest factor this year, bar none, is Pablo Mastroeni. Last year was a very steep learning curve for Pablo and he looked completely out of touch at times in 2014. If Pablo improves as a coach the Rapids have a very good shot at returning to the playoffs. If not, Pablo could be in trouble before the All-Star break.
With the season starting (assuming no strike) in less than two weeks. It is time to see if the off-season changes have made the Rapids a better team or a team that slips into irrelevancy.