Every single Colorado Rapids season seems to have an air of mystery about it when we're at this point of the year, even more so than most other MLS teams. (Let's be honest: it's MLS, and we never have any idea what's going to happen in general.) As with every season, there's a lot of little storylines building up around the Rapids this year from all angles. Of course, we all know about the really big ones. Pablo Mastroeni improving as a second year coach, Juan Ramirez being the second Rapids DP and having all eyes on him... those sorts of things are the ones that even casual observers of the Rapids are going to pick up on as the season goes along.
Instead, we're going to take a look at three of the far more interesting, if smaller, storylines that should be given answers throughout the season.
Marlon Hairston... Right Back?
Last season, we were talking around this time about Shane O'Neill potentially moving full-time to right back, a spot he had played at times before, but had never really excelled at. That was, of course, mostly because Marvell Wynne had been pegged as a CB again by Pablo Mastroeni, a move that didn't work out. This season, as the Rapids search for answers at fullback, they've got a brand new right back prospect being talked about, and it's potentially as a full time gig: Marlon Hairston. The difference is, of course, that Hairston is an attacking midfielder, not a defensive midfielder-turned center back like O'Neill is.
It's not completely out of the ordinary to see attacking midfielders turned into fullbacks. Davy Armstrong spent his final few years on the team playing as a right back after getting pegged as an attacking midfielder by Gary Smith when he first signed his homegrown deal with the team. Dillon Serna has seen some time as a left back during his career, as well.
Hairston has never played fullback before, and the Rapids seem to think he's a potential man for the future at the spot. Whether or not they're correct remains to be seen, but this is a team drastically in need of some fullback depth, so it's going to be crucial for that experiment to work if they really do see him as a fullback of the future.
Shirt Sponsorship Rebound
The Ciao fiasco is going to go down as one of the great blunders in Rapids team history. At one point last season, the Rapids were the only team in the history of the league to have never had a sponsor on the front of their shirts, and fans had been clamoring for them to find something, anything to put on the front of the shirt for ages. Eventually, Tim Hinchey and the Rapids managed to come through with Ciao Telecom, a communications company based in Dallas. Ciao promised big things to the Rapids and the deal looked like it was going to be big bucks for the Rapids.
Unfortunately, the start-up Ciao lied about their capabilities to provide on their end of the deal, and ended up an enormous amount behind in their payments by the time the season had ended. In the end, only $75k of the money they were owed ended up with the team, quite a far cry from the $8 million or so that was planned by the time the deal was over five years down the road. More information on what happened to the Ciao deal can be found here. What's past is past, when it comes to that. The question is what lies in the future for the Rapids, who now have that rather large albatross on their shoulder.
Ciao seemed to be a good get at the time, but the Rapids are probably now going to have to go for a larger company, the type that eluded them during their long, arduous search prior to finding Ciao. Rapids fans will probably be even more critical of the lack of a shirt sponsor now than they were prior to the blunder with Ciao, and it's up to the Rapids to see if they can't find a suitable replacement to get on the shirts ASAP, even if it means it's going to be for a bit less money than they were hoping for.
MacMath vs. Irwin
The last thing that most of us expected this off-season was a new goalkeeper, or at least one that was expected to be in the race to start. Clint Irwin got a bit of a bum deal last season during Pablo Mastroeni's 'throw shit at a wall to see what sticks' bonanza. While the defense was making a mess out of things, Pablo decided that maybe the goalkeepers were part of the problem, and so he decided to toss Joe Nasco and John Berner into the mix as well, seemingly at random.
We all know how well Pablo's goalkeeper experiment ended. It almost perfectly followed the arc of the 14-game winless streak that ended the season, with Nasco in particular having a few complete shockers between the sticks. (That Galaxy game where Nasco got the 34-second red card may be the quickest that I ever decided to stop watching a Rapids game in my life.) Berner and Irwin didn't fare all that much better in that mess of a few months that they had to slog through.
Still, going into the 2014 off-season, I don't think many of us expected the Rapids to go out of their way to look at the goalkeeping position. Perhaps a replacement for the disappointing Nasco was in order, but I don't think anyone was expecting a full-on goalkeeper battle in 2015. We were wrong, as the Rapids quickly went out and grabbed Zac MacMath on loan from the Philadelphia Union. MacMath, a good starter in his own right, is a very similar goalkeeper to Irwin in that both are young keepers on the rise, and both could legitimately be great MLS keepers in time, but neither have quite reached that level as it stands now. Who wins this battle is anybody's guess, but we can at least be assured that any GK swapping this season is going to be nowhere near as bad as last year.
Irwin will have the immediate advantage with the first start of the year likely going to him (we're assuming that Philly won't allow MacMath to be played against them) but as it stands, it's anybody's game at GK for the Rapids right now.
Check out the other parts of our Rapids Season Preview: