Until yesterday, the Colorado Rapids had comported themselves this season as worthy of little-to-no attention by national MLS fans and pundits alike. They were America's version of Eibar, or Montpellier, or Hull: a bottom-table irrelevancy in a mid-market city. But with a third win in a row, and six wins in their last nine games, the Rapids have made MLS fans take notice, and might just have saved skipper Pablo Mastroeni's job.
It is unlikely the Rapids can climb back into the playoff picture. Before Saturday night's game, Paul Carr reported that the Rapids had a 5% chance of making the sixth spot. Sunday morning, that number was 10%, and likely requires the Rapids winning at least six of their last eight games, while the erratic Houston Dynamo, surging San Jose Earthquakes, and slumping Seattle Sounders must crap the proverbial bed in the month of September in order to get the ‘Pids into the postseason.
It doesn't matter that much to me if the Rapids make the playoffs. Because they've already gone into this last two months of the season in a much better place than they did this time last year. These latest wins are not about 2015: they are the foundations of 2016, and establish that the Rapids have some of the right pieces in place to make improvements and get into the conversation for next year. This year's acquisitions are a mixed bag: Lucas Pittinari and Juan Ramirez have been disappointing, Axel Sjoberg and Maynor Figueroa have been very good, and the jury is still out on, Luis Solignac, Kevin Doyle, and Sean St. Ledger. But clearly the Rapids rounding out the season in good form proves that the current squad isn't going to need a full-blown tear-down to become a playoff threat in 2016. It might just take two or three key offseason additions, instead of a radical rebuild, to get this team right.
In this 3rd quarter of the MLS season, the Rapids may not have bought themselves a ticket to the dance. But they have announced to the league that they aren't the be-spectacled spaz from the AV club on prom night anymore, either.
Partying with C38: Let's Get Weird
I was freed from the shackles of children and spouses Saturday night, and thought I'd take the opportunity to venture into the friendly, frenetic, and drunken confines of the north terrace. (Another factor encouraging my migration: my seats were uncomfortably close to the away fan section of 101 and 102, and all the SKC chanting made me feel ill).
Cheering with Centennial 38 was a blast. It's a great bunch of folks. They go nuts for 90'. They're more punk than the last punk show I went to (New Found Glory opened for Less than Jake, so, not that punk). They have a great front row view of the goalmouth; you can't get closer to the action for cheaper. And at the end of the game, Sam Cronin, Gabriel Torres, Axel Sjoberg and Clint Irwin came by for high fives and selfies.
Thanks to @ProtectYourNet and @ComradeM for showing me the ways of the clan.
Of course, the sightlines are terrible, and it is very hard to see the action or follow the game. And some of the cheers could use work.
I have two slightly more serious criticisms; (I'm a noob and I haven't truly earned the right to kvetch yet, but I'm gonna). First, the capos need to make sure to start a chant before the opposing goalkeeper kicks off, or else a couple drunken knuckleheads will yell ‘Puto!' Which sucks. And second (and this isn't on C38, but rather DSGP), the acoustics at the north end are really really bad. Fans one section away can't hear C38. To me, this is one of the most serious ongoing problems the Colorado Rapids must address in the coming years: more so than our manager, or our DP situation, or the overall spending on players. The north side needs a concrete ‘Safe Stand', or some kind of permanent stand that links it to the rest of the stadium, and will contain and reflect sound. When I watch the Galaxy or the Timbers or the Sounders, I dream of a stadium full of fans chanting in unison. I couldn't chant with C38 from my normal seats in 105 if I wanted to: I can't make out what they're screaming.
Right now, the terrace is a distant island which swallows noise, no matter how loud the crowd gets. It's also a major commitment to decide to stand there, and not something you organically wander in to, since it's a serious and bizarrely winding trek just to get there. As it exists now, the North Terrace is not a place the average or even moderately committed fan is likely to go. And a weakened C38 hurts the Rapids experience. Supporters groups are the one thing that culturally separates MLS from every other American sports league. And our stadium is an impediment to our supporters group, which hurts the whole fan experience.
DSGP built the stadium that way so that Phish could have a permanent stage four nights a year. I'm sure it's good revenue. But the Rapids need the stadium to serve Rapids fans, not Phish fans.
On another note, though, I was on TV in the 82nd minute and I gave Clint Irwin a high five. I'll be back.
How they Won: Rapids Defense Cuts out the Middle Man
Pablo's MO is defend, defend, defend; sneak a lucky goal; win by the skin of your teeth. And the past three games, it's worked. The Rapids backline can likely hold an opponent all by itself, but the key to winning during this hot streak has been fantastic midfield defense that can supremely frustrate it's opponents. It bogged down San Jose and Houston, it stymied Seattle and Chicago, and denied SKC any momentum in this one.
The key to this Sporting offense is Benny Feilhaber; with a league-leading 13 assists this season, he's proven he has the keys to unlock any opponent's defense. The burgundy midfield smothered him and his midfield partners all night, forcing Sporting to go long-ball much of the night, straight from the back to the front, which resulted in lots of turnovers and limited the quality of Kansas City's chances.
I have lots more pictures, but this one pretty much sums it up best. The Rapids consistently put all five of their midfielders around Benny Feilhaber and either Mikey Lopez or Pablo Nagamura, depending on the side of the field the ball was on. The back line was left to man up against Nemeth, Dwyer, and Zusi, and did an excellent job denying them the long ball. As a result, SKC was frustrated all night. The 'Pids did the same thing to Houston. And Chicago. It's not always pretty, but it wins games. And it does take Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin's key talents into account.
SKC's one goal came because Feilhaber had one brief moment in space and fed Kristian Nemeth, who split Moor and Sjoberg and gave Dom Dwyer his 9th goal of the year. That just goes to show what would have happened if the Rapids had given Feilhaber anything more than a momentary chance to contribute in this one.
If the Rapids defense can be flawless, (and Clint Irwin can work miracles like he did at the end of this one), this team can hold any team in MLS to a binary offensive result: zero or one. If they can get a couple of sparkling performances out of one or two players, they can sneak a win. Saturday night, Colorado got that kind of shining gem from Vicente Sanchez, who now haunts Seth Sinovic's dreams. These are amazing. I hope the Wizard plays for the Rapids until he's 75. Note that I'm especially proud of my music selections here, so crank that shizznit up...
I thought that was one my Rapids highlights of the year, and it didn't even make MLS Plays of the Week. The next one was #7 with a bullet though. Again, Sinovic better fake an injury next time we play SKC, if only for his pride's sake.
Axel Sjoberg was back in only his second match since coming back from a knee injury in week 14, and he looked much better than his match against Columbus. He was defensively solid, and offensively Sjoberg had two headed chances on corners early, saved...
Juan Ramirez had to fill in for the injured Dillon Serna. Ramirez had two chances early: a missed 25 yd shot and a wide open headed, popped high. Rapids dig the diagonal ball to Ramirez, who was one on one with Chance Myers. Right idea: Myers has looked suspect on the KC backline many times this year, and against the afterburners of Ramirez, his hamstrings eventually cried ‘No mas'. However, Ramirez has shown little more than raw speed, as his finishing hasn't been there. With Serna off to England to train with the U-23s and Doyle off on international duty as well, Ramirez will almost definately be starting the next two matches. He'll need to show something extra to help the Rapids keep the win streak rolling...
I know I didn't say nothin' about the Houston game. Not much to say: it was pretty dull. The most notable thing that happened was the goal: a cross rescued off the end line to give Kevin Doyle a back post headed goal. It would've been notable on its own, except that Doyle did the exact same thing three nights later on Saturday with an identical cross from Vicente Sanchez. Spooky.