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Colorado Rapids get chance for revenge against Real Salt Lake as MLS season resumes

The Rocky Mountain Cup has been controlled by RSL in recent years. Can Colorado change that?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the Rocky Mountain rivalry has been dominated by our neighbors across the Continental Divide, Real Salt Lake. Unfortunately, this dominance continued at the MLS is Back tournament, with RSL comfortably beating the Rapids 2-0 in what turned out to be a very forgettable tournament for the Burgundy Boys.

Now, the MLS “regular season” is resuming and it’s been decided that the two scheduled matches will determine the 2020 Rocky Mountain Cup. (The games in Orlando did not count.)

Historically, RSL has controlled the Rocky Mountain Cup, leading the series 11-4 coming into 2020. That’s right, the Rapids have only won the cup four times since 2005. Colorado haven’t won the Rocky Mountain Cup since 2015, and even then, it was just on goal differential. No matter the Rapids’ era—the momentary renaissance in 2016, the great form to end 2019, or all the optimism to start 2020—RSL have always given them trouble.

To save you from the painful flashbacks of late goals and 6-0 blowouts, the main takeaway is that the rivalry has been dominated by RSL, which makes one wonder, where have the Rapids gone wrong in recent years against RSL? What went wrong at the MLS is Back Tournament? And, perhaps most importantly, how can the Burgundy Boys get some long-overdue revenge this Saturday?

To answer the first question, there seems to be a problem with late collapses, as well as poor discipline against RSL in recent years. The latter was also an issue in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament. Both of these teams have changed a lot since 2015, and yet RSL still has the Rapids’ number, which makes me wonder: Could it be a mental issue? Maybe the Rapids take these matches too seriously and think too much about it, or maybe they think too little of it.

The evidence for the first theory is that all the discipline issues—and maybe all the late collapses, too—are due to the pressure of the rivalry, causing players to panic. Late collapses could also be down to not taking the games as seriously as they should be, and RSL simply wanting the victory more. Maybe RSL have just been the better side in the last five years, which is a solid argument, backed up by the MLS table (with exception to 2016).

Whatever the reason, RSL have controlled this series to such an extent that some of their supporters don’t even consider us their main rival (claiming their rivalry with Sporting Kansas City has more hatred and competitiveness).

The MLS is Back Tournament was hard. Colorado came in feeling confident, and for once, had pundits and fans across the league believing they could make some noise—only to lose twice, draw once, and finish last in their group. Though I’ll be the first to say officiating cost the Rapids at least a point (I’d argue three) against SKC, blaming officiating isn’t a viable excuse, because there were a lot of issues in Orlando.

Our old friends, poor discipline and late collapses, came back to haunt us again. It’s possible we just weren’t ready. Our usual magic from set pieces was nowhere to be seen, and our free-flowing, fun attack couldn’t seem to get a spark.

For a more tactical reason, I point to Younes Namli, the focal point of our attack, being absent in the first match and used out of position in the other two. I also believe Diego Rubio is a better option up top for us, but you can argue tactics all day, and they still wouldn’t fully explain our poor showings.

For the mental reasons behind the performances we saw, I think it comes down to poor preparation, nothing more. If we were to get into mind games, you could argue the Rapids perform best as underdogs, so all the hype surrounding them coming into the tournament dragged them down. The depth and options off the bench for which the Rapids have been so often praised didn’t do the job we expected (possibly due to Robin Fraser not making subs soon enough). We also lost a big part of our attack in Sam Nicholson prior to the tournament. It also seemed—at least in the first match—the Rapids simply weren’t ready and weren’t playing with the intensity they needed. Restarting soon, they need to rediscover their attacking prowess, as well as their threat off set pieces.

With all that said, all the history looked back on, all these tough lessons learned, what do the Rapids have to do to secure a more positive outing against RSL this weekend?

The aforementioned issues with discipline and late-game collapses will obviously have to be avoided. In terms of recapturing our dangerous attack, moving Younes Namli back to the 10 and giving him the freedom he had at the start of the season could help unlock his creativity and skill. I’m a firm believer Diego Rubio is our best option at striker, as he provides a lot of dynamism and brings a different and more threatening look to the attack.

It would have also been a priority for Robin Fraser to work on the lapses in concentration the Rapids defense fell victim to in Orlando. The “home field advantage” won’t include supporters’ this weekend, as no fans will be allowed to attend, but hopefully they give the “home” fans something to cheer for after a disappointing MLS is Back Tournament and a depressing last five years against Real Salt Lake.

And, just maybe we’ll finally get to see some sweet, long overdue Rocky Mountain Revenge.