A relieved Diego Rubio sat in the Colorado Rapids press lounge with a handful of members of the local press corps after Colorado held off Minnesota United last Saturday evening. Down the corridor, his buoyant teammates celebrated the 5-4 victory in their changing room. Rubio took a mix of questions and summed up his late season, I believe, mindset. ”Now that we’re going up, we’re winning games; it motivates me even more. Like I cannot relax now. I need to give more and more and more because we’re right there outside the playoff spots.” The bullish Chilean elaborated, “It’s a great motivation, but it doesn’t stop here for me. I’m already thinking about the next game.”
And thinking, leading by example, and performing has been his M.O. since the MLS regular season kicked off. Many fans believe that without his steady contributions both on the pitch and during training sessions, the Rapids would not be in contention to pouch a playoff spot.
He is tied for 7th in the league with 11 goals scored. In recent months he has passed over Wolde Harris (27) and Dominique Badji (29) with 30 goals. He is two goals from overtaking Chris Henderson and seven from tying John Spencer.
Rubio came to Colorado via a three-way trade that took place in December 2018. Padraig Smith sent Edgar Castillo to New England in exchange for midfielder Kellyn Rowe, then swapped Rowe over to Kansas City along with $100,000 in Target Allocation Money plus $200,000 in General Allocation Money for the forwards. Sporting signed Rubio as a young Designated Player in 2016. In 38 appearances he scored 14 goals and contributed two goals in the 2018 playoffs.
Smith brought him on to partner with then Rapids’ striker, Kei Kamara. “Diego is a dangerous striker in front of goal and will provide us with a formidable attacking threat as he pairs up with Kei [Kamara],” said Smith when the transaction was announced.
This season his playmate has been Gyasi Zardes. Since May, the duo has been working on getting on the same proverbial page. They have slowly evolved into a threatening pair. Their collective efforts, along with the balance of the roster, have positioned the team to muscle their way into the playoffs.
Following the Rapids recent game against the Red Bulls, Zardes flattered Rubio, “Diego, he’s an amazing player. You can give him the ball with two guys on his back, and he’ll roll it, roll and get out of it, squirm out of it, but his vision is like no other. He’s constantly looking across the field looking for through balls to play feet.” Zardes continued, “He’s a very clever player. So for him to play under me and when he gets the ball, it’s amazing because he has multiple options. That’s how good he is.”
After Rubio’s two-assist, one-goal performance in New Jersey, Fraser said, “I know he feels like every time he goes out he can contribute, he can create a goal or assist, and that sort of confidence is immeasurable for an attacking player.”
Like Jack Price, Rubio deflects praise from himself to the entire team. Both quickly commend their fellow starting mates and those who stand up off the team’s aluminum bench and sprint into the game.
“I mean, for me, it’s team performance. It’s not my performance. I mean, I helped... We win. We win. That’s the main thing for me.”
With Zardes on the scene, Rubio has agreeably shifted from the striker position that he occupied when the season started to an attacking mid and/or winger role.
Matching up with Jonathan Lewis and Michael Barrios and positioned a few yards behind the streaking Zardes has brought much-needed energy to the team’s often anemic offensive in the final third.
“He’s played several different positions, and wherever he plays for us, he plays with that level of confidence and level of competency that the team now leans on him.” Fraser recently said of the contentious Rubio.
Rubio can shoot from distance. He can go into overdrive, penetrate and score from inside the box. He can also see the field and dish out assists. The team looks to him, and he has really been the focal part of our attack for quite a while now,” said Fraser. “He doesn’t seem to be stopping so I think as long as his confidence continues to be where it is he’s gonna continue to be a threat.”
Rubio spoke on the team’s playoff mentality. “That mentality has to be every week, every game. We need to have this playoff mentality already. We have 11 games. And I think we need to see it every game a as a final right now. Rubio continued, “It’s always important to win; it doesn’t matter against who sometimes; you win when you have this mentality... When you go against teams that are in the playoffs already, you go as hard as you can, but I think that mentality has to be every week, every game.”
The 2022 playoff do not commence for another two months; however, given the Rapids precarious position in the tight Western Conference standings, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose to adopt a post-season temperament sooner than later.
Fraser has been promoting the same manifesto, however, with a few necessary qualifications. During his press conference, Fraser said, “We talked about how we need to have a playoff mentality at this point. And for a game like this, no, we didn’t play particularly well, but we had moments where we were very good and very clinical. And in the end, we won.”
Consistency, playoff urgency, and mindset is what Fraser is demanding.
To that point, any sports psychologist would agree that the field players would benefit if their just-as-die-hard supporters came out in full force to DICK’S Sporting Goods Park. A sold-out venue filled with twisting and shouting guests would catalyze the players to play to their full potential. To that end, locals could use their vocal presence and put to the fear of Coloradans into the minds of the opponents.
NHL Avs’ faithful did so recently.
The-tied-for-10th-place-Rapids face-off with Columbus Crew tonight at DICK’S. The match will amount to another very competitive, just as critical game this month. Given the parity in Western Conference, the Rapids aim to leverage their recent successes, a fired-up atmosphere, and, of course, the 5280 altitude in hopes of bagging three points or one at a minimum.
With five home and six on road games remaining, there is plenty of soccer left. Yet the pressure is mounting week-to-week on the shoulders of both the players and coaches alike. And faithful fans are starting to chew down their fingernails.
The believing Burgundy Boys are poised to bulldoze their way into post-season play. Show up, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. By the way, the parking is still free at Fort DICK’S. No excuses.