MLS Preview: Colorado Rapids

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Four months after a surprise run to the Western Conference playoffs, Colorado has morphed from 2013’s feel good story to 2014’s mystery. The cause of all the drama: What’s going on with the team’s head coaching position. Óscar Pareja, the man trusted to bring a talented generation of Rapids players into the first team, bolted for FC Dallas, but not until after a fight that cast his future into a month of limbo. Even now, two months after Pareja was allowed to leave for Frisco, Colorado has no clear plan of succession, with recently retired former Rapid Pablo Mastroeni operating as the interim boss.

Thankfully for Colorado, that interim tag — one which has become the preseason’s dominant story — has done little to diminish the talent that helped the team transcend last year’s expectations. Though Honduran international Hendry Thomas followed Pareja to Dallas, Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers remains. Jamaican international Deshorn Brown, Panamanian Designated Player Gabi Torres, and former U.S. international Edson Buddle form a deep strike force supported by a former Schalke wide man Vicente Sanchez and offseason acquisition Martín Chávez. Drew Moor, Shane O’Neill, and Chris Klute underpin a defense more likely to improve than regress, with a year’s experience in goal sure to bolster 24-year-old Clint Irwin.

LATEST 2014 MLS SEASON PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Players In: John Berner (draft), Marc Burch (re-entry draft), Martín Chávez (trade, San Jose), Carlos Eloundou (free agent), Marlon Hairston (draft), Joe Nasco (free agent), Grant Van De Casteele (draft), Jared Watts (draft)

Players Out: Diego Calderón (loan expired), Tony Cascio (loan, Houston), Jaime Castrillón (out of contract), Steward Ceus (option declined), Kevin Harbottle (released), Atiba Harris (trade, San Jose), Kory Kindle (return to college), German Mera (loan expired), Jamie Smith (retired), Martín Rivero (loan expired), Hendry Thomas (trade, Dallas), Anthony Wallace (out of contract)

Key player: Gabriel Torres

Colorado only had one player score more than five goals last season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Deshorn Brown (10 goals) take a small step back in 2014. Finding a second person to provide goals could prove crucial, and while [insert permanent coach’s name here] will have Edson Buddle at their disposal, the franchise’s first Designated Player, Gabriel Torres, will be expected to pick up the slack.

The 25-year-old Panamanian will have plenty of chances to succeed. With Chávez, Powers, and Sanchez creating opportunities, Torres should be able to continue (if not improve on) last year’s pace: three goals in 507 regular season minutes. With Brown capable of complementing him as part of a tandem or from wide, Torres won’t be the sole focus of opposing defenses.

Even if Brown does take a step back, Colorado will be able to make up the goals.

Manager: The most common reaction to Pablo Mastroeni’s plight: Why don’t they just give him the job? The recent Rapids captain, a veteran on both the MLS and international stages, is highly respect. In a world where a new generation of former players is making waves as MLS coaches, Mastroeni’s would be a defensible hire, if not an outright perfect fit. The Rapids could certainly do worse than commit to a man who is as familiar with the Rapids as anybody who will suit up March 15 in New York.

The whole situation speaks to the degree the Rapids mismanaged Pareja’s departure. While its understandable why you’d want to keep a Coach of the Year-caliber boss from a conference rival, in the soccer world, it’s also unrealistic to hold on to people who don’t want to stay with your team. Combine that naiveté with a lack of a backup plan and you end up in Colorado’s current predicament.

MLS’s is a long season. In eight months, this will look like ancient history. But in a tight Western Conference, the small hiccups can matter. Just ask San Jose, who saw a slow start to the 2013 season drop them from Supporters’ Shield to out of the playoffs.

Outlook: Talent won’t be a problem for Colorado, and with no obvious candidates for regression, a return to 2012 shouldn’t be a worry, either. The bigger issue is whether the Rapids can keep up. Both San Jose and Vancouver have the talent to reclaim their 2012 playoff spots, with Dallas also harboring hopes their early 2013 form can play out over the entire 2014 season.

If the Rapids do stumble on account of their coaching situation — if Mastroeni doesn’t make a smooth transition from field to sidelines — it may be enough to drop Colorado into the West’s have nots.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.