Jaime Castrillon

Colorado Rapids: the MLS team we aren’t talking enough about

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Back in the day, we would call this a “MacGyver” bit.

“MacGyver” was a TV series that became a cultural icon in the 1980s and early 90s, based on a spy guy’s preternatural problem solving and improvisation with materials at hand. You know, the guy who could disable an armored personnel carrier using nothing more than his girlfriend’s super cute capri pants, an extension cord and a half-eaten box of Twinkies.

Well, Colorado Rapids manager Oscar Pareja and his Rapids are pulling a serious “MacGyver.”

In MLS circles, we are all talking a lot about Seattle rising. And about Portland rising. And about “Jack Mac” in Philadelphia. And about the streak busters at Sporting KC. All rightly so, by the way.

But isn’t there some room to talk about the Rapids, a team that is (quite anonymously) 4-1-1 since March?

The only loss in that time has been to Seattle, which was getting it together at the time and is now playing as well as any team in MLS.

Here’s where the MacGyver comes in: The Rapids are getting it done despite horrible injury luck, through improvisation and sheer will. They are slowly gaining collective health but remain measurably depleted. Martin Rivero just made his first start of 2013, for instance, and his ability to keep possession in midfield means so much.

Pablo Mastroeni got on the field for 10 minutes over the weekend, but he is far from ready to make a steady impact.

Edson Buddle is back after missing six matches, and scoring now. He had the opener in Colorado’s most recent flourish of success, Saturday’s 2-0 win at Columbus. That was the Burgundy’s first win in Columbus since 2004. Heck, the 44-year-old Pareja was still a key midfield man for FC Dallas back then.

He’s a man with lots of answers right now. Because Jaime Castrillon has yet to play, and he was a key midfield building block around DSG Park in 2013. So was goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who now remains sidelined long-term. And Hendry Thomas, who was making the DSG Park midfield so uncomfortable for opposition in Mastroeni’s absence, is on the injury shelf now.

So, what’s the story here? Guys like Dillon Powers have stepped in forcefully; he must be a Rookie of the Year leading candidate with two goals, an assist and lots of defensive grit out of Colorado’s midfield.

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Speaking of rookies (who may deserve some ROY consideration), how about goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who has four shutouts in his last six matches? Don’t forget, Irwin had exactly zero minutes of MLS soccer (or even big-time college soccer, no offense to you good folks of Elon University) before Pickens broke his arm back in March.

Left back Chris Klute (pictured  left), 23, has been a wonderful surprise, brimming with potential and having delivered some big nights this year, although certainly still lacking some consistency.

The versatile Nathan Sturgis is showing what everyone always thought he could be when healthy.

Mostly, though, this is about a stubborn mentality that prevented Pareja or any of his men from ever feeling sorry themselves through the most ridiculous stretch of that injury woe. The second-year manager never talked about those injuries, even though it was obvious how much his team suffered for them.

And it’s about adjusting. Pareja came to Colorado with visions of flowing, possession soccer, probably a lot like the good stuff we’re seeing flourish in Portland. But they can’t do that at the moment around DSG Park, so they wisely got stingy and more protective in the back and became adept at winning the 1-0 tight ones.

The Rapids, by the way, are .500 for the first time in more than a year.

MLS Preview: Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake

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It has come to this for the Colorado Rapids and their increasingly desperate supporters: dreaming aloud of what might have been but for a litany of injuries that reduced the club in March to something nearly unrecognizable. To consider the reality is just too painful, apparently.

Here is what one Colorado Rapids blogger imagines could have been. And can’t you just hear the heavy, dreamy sighs of longing?

Credit to Rapids manager Oscar Pareja (pictured), who has steadfastly refused to lean on injuries as an excuse for the club’s 0-3-2 start to 2013. Never mind that he is missing the veteran core of his roster – and that is not mere hyperbole.

The Rapids will once again be fighting with a shorter stick tonight as the clubs meet at Dicks Sporting Goods Park outside Denver. At least five veteran starters will be out of the lineup due to injury or suspension.

Tonight’s kickoff on NBC Sports Network is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

The absences to players like Martin Rivero, Jaime Castrillon, Pablo Mastroeni, Matt Pickens and Drew Moor have, at least, opened the door for promising youngsters. Did you see the absolute beauty of a goal that rookie Dillon Powers hit last week? And rookie striker Deshorn Brown has something, too.

They’ll be asked to perform above their heads again against the club’s chief rival; this is the second game in the annual Rocky Mountain Cup series. Pareja’s men managed a 1-1 draw in the first meeting this year, easily the Rapids best result this year.

The Rocky Mountain Cup has belonged to RSL since 2006, but Colorado is already well positioned to grab the trophy (thanks to the recent draw in Utah). Indeed, if the Rapids cannot turns things around quickly, seizing the Rocky Mountain Cup may be the top accomplishment of Pareja’s second year in charge in Commerce City.

And then there’s this: Wins for RSL have been awfully tough to find in Colorado; Kreis’ side is 0-3-3 since 2007. So it’s not like the Rapids and Pareja have no chance against his good friend and highly respected former FC Dallas teammate.

Real Salt Lake will have no trouble matching young talent, as management around Rio Tinto turned over its midfield and strike force in salary cap maneuvering, comfortable doing so due to its faith in players like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez and Devon Sandoval. And they have been just this side of magnificent; all were important in last week’s 2-1 win over Seattle.

The Rapids do, at least, have veteran striker Edson Buddle back on the field. Buddle got on the field for 61 minutes last week, his first appearance of 2013.

“I felt like it was my first game back,” he said. “A little unfit, not as explosive, repetitive running as I’d like to do. I think the guys behind me did a great job of filling on the space for me, the ground I couldn’t cover.”

Nat Borchers has recently returned for RSL, giving Jason Kreis a veteran to pair with one of his talented, younger center backs. And Alvaro Saborio, who has missed RSL’s last two matches, seems set to return to the RSL lineup.

Major League Soccer team previews: COLORADO RAPIDS

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 8 in the West are the Colorado Rapids:

Significant additions and subtractions: Jeff Larentowicz, a midfield fixture in recent years around DSG Park, is now doing his ginger thing in Chicago.

Edson Buddle has moved over from the Galaxy, attempting to jump-start a career that hit the skids last year in Los Angeles. Given the departures of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, among the league’s most lethal strike combos not so far back, expectations are piled up fairly high on Buddle, who continues to operate at the outer markers of the U.S. national team pool.

Nick LaBrocca is back for a second Rapids run. He joins fellow MLS vets Atiba Harris and the versatile Nathan Sturgis in new roles outside Denver.

Strangely enough, Pablo Mastroeni can almost be counted as “new” considering the longtime midfield enforcer missed all but 150 minutes of 2012 with concussion related issues. Everyone around Denver is excited to have the captain back.

Speaking of new-not really new: Colorado may also have a “new” right back. His name is Brian Mullan, and he speaks of the potential change here. Interesting.

Strengths:  First-year manager Oscar Pareja had a vision for how he wanted to play in 2012, but late arrival on the scene at DSG Park reduced the Colombian coach to hammering round pegs into square holes. With a roster more to his liking this season — technical expertise added, a little muscle-and-tussle subtracted — 2012 should offer a fairer test of his ability. It also presents an improved platform for a possible second run at more dynamic, fluid 4-3-3 soccer.

Expect center backs Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor to perk up after a so-so 2012 with the savvy and defensive-minded Mastroeni back to do the midfield screening. They have to; 50 goals allowed won’t cut it.

Pressure points: This is certainly not how Pareja wanted to begin what is probably a make-or-break year for him personally. Injuries will take his two premier attackers off the field to begin the season. A knee injury will keep do-all attacker Jaime Castrillon out until May at the earliest. The double whammy is that 2012 assist leader was already out; Martin Rivero broke his foot in a preseason contest and not expected back until mid-March, at least. That’s not as long as Castrillon, but still … Yikes!

Even when they come back, Pareja can forge his side into the best possession outfit this side of Barcelona FC, but if the Rapids’ finishing cannot improve over 2012, it won’t matter.source:

Difference maker: Mastroeni, a veteran of two World Cups with the United States, is such a leader that his presence is more than the sum of his passing and tackling parts. That club record tying six-game losing streak last year? It’s harder to see something like that happening with Mastroeni (pictured right) around to inspire something greater from everyone individually and collectively. 

Potential breakout player: Tony Cascio looked like an MLS Rookie of the Year candidate at times in 2012. At other times during an impressive sum of 29 appearances last year he looked like any other ol’ mid-first round draft pick. The thing about Cascio, who can play on the flank or as a forward, is that everything looks so instinctive and unforced. He has tremendous upside. 

Bottom line: It may be difficult for Rapids fans to hear that success or failure in 2013 is reduced to providence, but this is where we are with the Rapids, league champs as recently as 2010. If Mastroeni can hold out – far from a guarantee considering how close the head injury concerns came to forcing his retirement last year – and if Castrillon and Rivero return to timely good health, this is a pretty interesting team. If not, they could struggle again.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)