Heading into their final game before the unofficial end the first half of the season, the Colorado Rapids had to be feeling pretty good about themselves.
They had just beaten one of the top teams in the league, the Columbus Crew, and had the second best record (on a PPM basis) with 19 points through 10 matches. On top of that, they had two of the most dynamic offensive players (Conor Casey and Omar Cummings) as well as arguably the second best goalkeeper (Matt Pickens) and one of the top defensive players (Marvell Wynne).
In short, the Rapids aspirations were, ahem, a mile high.
That final first-half game, though, didn't exactly go as planned. Facing a Chicago team that had won just three times in their first 10 matches, the Rapids needed a stoppage time goal from Casey to salvage a point.
They then opened the second half by giving up a late equalizer at Houston to settle for one point.
After tying New York at home, their undefeated streak sat at six matches, but that was followed by a loss at Toronto and a tie at home against lowly Kansas City and suddenly the Rapids were winless in five straight (funny how that works isn't it?).
Now, the once surging Rapids head into Qwest Field in a tie for sixth place (23 points in 15 matches) and slipping steadily, having claimed just four points in their five matches since reaching their high-water mark.
The problem doesn't appear to have much to do with Colorado's offensive stars. Casey has scored three times and Cummings has scored twice in the past five. Central midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy has contributed a pair of assists.
The problem, as it has been in years past, is that there doesn't appear to be much help beyond that.
Just six different players have scored for Colorado, which is fewer than all but one MLS team (New England has five), and no player other than those three has scored more than once. Perhaps even more alarming, the Rapids have only four players who have registered an assist (worst in the league).
Spurred at least in part by a lack of offensive punch, the Rapids moved away from a 4-2-3-1 formation they had been using for much of the season that featured Casey as a lone striker, Cummings on the right wing and Ballouchy in a playmaking CAM role. In its place Rapids coach Gary Smith installed a more traditional two-striker formation during the second half of last week's match that featured Casey and Cummings up top. It was in that formation that the Rapids broke what had become a scoreless streak that stretched more than 250 minutes and spanned three matches.
"We just hadn’t mounted any pressure," Smith said about the reason for the halftime switch. "There were no opportunities on goal in the first half. We looked like the away team. Looking at the shape and the group, it really was to try and maybe inspire some more energy and passion in the group to put Omar and Conor together to maybe mount a more forceful forward attack."
If not for the efforts of Pickens, whose .93 goal against average is still the fifth best in the league despite allowing seven goals in his past five matches, the Rapids could be even worse off.
Pickens has faced 26 shots on goal in his past five matches, which accounts for 44 percent of the shots he's faced all year, and had to make 18 of his 45 saves (40 percent of his season total).
The Sounders come into the match on a four-match unbeaten streak (including a pair of wins in U.S. Open Cup competition) and looking as good as they have all season.
A win could potentially leave the Sounders in a tie for the eighth playoff spot (that would require Toronto to lose at home tonight) and would leave Colorado just one point ahead in the standings.
"Obviously it’s an important game because it’s a six-point swing game," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "We have got to show that we can beat a Western Conference opponent. That’s important as well."
For a closer look at some of the Rapids players, check out my first scouting report on the team.