It can't be questioned that the Colorado Rapids are the defending MLS Cup champions. It says so right there on their jerseys and Wikipedia agrees. But the merits of the team that won it are a subject of some debate.
There are those who point to the forward pairing of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings and argue convincingly that it's the best pair in the league. And they point to the rock solid midfield tandem of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni and suggest that any team that can consistently play the one pair in front of the other pair is a legitimate MLS Cup contender.
And then there are those (like yours truly) who point out that the Rapids were never considered top contenders in 2010 and never racked up the regular season wins to indicate it. And that they barely made the playoffs, then moved into the substantially weaker Eastern Conference where they didn't even have to face the only good team in the East (the New York Red Bulls) and still eked through the bracket (on penalties and a 1-0 win) despite getting a home match as a 7 seed and then won the Championship match on an own goal.
So in that context, the beginning of the 2011 Rapids season could be interpreted as a two-week-long "shut it" to the doubters. Colorado opened the season with three straight wins and sat atop the table alongside Rocky Mountain rivals Real Salt Lake as the only undefeated teams. Unfortunately for them, the victory lap wouldn't continue as they would then suffer consecutive defeats to FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Defenders would argue that the losses came with arguably their two best players in Casey and Mastroeni out with injuries. Critics would argue that the season opening wins came against cupcake teams and they stumbled when they actually ran into a good team. And so the controversy over Colorado's quality rolls on.
But the Seattle Sounders and their fans are probably less interested in the philosophical debate over Colorado's merits as a champion and more interested in Seattle's chances to extend their undefeated streak tomorrow in Commerce City.
Those chances are heavily impacted by which Colorado squad takes the field. If you look up 'MLS Target Forward' in a dictionary, there's a good chance you'll see Conor Casey's mug smiling back at you. He's big, he's physical, he's strong, he's a little nasty, he's not afraid to butt heads in the air. A lot of supposed target forwards come into this league and wash out because they come from leagues where being a target forward means being able to chest a ball down and outjump the other guys. In MLS it means being able to take and give elbows in the box and hold possession in a forest of poorly timed slide tackles and shirt grabs. Casey's figured it out, but fortunately for the Sounders he's unlikely to take the field tomorrow. Instead at target forward they'll be looking at Caleb Folan, a veteran of the English game whose Premier League pedigree should put him a cut above Casey as a player, but who's still in his MLS learning curve.
More importantly, Pablo Mastroeni has been replaced by Jamie Smith in recent weeks, but in the eight days since Colorado last played, it sounds like the club's 2010 MVP may have healed up enough to appear or even start in the match. Though he's considered a defensive midfielder, last season the steady holding play of Larentowicz allowed Mastroeni to venture forward and become a part of the offense, including the game-winning goal against Columbus in the playoffs.
The defense may be where the team's weakness lies, especially in the middle. On the right of the center we have Marvell Wynne, a converted right back who's built a borderline national team career on speed, speed, and more speed. His central defensive instincts are still raw and he can be turned, but you probably won't outrun him on a breakway. On the other side is Tyrone Marshall, with whom Sounders fans will be very familiar. Marshall's a solid veteran presence and he still shows flashes of brilliance in defense, but we know that he's good for a couple of mistakes a game, which cost him his starting job in a stacked Seattle defensive corps. Because the strength of the pair is more in recovery speed than in one on one ability, Colorado has been playing a high defensive line to keep out some of the balls over the top. Beating that trap will likely be the key to the Sounders scoring.
- Fredy Montero vs Wynne - I'm predicting Montero starts after coming late into the Philadelphia game and immediately reminding us what he brings to the offense. Fredy isn't the fastest forward on the field and rarely scores on the breakaway, so Wynne's recovery speed won't help him much. Instead he'll have to contend with Montero's ability to turn defenders and create opportunities in tight spaces.
- Leo Gonzalez vs Cummings - Gonzalez isn't getting caught out quite as much as he was in the middle of last season. Whether it's better fitness, better positioning, or just learning how to play on slightly older legs, he seems to have tightened down his defensive responsibilities. But Cummings can make any defender look bad, and few can keep up with him. Wells Thompson and defender Kosuke Kimura will have to be watched on the left flank as well, but Leo can't ever lose sight of Cummings.
- Mauro Rosales vs Drew Moor - Is this the week Rosales starts on the right wing? Only Sigi knows. Alvaro Fernandez' injury time goal in Philadelphia is a strong argument that he should be on the field. But Rosales has been making an equally good argument for multiples games filling in for Montero as a withdrawn forward. The high altitude and heavy schedule of the last few weeks may make this an opportunity to give Rosales a game off or a spot on the bench, but Sigi is a creature of habit and Rosales in the lineup has been producing points for the Sounders, so I'm guessing he starts. Moor's a utility defender who can play anywhere on the back line, but would have trouble containing Rosales for a whole match.