When the Colorado Rapids come to CenturyLink Field for Saturday night's NBC SportsNet match they will be trying to break their own funk. They have two wins and six losses on the road. Their big home/away split is fairly typical for a Denver based sports team, and the Seattle Sounders will get to take advantage of that. While the Rapids may be the most average team in MLS (according to playoff chances), they are built a bit differently.
New Coach Oscar Pareja is still implementing his system. But his system is changing with the health of his players. Back when the two sides first met this year it was a fluid 4-3-3. Now it's more a 4-1-3-2 with both Conor Casey and Omar Cummings back. Answering the questions about Colorado is UZ from Burgundy Wave.
SaH: Over at Burgundy Wave you've focused on the differences between Smith and Pareja quite a bit lately. What's the condensed version?
BW: Essentially, Oscar Pareja has been getting criticized because he was supposed to bring much better soccer to Colorado but the results have been lackluster. What people don't seem to realize is that Gary Smith, who since winning the MLS Cup has been worshiped as a hero by some Rapids fans, put up results just as terrible if not worse pretty much his entire time in Colorado minus that magical stretch between September and November. The biggest difference between the two is not in results -- we fully expect Pareja's style of ball to catch on and produce more consistent results as he continues to learn how to manage a team and get his squad filled with new names playing cohesively together -- but in the construction of the team.
Looking back at Smith's teams, he got immensely lucky in 2010 by having almost no injuries, which hid the absolute wasteland of depth. When the injury bug finally hit in 2009 and 2011, the Rapids suffered because they had no decent names to turn to behind the Starting XI. Pareja has already retooled the entire midfield and forward corps of the squad and made them several names deep so injuries haven't been much of an issue this season. That's why despite the results you've seen so far, there's a lot more optimism around here for the future of the Pareja administration than there was for Smith's. His ability to scout immensely talented players like Martin Rivero and Luis Zapata -- compared to some of Smith's more mediocre oversea findings like Caleb Folan -- isn't hurting matters either.
SaH: Casey and Cummings are back, historically that causes me some worry as they've been strong MLS players. What are they like this year?
BW: In the two games that the duo has been back together, it's been very fun to watch. Cummings is still proving that his tear in 2010 is an exception rather than a rule, but watching him up top with Casey is producing pretty good stuff even as he hasn't been scoring. After several relief appearances getting back from that Achilles tear, Conor has been an absolute beast. He's taking up three defenders at a time, winning headers in the box and creating chances that you would expect a big target man to create. In other words, he looks like he's back to the form that saw him score 16 goals in 2009 and 13 in 2010.
Of course, the goals haven't been coming from the duo up top as much as they were before, but that's because the new system doesn't require them to as much. (Excuse me as I slip back into Smith vs. Pareja territory for a minute here.) Gary Smith's system required the strikers to do almost all of the dirty work when it came to goals with the midfield mostly serving as a distribution group to get the ball either to Casey and Cummings or to the fullbacks... who would get the ball to Casey and Cummings. Pareja's system features a lot more passing and a lot more guys going forward at all times, which is why four of the top five scorers on the team right now are midfielders and so many people on the team have put the ball in the net.
I've enjoyed watching Casey and Cummings thrive in the new system where they don't have to shoulder all of the offensive burden. Cummings is still struggling a bit to get over the hero complex he suffered in 2011 -- trying to be the playmaker and only scorer on a team that couldn't score to save their lives led to him making lots of less than intelligent plays -- but we believe he'll get back at least partially into his best form in the new diamond 4-4-2 that the team has been playing
SaH: Why does Colorado struggle so much on the road? Is their style particularly useful when opponents lungs can't handle the elevation?
BW: I honestly have no idea. Really, it just comes down to the fact that the team is allowing goals on the road and the Rapids are a pathetic 2-8-1 when they allow the other team to score even a single goal this year.
SaH: The Rapids had a type of kit sponsor for their 4th of July game. What was it and will they be wearing it again on Saturday?
BW: The Rapids were wearing www.helpcoloradonow.org on their jerseys in front of the sold out crowd on July 4th in order to try and help raise support for the wildfires that have been tearing up Colorado the past few weeks. I doubt they'll be wearing it again against the Sounders, but I would enjoy seeing them keep it on there until the fires have been completely dealt with. It's not like they have another sponsor that's being covered up by that, after all.
This is a tough call. The same lineup has now played two games in the past week, but it's definitely the best lineup that the team has available. I can't tell if after such a frustrating loss, Pareja will throw caution to the wind against Seattle and go with the same 11 guys but I doubt it. I expect a similar lineup to the one that played Vancouver with a few minor changes, here's my best guess:
Matt Pickens; Luis Zapata, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Hunter Freeman; Jeff Larentowicz, Martin Rivero, Jamie Smith, Brian Mullan; Tony Cascio, Conor Casey
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BW: I've been surprised to see the Sounders slide last so long recently considering the talent that they have available. What do you attribute the recent loss in form to the most?
SaH: Defensive struggles. A team that once chose their potential starters defensively based on how they would match up tactically with their opponent has been forced to just play who ever is healthy. Those rare healthy bodies aren't necessarily the best suited for the roles they are asked to play so the defense is weakened a little bit.
Combine that with playing with not enough rest (uberfit Zach Scott is looking winded lately) and the defense gets even worse. During this 9-match winless run, Seattle is giving up nearly two goals a game. It's a rare soccer team that can do that and still win.
BW: I've been seeing more Steve Zakuani updates lately out of the Sounders camp, including murmurs that he was perhaps ready to play but didn't against Salt Lake and New England. It sounds like a perfect story-line set up, is there a chance that Sigi Schmid might put Zakuani out against the Rapids?
SaH: A lot of Sounders fans want Zakuani to return to the pitch for this game. It's the only home competitive game at the CLink for a month, so it's special for that reason. There would also be the kind of karmic feeling of it being against the Rapids.
He's definitely not ready to start. He only went 45 in his Reserve game appearance (as a forward), so if he plays it would probably be as the second or third sub up top. He still has the burst speed, decent touch and a great shot. I'd place money that he's in the 18, but doesn't get in unless Seattle is up and feeling good about getting a win.
BW: Eddie Johnson seems to have found his top form lately with the Sounders, how has he been linking up with Fredy Montero up top?
SaH: They aren't really linking up well. Both are playing quite well. There's just this thing. If a play is drawn up to be a cross from the outside Johnson is the target and Montero is on the periphery ready to collect some slop. If the play goes up the middle it's about Montero working his magic with Eddie ready to poach.
Even without "meshing" the two are the 5th most prolific forward pairing in MLS by goals scored and second in assists. Are they Cooper and Henry? or Wondo and Lenhart? Nope. Seattle's problems scoring have almost nothing to do with Fredy and Eddie, instead those troubles are about the lack of support from the midfield.
Meredith; Burch, Ianni, Parke, Johansson; Alonso; Fernandez, Evans, Rosales; Montero, Johnson