MLS 2012 preview: Colorado Rapids
2011 record and finish: 12-9-13 (fifth place in Western Conference)
Additions:D Hunter Freeman; M Tony Cascio; M Kohei Yamada; M Jaime Castrillón; M Martin Rivero; D Luis Zapata
Losses:M Sanna Nyassi; F Caleb Folan; F Macoumba Kandji
Key questions facing this team:
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1. Can Oscar Pareja make a successful transition to head coach?
Pareja has been one of the league's top developers of young talent for years. At FC Dallas, he helped turn out a league-high six "homegrown" players from the nation's top-rated academy. The ex-Colombian international now has a clear idea of what he wants to do in Colorado, jettisoning Gary Smith's English-style 4-4-2 for an attack-oriented 4-3-3 formation, while bringing in several Colombians and an Argentine to fit his ideas on offense. But coaching pros, particularly those new to the grinding and sometimes tough style of MLS, can be very different from motivating talented young prospects. How will Pareja handle the day-to-day challenges of being the top man at the pro level?
2. Can the old and new mix?
The 4-4-2 is gone, but many of the pieces that made up the engine of Colorado's recent success are still around. So this year's transition could be less than smooth. Still, the quality is there. Veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni look like good fits in a three-man midfield behind new playmaking acquisition Martin Rivero, who fills the need for a No. 10 to pull the strings in Pareja's plan. But as with all teams being forged together from new and old parts, there is some question as to how well the chemistry will work.
3. Who will score the goals?
On paper, the Rapids are blessed with some striking talent teams across the league would envy. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey have, at times, formed a lethal striking duo. But Cummings and Casey both struggled with injury and form in 2011, and Casey isn't expected back immediately from a devastating Achilles injury followed by offseason hernia surgery. Last year, defensive mid Larentowicz led the team with seven tallies, and the Rapids were interested in signing former American international Eddie Johnson, suggesting they're still a bit short up top.
Biggest X factor: Omar Cummings
For the team to be successful, somebody's got to score. That somebody should be Cummings. When he's on the field, the veteran Casey will give the rapids 10 to 12 goals per season, but the Jamaican's ceiling is higher. Just a year removed from a scuttled deal to move to the EPL, Cummings faces a crucial year if he wants to keep his career on the rise.
Breakout player to watch: Jaime Castrillón
Castrillón's impending MLS success won't be a breakout for him -- the winger has scored plenty of professional goals in Colombia and appeared semi-regularly for the Colombian national team in recent years. But now Castrillón is set to be an impact player on the MLS scene. An attack-oriented midfielder or winger with versatility and pace, Castrillón has All-Star potential and the confidence of his coach, and is lined up for a big season in his bow in MLS.
There's no doubt Colorado has gotten better over the offseason. The team that takes the field opening day against Columbus will be an upgrade, position for position, over the one that closed out the 2011 campaign with a pair of resounding losses to Kansas City in the playoffs. In fact, these Rapids will probably be better spot for spot than the team that won the 2010 MLS title.
It's a testament to the growing quality of MLS, then, that Colorado is no shoo-in for the playoffs. Western Conference competitors like Portland and even Chivas USA have gotten much better, as well, and the old favorites like Seattle and Los Angeles have only improved. Colorado might not contend for the Western Conference crown, but the Rapids will play some exciting soccer this year under Pareja. Look for them to be in position to make the playoffs again come September, despite the tough competition.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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