By DAN KARELL
The Colorado Rapids finished the 2013 Major League Soccer season with plenty of positive momentum.
Then, head coach Oscar Pareja left for his old stomping grounds at FC Dallas and the question has become, now what?
Nearly two months since Pareja departed, the Rapids still have not named a head coach, with recently-retired club legend Pablo Mastroeni currently taking the reigns as an interim head coach. Luckily for the Rapids, they don’t kick off their season until March 15, but still the unknown remains hovering over the team.
What’s intriguing is that whoever takes the Rapids job is inheriting a team that is primed for another playoff run in a deep Western Conference. Youngsters such as Shane O’Neill, Deshorn Brown, Chris Klute, Clint Irwin, and Rookie of the Year winner Dillon Powers lead the team with plenty of help from veterans such as Drew Moor, Edson Buddle, Marvell Wynne, and the late addition of Designated Player forward Gabriel Torres.
One worry for Rapids fans is the loss of Hendry Thomas, who was asking for a new contract with a Designated Player-level salary. However, that could open up the door for Homegrown player Dillon Serna to move into the starting lineup or O’Neill can be moved forward into his more natural defensive midfield position.
Whoever takes charge of the Rapids, this is one season that will be interesting to watch.
COLORADO RAPIDS SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-11-9, 51 points (Fifth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Marvin Chavez, Marc Burch, Marlon Hairston, Grant Van De Casteele, Jared Watts
KEY LOSSES: Jaime Castrillon, Atiba Harris, Hendry Thomas, Tony Cascio (loan to Dynamo), Anthony Wallace, Stewart Ceus, Diego Calderon, Oscar Pareja
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Marvin Chavez. The 30-year-old midfielder is by no means a lock to make the Honduras squad for the World Cup, and he’ll want to prove his credentials with some strong early season performances for the Rapids
PRESSURE IS ON: Gabriel Torres. After being signed as a Designated Player following his tremendous Gold Cup Torres showed flashes of his potential in the final eight games of the season, scoring three goals. This year, with a full offseason behind him, Torres will be expected to lead the Rapids’ attack and live up to the Designated Player status.
In addition to the question of who will take this team forward, another question remains? Was last season’s success a product of Oscar Pareja?
With Pareja returning to Dallas, the pressure now turns to players such as Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown, Clint Irwin, and Chris Klute, who all enjoyed breakout seasons but need to avoid that sophomore slump.
Even without a head coach, the Rapids have had a busy preseason traveling around the Southwest U.S., though they weren’t nearly as active in the free agent or transfer market.
The club brought in veteran midfielder Marvin Chavez, defender Marc Burch, and goalkeeper Joe Nasco in addition to taking four players in the recent MLS Draft. Those signings will have to replace Atiba Harris, Hendry Thomas, Diego Calderon, Jaime Castrillon, Anthony Wallace, and Tony Cascio, who all departed this offseason.
In goal, the team is set with Irwin, who had a standout year after taking over for Matt Pickens in the first game of the season and never losing his starting place.
Following a three-week stint with the U.S. Men’s National Team in January, Shane O’Neill is back to build on an impressive first season as a starter, playing alongside Drew Moor, Marvell Wynne, and Klute. A strong showing in the first month of the season might even sway U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to give the 20-year-old a look in the USMNT’s final friendly match in April before the rosters are announced.
Dillon Powers is thankfully back on the field after missing nearly four months with concussion symptoms. The Notre Dame product proved to be a terrific two-way player for the team last season but he may be asked to fill in more as a defensive midfielder this season. Former Schalke 04 winger Vicente Sanchez will be relied on from set pieces and to deliver balls into the box.
Competition for starting spots is fierce, and one name to remember heading into 2014 is Dillon Serna. The young Homegrown Player saw action in just one match last year (a late appearance in the regular season finale), but he has turned heads in preseason and looks poised for a breakout season.
It will be interesting to see what formation is used, but Deshorn Brown found success last season down the left wing and in the middle as a forward, scoring ten goals and four assists. Whether he can play alongside Torres for a whole season, or along with Edson Buddle, is a good problem for a new manager to figure out.
The team’s fortunes will certainly be rewarded if Torres can find his international form at the club level. Torres had a tremendous 2013 for Panama, scoring seven goals in all competitions, but there’s still the unknown of whether he can adjust to MLS.
Despite the cloudy future over who will manage the club, there’s still a great chance for the Rapids to prove that last year wasn’t just a one-off season. At the same time, there’s every likelihood that not having a coach until a few days before the season could set the team back.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP