Colorado Rapids: Personnel losses hurt

March 24, 2006
DavisBy Steve Davis
(Archive)

Editor's note: ESPNsoccernet will preview all 12 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2006 season.

2005 record and finish: 13-13-6, lost to Los Angeles in the conference finals

Freeman
WireImage / John ToddWith his rookie season behind him, look for Hunter Freeman to make some noise this season.

Key additions: Cornell Glen (Columbus), Clint Mathis (Real Salt Lake) Chris Wingert (Columbus).

Key losses: Nat Borchers (Odd Grenland, Norway), Ritchie Kotschau (Columbus), Jeff Cunningham (Real Salt Lake), Wolde Harris (waivers), Alain Nkong (waivers), Ricky Lewis (waivers).

Key questions facing the team:

1. How much will the club get from Pablo Mastroeni?

The hard-tackling vet continues to toggle between central defender and central midfielder. He prefers the linking role, but Clavijo may need him in charge of a back line that will sorely miss Nat Borchers.

Still, fans have a right to wonder if Mastroeni's heart will be in it. Early in the season, he could have an eye on staying healthy for his second World Cup (And Mastroeni has certainly had his share of injuries). In May and June, he'll probably be property of Bruce Arena. And afterward? Well, if Mastroeni has a decent World Cup, Europe may beckon. Will he go, especially if he's playing out of his preferred position?

Even if he wore the Rapids jersey all season, how much could manager Fernando Clavijo realistically expect to get from his injury-prone leader?

Entering his fifth year in Denver, Mastroeni has never played more than 18 games in a season, including just 14 games last year. In the economy-minded MLS, the Rapids are tying up a lot of salary in a guy who has given them so few minutes over four seasons.

2. Can the Rapids withstand the personnel hits?

Defenders Ritchie Kotschau and Nat Borchers had 56 starts between them. And that on a stingy defense that yielded just 37 goals (tied for second in MLS). Yes, steady Joe Cannon had a lot to do with that, too.

Mastroeni can help - but what of his availability? (See above.)

Alain Nkong is another stinging loss -- although he may not be completely out of the picture. There were Nkong sightings at the team's preseason training in Florida and perhaps the sides can still find a salary figure that satisfies all.

Nkong helped give the Rapids an edge in 2005. True, he was volatile (a team leading nine cautions and a controversial ejection in a critical playoff game). But he was skillful and productive, with five goals and four assists in 20 starts. That's prodigious for a midfielder on a team that scored just 40 goals.

And speaking of scoring -- how much will this club miss Jeff Cunningham's 12 goals from last year?

3. Can the midfield carry matters?

The defense is a question mark and the forwards are iffy at best. So goalkeeping and lots of midfield industry must carry this team. Joe Cannon certainly seems up for the job in the net. But can the midfield be the required tour de force?

Kyle Beckerman isn't a young up-and-comer anymore. Although he's just 23, this is his fourth year with the club. He was steady last year, but a Rapids side that makes significant noise this year will be a Rapids side that has a real commanding presence from that position.

Dedi Ben-Dayan turned into a nice midseason find last year after moving from Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Israel. He's not the classic flank midfielder in the Chris Henderson mold, but he causes trouble by sneaking inside more often and mixing it up at the top of the penalty area. He appears to have a lock on the left midfield spot.

The dangerous wing service is more likely to come from the right, where Terry Cooke has similarly locked down a spot. He's having a terrific preseason, hogging up most of the team's assists.

And then there's Clint Mathis at the top of the midfield diamond. If he can't get it done, perhaps Nkong can ride into the rescue.

Biggest X-Factor: Clint Mathis.

A no-brainer -- it's got to be Mathis. Maybe people will finally stop believing that Mathis is still the player he was in 2001 (or for one shining World Cup moment in 2002.) Maybe he doesn't have to be The Man. If he can just be a good, complementary part and pull his weight, the Rapids can get after teams with a pretty decent midfield.

But he's got to offer more than he did in a muted year at Real Salt Lake, and provide some scoring punch behind two forwards who have a lot of questions still to answer.

Team officials say Mathis reported in good shape, which is a nice place to start. He spent most of the offseason working out at the Home Depot Center before reporting to the Rapids. Mathis turns 30 this year -- it looks like a make-or-break year for the league's top under-achiever.

Breakout player:

There seems to be two or three to choose from, starting with the intriguing Fabrice Nöel, a 20-year-old Haitian forward.

Nöel joined the Rapids midway through the 2005 season after graduating high school in Palm Beach, Fla. He debuted in July and had his first pro goal near the end of the season. Most of his time was with the reserves, but coaches expect him to make the jump this year and hope he can be the team's super sub.

Ben-Dayan could also be the breakout guy, since he's still a bit unfamiliar around the league. He's got the work rate and the will to accomplish even more than in his limited time last year. And Beckerman, steady enough in 2005, can be a league force if he can elevate his game a little further.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Every year, when people ask me about Colorado, it's the same. I'm just going to say what I always say. It's nothing special. It's going to be another year where they win some, they lose some and they get knocked off in the playoffs. I still think they've got players that keep them in a lot of games. I don't know what to comment on Colorado. In the end, I don't think it'll be a team worth talking about."

Outlook:

Joe Cannon is a fabulous place to start a team. Did the Rapids really try to trade this guy in the offseason? Whatever contract problems Cannon and the team suffered through in the winter, the Rapids certain must be glad Cannon stuck around. He was unbeatable in the successful playoff series against FC Dallas last year.

But in front of Cannon, that reliable Rapids defense could be considerably more ragged this year. Looks like Chris Wingert, Mastroeni, Mike Petke and Eric Denton will front the four-man line. Clavijo has experimented with the midfield but seems to leaning toward a four-man diamond, with Beckerman screening the defense and Mathis playing behind the forwards.

And what about those forwards? Jovan Kirovski and Jean Philippe "Pedro" Peguero totaled a pedestrian 12 goals between them in 2005. That's not going to scare many MLS opponents. may be forced to turn to Luchi Gonzalez, Cornell Glen or Nöel to coax more production from the position. Otherwise the Rapids final year at Invesco, before that spiffy new stadium is ready, could be a long and forgettable one.

Steve Davis covers soccer for The Dallas Morning News and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at stevedavis@dallasnews.com