By John Zielonka
The Colorado Rapids needed to win their last regular season finale to make the playoffs. In dramatic fashion, Real Salt Lake tied the game in stoppage time and ended the Rapids 2008 season. Throughout the year, Colorado failed to come back and win once their opponents scored first.
This inconsistency and a desire to spend more time with his family may have led to the mid-August departure of head coach Fernando Clavijo. Former assistant coach Gary Smith is promoted on an interim basis to the top spot. Under his guidance, the team fell one goal short of advancing to the postseason.
Smith’s record in the final third of the season was a respectable 5 wins, 2 ties and 4 losses. He salvaged a season that appeared to be doomed after going 6-10-3 under Clavijo. After his appointment to the head coaching position, the Rapids responded with three road wins after winning once in the previous 19 games. Colorado went on to a season high four-game unbeaten streak to return to playoff contention.
Smith remained optimistic once the season ended and said, "I'd have liked to have been able to turn round a deficit and won a game. I did feel, even on the last day of the season, that we might have to break that voodoo at some point to make it into the playoffs."
Smith had the interim tag removed and signed a contract for 2009 with the Rapids. He identified three goals for next year, “Number one, to win the MLS Cup. Number two, in doing that, to play in a style and fashion that fits this club. Number three, for the whole staff within the club, for the players and for the fans, to have an enjoyable and exciting season."
Those aspirations will require fixing several befuddling statistics. The Rapids were 11-0-2 when scoring first and winless (0-14-1) after their opponents netted the first goal. Another oddity: Colorado was second in shots taken and outshot their opposition 397-278. The Rapids were still outscored 45-44. Besides Conor Casey, who had 11 goals, Smith will need to find another scorer to improve on the shot-to-goal ratio in 2009.
The Rapids have a solid foundation with Pablo Mastoeni, Omar Cummings, Nick LaBrocca, Colin Clark, Tom McManus, and keepers Bouna Coundoul and Preston Burpo. If they are to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence, their success will hinge on Smith’s ability to build a cohesive and consistent team that can rebound from early opposition goals.
A monthly synopsis of highlights, lowlights and other tidbits during the 2008 season:
January: Defender Jose Burciaga is acquired from Kansas City Wizards for a second round pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Defender Chase Hilgenbrinck, who spent his entire career in Chile after going undrafted in 2004, signs a contract for the 2008 season. Keeper Bouna Coundoul plays for Senegal in the African Cup of Nations.
February: Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez joins the Rapids after a trade with DC United. Gomez was the MLS MVP in 2006 and made the MLS All-Star team each of the last three years. Team acquires former Columbus Crew defender Tim Ward and a 2009 third round Supplemental Draft pick for forward Nicolas Hernandez. Rapids announces preseason games in Florida, Mississippi and England.
March: Brazilian league veteran midfielder Rafael Gomes signs with Rapids. Defender Kelly Gray, a six-year MLS veteran, is acquired after being waived by the LA Galaxy. Four different players (Cooke, Gomez, Cummings and Clark) score in the Rapids 4-0 win against the LA Galaxy in their home season opener. Record: 1 win, 0 ties, 0 losses
April: They sign 27-year-old Scottish striker Tom McManus after an off-season trial. Kansas City Wizards score an 87th minute goal to hand the Rapids their first loss of the season. Colorado moves into the Western Conference lead with a 1-0 win against the New England Revolution. Colorado loses 2-0 to the expansion San Jose Earthquakes for their first shutout defeat of the season. Rapids suffer their third loss in four games after a 2-1 defeat to the Chicago Fire. Eight different players have scored the season’s total of eight goals. The Rapids and their parent company, Kroenke Sports Enterprises, agree to a strategic partner relationship with English Premier League side Arsenal FC. Record: 1 win, 0 ties, 3 losses
May: With four new starters in the lineup, the Rapids beat DC United 2-0 and share the Western Conference lead with FC Dallas. An 87th minute penalty called against the Rapids leads to a 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo. Omar Cummings becomes the first Colorado player to score two goals this season. Rapids remain on top the Western Conference with 2-0 triumph over Real Salt Lake. Chivas USA scores on two of three shots on goal to defeat Colorado 2-1. Rapids lose their position atop the Western Conference. Record: 2 wins, 0 ties, 2 losses
June: Three players (Ugo Ihemelu, Pablo Mastroeni and Bouna Coundoul) are called away to play for their respective national teams. Rapids move back to the Western Conference lead with a 2-1 victory over FC Dallas. The win is the first against Dallas since September, 2004. A weary Rapids side, playing their third game in seven days, drops from the Western Conference top spot again with a 3-2 loss to the LA Galaxy. Toronto FC defeats Colorado 3-1 and remains unbeaten at home. The Rapids have now lost four straight away from home. With Bouna Coundoul playing for Senegal’s National Team, Preston Burpo starts in goal and holds defending MLS champion Houston Dynamo to a scoreless draw. Colorado suffers another road defeat with a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew. Record: 1 win, 1 tie, 3 losses
July: Keeper Bouna Coundoul returns to the nets after missing four games. Colorado defeats New York Red Bulls with an impressive 4-0 home win. They earn an away point in a 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes, ending their streak of five straight road losses. Colorado draws 2-2 FC Dallas in an away game fixture to gain at least one point in each of its last three outings. Rapids lose 2-0 to the Columbus Crew, ending a three game unbeaten streak. Record: 1 win, 2 ties, 1 loss
August: Rapids suffer their second straight shutout and lose 1-0 to Toronto FC. Conor Casey scores two goals in their 2-1 win against Kansas City Wizards. Casey is the only Colorado player this season to score more than one goal in a game. Head coach Fernando Clavijo leaves the club “due to personal reasons.” Assistant coach Gary Smith is named interim head coach for the rest of the 2008 season. Colorado road woes continue with a 3-0 defeat to DC United. It is their sixth away loss in eight games. With Mehdi Ballouchy, Ugo Ihemelu, Pablo Mastroeni, Terry Cooke and Greg Dalby out with injuries, the visiting Rapids are shutout again in a 2-0 loss to Real Salt Lake. Record: 1 win, 0 ties, 3 losses
September: Bouna Coundoul is called up again to play for Senegal’s national team in their upcoming World Cup Qualifier against Algeria. Veteran forward Hercules Gomez is traded to Kansas City Wizards for a fourth round pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Rapids get their first win ever at Pizza Hut Park with a 1-0 win against FC Dallas. The goal is their first since August 16. Keeper Preston Burpo shuts out Chicago 2-0 at home. Back-to-back wins lift Colorado up to a playoff contending third position in the Western Conference. Rapids and New England Revolution settle for a 1-1 draw. Colorado remains unbeaten in three straight games. Conor Casey scores his third goal in the 90th minute to defeat the New York Red Bulls in a 5-4 goal-fest. The five goals tie a Rapids franchise record. Record: 3 wins, 1 tie, 0 losses
October: The Rapids lose to the Houston Dynamo for their first defeat in over a month. They find themselves in the eighth and final playoff spot. At the most critical part of the season, keeper Bouna Coundoul and forward Omar Cummings are both called up for World Cup Qualifiers. Rapids drop out of the final playoff position by two points after a 3-2 loss to the LA Galaxy. A late game winning penalty kick by Conor Casey gives Colorado a 2-1 win and keeps their playoff hopes alive with one game remaining. Needing a win to secure a spot in the postseason, the Rapids allow a Real Salt Lake score in the 90th minute. The 1-1 draw ends Colorado’s season. Record: 2 wins, 1 tie, 1 loss
November: Pablo Mastroeni, Cory Gibbs, Conor Casey, Nick LaBrocca and Colin Clark are selected to train with the US Men’s National Team for their upcoming qualification match against Guatemala. Gary Smith loses his interim title and is named head coach for the 2009 season. Captain Pablo Mastroeni signs a contract extension for 2009 with the Rapids.
December: Midfielder Ciaran O’Brien selected for the Generation adidas UK Tour. O’Brien is one of 16 young MLS players to play matches against English Premier League reserve teams, train at Chelsea and attend matches in the EPL and UEFA Champions League.
John Zielonka is the Goal.com correspondent in Seattle, Washington.