CARSON, Calif. -- Lesser teams might have been intimidated not only by the Los Angeles Galaxy's lineup, featuring last season's MVP, Landon Donovan, this season's likely Golden Boot winner, Edson Buddle, and the man widely considered to be the world's most popular soccer player, David Beckham.
Other clubs might have gotten discouraged by the early goal scored by Buddle, and by the Galaxy's confidence in creating a slew of other early chances.
"The Galaxy started really brightly," admitted Rapids coach Gary Smith.
But if there is one thing the Colorado Rapids know, it's how quickly the tide can turn.
A corner kick was put in a dangerous spot by Brian Mullan, and then luck did the rest, as an attempted clearance by the Galaxy's Sean Franklin bounced off a teammate and into the goal.
Yes, it was fortunate, but credit the Rapids for hanging in there and thwarting LA's opportunities until something went their way.
That attitude prevailed as the Galaxy sought to go ahead and the Rapids stubbornly held them off, making the most of one glorious counterattack to prove they had every right to hang with the big club.
At halftime, the Rapids had a single shot on goal to the Galaxy's four, and the score was 2-1.
When the final whistle blew, after a desperate Galaxy had thrown themselves repeatedly at the Rapids goal, and the Colorado players had thrown themselves in front of every shot, header and freekick LA attemped, the scoreboard read, 3-1.
"I can't explain it," said Omar Cummings about Colorado securing a spot in the playoffs. "I'm overjoyed right now. We were very disappointed (to not make the playoffs last season). It was heartbreaking. Getting to the playoffs was our goal from the beginning of the season. It was my main focus."
Although many would argue that it is tougher to make the MLS playoffs than it ever has been, Colorado will be there for the first time since 2006. A long absence from the chance for a championship can fill a team with resolute focus - especially since traditionally, the Rapids have been playoff stalwarts.
"We got outselves in the game nicely and got settled down," said Smith, describing his team's performance as "a very determined and passionate display."
Hitting a good run at the right time, the Rapids could be a sleeper squad in this year's playoffs.
"In the last month or six weeks, our form has improved," explained Smith. "Our last two away games, at Salt Lake and Dallas, we've given wonderful accounts of ourselves."
Part of the reason for that is that their are new faces on the squad, players like Brian Mullan and Jeff Lawrentowicz, who have years of playoff experience, and probably can't imagine missing out on the postseason.
"There's a lot of character in that changing room," Smith praised. "Those additions have moved us forward."
Lawrentowicz isn't a flashy contributor, but he didn't miss a beat in his transition to Colorado from New England and locks things down well in the midfield alongside Pablo Mastroeni.
"I just kept on doing what I've been doing," Lawrentowicz said.
Even though Colorado have now clinched a playoff spot, they have a specific grudge against the defending Major League champions, Real Salt Lake, who put the Rapids out of the playoffs last season on goal differential.
Omar Cummings put it simply when explaining his desire for the Rocky Mountain Cup, the trophy of the rivalry between the two squads.
"We tied over there, so we have the advantage. We want to win the game, but if we could embarrass them, it would be great."
Even at the coaching level, the heat between the clubs could not be denied.
There's some tension among the groups - it's a competitive environment," Smith explained. "Given the way the last two years have gone, it was salt in the wound, them going on and winning. There's some redemption to be had."
More importantly, though, Colorado is in celebration mode, as even the new players understand the how badly the veterans of the club hungered for the playoffs.
Indeed, if there's a brotherhood of redemption-seekers, all of the Colorado Rapids have signed on, even if they've arrived just lately.
"These are some good players, and they've come so close before and had some bad luck," Lawrentowitz acknowledged.
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