The Seattle Sounders went into Saturday night's visit to the Colorado Rapids as a team considered a top title contender, and a good bet to take a step closer to the Supporters Shield. By the end of the night, it wasn’t the Sounders that had the look of a serious MLS Cup contender.
The Colorado Rapids didn’t just beat the Sounders on Saturday. They annihilated them. They combined power and speed and technical ability and beat Seattle like a green pinata, and made the jump from under the radar to squarely in the conversation of teams capable of lifting the MLS Cup in December.
It might feel like a bit of an overreaction to consider the Rapids a title contender after Saturday’s big win, but it wasn’t Colorado’s first victory against a top team. Before smashing the Sounders, the Rapids already owned two wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy and had defeated both Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls.
In fact, the Rapids' 8-2-4 mark is the best record in the past 14 matches in MLS. The team with the second-best record during that time? The same Sounders team Colorado just dismantled.
This is the same Rapids team that started the 2013 season without a win in their first five matches amid a plethora of key injuries. The interesting thing about that poor start is that it played a key role in the team’s current success.
The rash of early-season injuries forced head coach Oscar Pareja to turn to younger players and unproven newcomers and the process uncovered several players who exceeded all possible expectations.
Players like rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown, who stand as the two leading candidates for MLS Rookie of the Year honors. Players like former NASL defender Chris Klute, who has been the best left back in the league this year, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league after starting the season as a reserve with no MLS experience. Players like 19-year-old defender Shane O’Neill, who jumped from the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team into a starting role in central defense without skipping a beat.
Pareja’s handling of so many new players helped the Rapids overcome their slow start, and as players returned from injury, Colorado began to grow stronger, deeper and more dangerous. The return of players such as Martin Rivero and Edson Buddle has given the team more options, but the boost that just might help the Rapids lift a second MLS Cup came in the summer.
The Rapids offense needed a boost and they added that with the summer acquisitions of Uruguayan forward Vicente Sanchez and Panamanian striker Gabriel Torres. Sanchez has made an instant impact, with his two assists against Seattle upping his totals to one goal and four assists in six games. Torres hasn’t had the impact expected just yet, but he scored his first Rapids goal on Saturday and could be a serious force come playoff time.
The Rapids may not have the star power of teams like New York, LA or Seattle, but what Colorado has is a deep team playing with confidence, and featuring the attacking weapons and strong defense capable of pulling together a surprising title run, much like the team did in 2010. In fact, the current Rapids team is significantly stronger than that championship Rapids team.
The Rapids may have been under the radar before Saturday, but a 5-1 humbling of the team previously regarded as one of the top MLS Cup title contenders has let the secret out for folks outside of Colorado. The Rapids are more than just a team fighting to get into the playoffs. They are a bonafide title contender.
CAHILL MAKING CASE FOR MVP
The MLS MVP race is one filled with candidates with gaudy offensive stats. Whether you consider Chicago Fire standout Mike Magee, or Montreal striker Marco DiVaio, or LA Galaxy talisman Robbie Keane, there are any number of candidates with the goals and assists to make strong cases.
One player who isn’t among the league leaders in goals or assists, but who is looking more and more like a legitimate MVP candidate is Tim Cahill. The New York Red Bulls star has been a driving force for the team throughout the season, and his late-game heroics have been a key reason the Red Bulls sit atop the Supporters Shield race.
MVP talk is a far cry from the early-season criticisms about Cahill because he wasn’t producing offensive stats, but what Cahill has done all season is prove tireless effort in midfield and leadership in the locker room. He sets the tone every game, winning balls all over the field and putting in a two-way effort that
More notice is being taken now because Cahill’s attacking stats have caught up with his intangibles. He has scored each of his team-leading 10 goals, along with two assists, in the team’s past 17 matches.
In terms of players who have produced goals as well as comparable work in the midfield engine room for their teams, only Portland’s Will Johnson (8 goals, 5 assists) is comparable to Cahill, but neither Cahill or Johnson is likely to receive much support in MVP balloting.
It is tough to look at DiVaio’s 19 goals from the run of play, and Keane’s combination of 15 goals and 11 assists, Magee’s 18 goals and 3 assists and not want to cast an MVP vote their way, but when you consider goals, box-to-box contributions and locker room leadership, you will be hard-pressed to find a player who has been more valuable, and more vital to his team’s success this season, than Cahill.
WHITECAPS AND FC DALLAS KEEP COLLAPSING
If you simply looked at this weekend’s results for the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas, you might see the draws both teams put together against tough opponents as an encouraging sign. At least until you put those results in the context of the late-season collapses they are both a part of.
At different points in July, FC Dallas sat in first place in the MLS Western Conference while the Vancouver Whitecaps reached as high as second place. As we roll toward the end of the regular season, both teams are on the outside of the playoff picture and drifting into oblivion.
For FC Dallas, a 7-1-3 start had the club looking like a title contender and Supporters Shield favorite, but the bottom fell out of that promising start and Schellas Hyndman’s team has posted an abysmal 2-8-7 record since the start of June.
The Whitecaps have also been a team of streaks, following up a poor 0-4-3 stretch with a 7-1-2 run that had Vancouver looking unstoppable and Camilo looking like an MVP contender. That momentum quickly disappeared though, and the Whitecaps have since been caught up in a second straight season-ending slump. As much as they showed promise in tying Portland on Sunday night, the draw left them with just two wins from their past 12 matches.
As a result of those slumps, two seeming playoff locks are now both in need of miracles to see the post-season. Vancouver sits six points out of the playoffs, while FC Dallas is seven points behind with three matches to play.
If, as expected, FC Dallas and Vancouver miss the playoffs, some serious questions will have to be asked about the head coaches for both teams. In the case of FC Dallas’ Schellas Hyndman, he should be feeling the heat for having the team underachieve despite having spent a considerable amount of money revamping the roster after the sale of star midfielder Brek Shea.
Missing the playoffs would mean two straight years without a post-season appearance, and just one wild card round exit to show for the three years since FC Dallas reached the MLS Cup Final in 2010 (and lost to Colorado). In fact, FC Dallas has just two playoff appearances in Hyndman’s six seasons in charge.
Vancouver head coach Martin Rennie hasn’t had as long as Hyndman to run the Whitecaps, but it is difficult to call his two seasons in charge successful. He has guided Vancouver to strong first halves in each of the two seasons, but in both campaigns Rennie has stood by and watched the Whitecaps fall apart.
How bad have the collapses been? The Whitecaps are a combined 2-16-8 in the 26 combined matches played after July 15th in 2012 and 2013, with last year’s 14 match winless run to end the regular season being the worst collapses ever endured by a team that still qualified for the playoffs.
Will Hyndman and Rennie be fired this off-season? Hyndman’s ties to FC Dallas ownership (owner Clark Hunt played for Hyndman at SMU) make it very possible that he is given another year to turn things around.
As for the Whitecaps, Rennie is out of contract at the end of the season and it is tough to see Vancouver bringing him back after the latest collapse. Two years might not seem like long enough for a coach who actually led his team to the playoffs in 2012, but the team’s second-half collapses are tough to ignore, and comments from players such as Nigel Reo-Coker have seemed to openly question Rennie’s coaching ability.
The reality for both FC Dallas and Vancouver is that neither team has done well enough to justify having either team’s coach return in 2014.