Commerce City, CO (Sports Network) - It was always going to be tough for the Colorado Rapids to one-up a 2010 season that brought an MLS Cup title to Dick's Sporting Goods Park, but the Commerce City club will look to absolve a disappointing finish in 2011 when it kicks off the new campaign this weekend.
There are several unknown variables that make it difficult to get a feel for where the Rapids stand heading into the 2012 season, but they are certainly a team in transition.
Colorado lost three potent offensive options in the offseason as Caleb Folan, Macoumba Kandji, and last year's breakout star, Sanna Nyassi, have all left the club. Their departures place added pressure on Omar Cummings and Conor Casey to shoulder the scoring burden, something that could prove difficult given what transpired in 2011.
Cummings, despite being selected as an MLS All-Star last year, managed just three goals in 26 appearances during the regular season. He did tally six assists, but with three quality strikers out of the mix, the Jamaican will need to be on top form week-in and week-out.
Casey was on a roll early on last year, hitting for six goals in 14 appearances. But tragedy suddenly struck the American forward as his season was ended early with a gruesome Achilles injury. Also undergoing hernia surgery during the offseason, Casey is not expected to return to action immediately this season.
But perhaps the biggest transition for the Rapids this offseason was at the head coaching position.
Gary Smith was at the helm of the club since the start of the 2008 campaign, but following Colorado's postseason exit to Sporting Kansas City in November, the Englishman's contract was not renewed. He was replaced with former FC Dallas midfielder-turned-assistant coach Oscar Pareja.
Pareja appears to have already implemented a contrasting plan to what Smith had offered.
Getting away from Smith's 4-4-2 formation, the league's newest head coach appears to be more in favor of an attack-minded 4-3-3 lineup.
Pareja has brought in a small crop of new players to better fit this system with the likes of Colombian defender Luis Zapata, Colombian midfielder Jaime Castrillon, and Argentine midfielder Martin Rivero.
How well Pareja's new additions, as well as his tactics, can mesh with returning stars likes Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, and Wells Thompson will go a long way toward determining the level of success the Rapids will experience this season.
2011 IN REVIEW: The Rapids grabbed the last playoff spot from the Western Conference, finishing fifth with 49 points. They went on to defeat the Columbus Crew in a one-off play-in game before being ousted by Sporting Kansas City, 4-0 on aggregate, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
ACQUISITIONS: Tony Cascio (M), Jaime Castrillon (M), Hunter Freeman (D), Martin Rivero (M), Kohei Yamada (M), Luis Zapata (D).
OUTLOOK: Colorado could miss out on the postseason just as easily as it could qualify. With an unbalanced schedule in 2012 that will see the Rapids play more matches against strong Western Conference opponents, it may be too much to ask of Pareja to drastically improve on Gary Smith's achievements in just his first year in charge. But there is still enough quality in this team to contend for a playoff spot down the stretch.