Rapids believe they can achieve first playoff spot since '06
By Pat Martin, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Heading into the 2010 Major League Soccer season, the Colorado Rapids knew they were at a crossroads. The team missed out on the playoffs for three straight years, including being eliminated from contention on the last day of the regular season in the previous two.
Rapids striker Omar Cummings told The Sports Network during a preseason interview that he didn't think the team's current collection of players and coaches would survive the chopping block if it didn't make its first postseason appearance since 2006.
With a little under a month left in the regular season, the Rapids find themselves in the driver's seat for that elusive postseason spot, and the play of Cummings - who was just named MLS Player of the Month for September after scoring six goals in four games - and strike partner Conor Casey are big reasons why.
The duo has scored 10 of Colorado's last 15 goals to cap off a late-season push that has the Rapids comfortably in sixth in the league table. The team has won five straight at home, outscoring the opposition 14-1, while losing just once in the last six league fixtures overall.
"I think there's some confidence in the group and some goals obviously breed that," Colorado coach Gary Smith told The Sports Network on Thursday. "I think overall the guys are reaching a nice level of performance at a really good time. They are in a tremendous mental and physical place. There's just a lot of confidence around the team and it's just a wonderful time to be there. I think the home form is the catalyst for that."
"I think there's some confidence in the group," Colorado coach Gary Smith told The Sports Network.
After going through a seven-game winless streak in June and July, the Rapids switched up the formation from the 4-5-1 it had been playing, back to the 4-4-2 it played most of last year, and the partnership between Casey and Cummings has driven the offense ever since.
"I think that is one of the keys to the team and my success especially," said Cummings, who has scored 12 goals this season. "Being in front of goal as opposed to being on the right where I was most of the season plays more to my strengths."
"As of late we have been playing well together, both scoring," said Casey, who has 11 goals this season. "The past three years we have really learned to play with each other. Earlier in the season we were playing a little bit further apart. The last couple months we have been close and we have both benefited from it."
But the Rapids' recent success is about more than just Casey's and Cummings' form. The defense has allowed more than a goal in a game just three times since June, and the midfield is doing an excellent job of locking down the opposition, controlling possession and getting the ball up to the forwards. Overall, there seems to be a belief that wasn't there in previous years.
"We are at that point where they believe in what they can achieve," Smith said. "The big difference from this year to last is there were a number of events that took us spiraling in a negative direction."
From injuries, to tough losses, to some players not living up to expectations and others tiring out while carrying the load, the Rapids faced a gauntlet of obstacles down the stretch in 2009, which led to them collapsing and missing the postseason.
"This year is completely different," Smith said. "The players are looking fresher, more confident."
Part of the reason for the freshness is the acquisition of forward Mac Kandji and winger Brian Mullan before the roster freeze in mid-September. Both bring unique skill-sets to the lineup.
Kandji has started the last two games at forward, once for an injured Cummings and the other for a suspended Casey, and provided a much-needed spark. His presence should push the two stalwarts to stay sharp, while also providing cover.
"He's come in and done really well," Casey said of Kandji. "He's good on the ball, he takes people on, he's fast. He makes a lot of the right decisions so he's a great weapon to have."
"With Mac, he is challenging for those starting spots," Smith said. "It's not [that] Conor and Omar are the given pair. Of course those two have a real good relationship and the goals are starting to come between them, but Mac is a very, very good player in his own right.
"The last couple of games we have seen what that depth up front means. We've still been a real threat both [Saturday] in Salt Lake and [Wednesday] night without Conor and Omar in respective games. So he's challenging for those first-team starting spots."
Mullan, who's won multiple MLS Cups with Houston and San Jose, brings a wealth of experience as well as a competitive spirit that not only lifts the team, but helps keep players accountable.
"He brings an awful lot to the group at an important time," Smith said.
After Saturday, Colorado faces three tough opponents in FC Dallas, Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake to close out the regular season, the first two of which are on the road.
Is the team intimidated by facing the top three teams in the loaded Western table in consecutive matches?
"We will go to two fierce competitors in Dallas and L.A. knowing that there is a possibility, if we do our jobs properly, we could run into those teams in the postseason," Smith said. "The guys are going to want to put down a bit of a marker when we go away to say to these teams, 'Look, we are a team that's going to be difficult to play against.'"
That answer gives you the feeling the Rapids are relishing the late-season opportunity to make a statement.
"It's a very different feeling around this group to last year's," Smith said. "I hope that continues, you can never be sure, but all the omens are pretty good at the moment, going into another home game [on Saturday vs. D.C. United]."
As for that chopping block, consider the current group safe for the time being.