D.C. United might not like it, but a frustrating loss will be followed with one of the most difficult fixtures on the schedule: Playing away against the MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids. It's always tough to play a cup-winning team that has lost almost nothing from the previous season, but Gary Smith's team has added depth to boot and, as always, have MLS's most well-known altitude advantage. In other words, this is going to be a tough one.
Read on to see what makes the Rapids tick, and what DCU has to do to take a result from the Rockies.
The Rapids will have few, if any, surprises in their lineup:
The only question marks, for Conor Casey and Matt Pickens, are injury-related. Both players are listed as probable - Casey with a calf strain, and Pickens with a groin issue - but in all likelihood, they will play. If Casey can't go, or Smith decides to hold him out (the Rapids have to think long term due to their involvement in this year's CONCACAF Champions League group stage), look for newcomer Caleb Folan, who has played for Ireland, to replace him. Folan is a similar sort of player, so there won't be a particularly big difference either way. Pickens appears to be backed up by Ian Joyce, who got the call in Colorado's 2-1 Open Cup qualifying loss at Chicago this past Wednesday.
The biggest thing to worry about from the Rapids is that they attack down the wings as well as anyone in MLS. It's not just wide men Brian Mullan and Jamie Smith; it's the never-ending overlaps from Kosuke Kimura (who played through a bout with shingles last week) and the ability of Omar Cummings to drift wide, particularly to the right. For either Marc Burch or Daniel Woolard - both are likely to play, with one at left back and one centrally - this is likely going to be the single toughest game of the season. Yes, tougher than David Beckham, or Dane Richards, or anyone else.
It's the fact that the Rapids can attack that area of the field through three different players, all of whom are dangerous in their own way. Kimura came into MLS as a high-energy guy with mediocre skill, but has worked hard to develop strong crossing ability that is very much underrated around the league. He's a threat from traditional crossing positions deep on the wing as well as by playing the deep cross from just inside the opposition half. Cummings, meanwhile, tends to drift wide to either isolate a fullback 1v1 and force a tackle in a dangerous spot, or hit hard, low crosses for Casey or either central midfielder arriving via a late run. Mullan balances the two approaches, and can also cover for either player to help Colorado maintain their shape.
Another worry when dealing with the Rapids is the long shot. Jamie Smith scored a spectacular goal in the season-opener against the Portland Timbers, while Larentowicz possesses one of the hardest shots in all of MLS (and perhaps in MLS history). Ideally, D.C. will snuff this threat out not by blocking shots but by simply occupying the right spaces so that neither player can face goal comfortably.
It will also be important to avoid giving away free kicks in close to goal, which will be tricky with Cummings lurking about. The Rapids are a real threat to score both shooting directly on goal and serving the ball into the box, and it's the same two players that will stand over the ball. Larentowicz will opt for power, while Smith will be the finesse option. It's not just the service, though; Casey and Drew Moor both excel at scoring from set pieces thanks to their size, leaping ability, and timing.
In the center of midfield, what the Rapids lack in creativity they make up for in just about everything else. Both Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni offer up tough, experienced play that usually allows Colorado to dictate how the game is played. Even at full strength, this would be a tough task; with Clyde Simms out, it would be fair to say that merely matching the Rapids in this department would be a quality outcome.
The keys here will be fairly simple: Dax McCarty and Kurt Morsink can't afford any needless turnovers, and the entire United team needs to be aware of how quickly the Rapids like to spray the ball to the wings. If D.C. can force Mastroeni and Larentowicz to have to be the primary creators by shutting off the supply lines to the wide men, they'll be on the right path toward taking at least a point from a venue that has not been kind to the club (last year's totally unexpected win notwithstanding).
In the attack, D.C. will be up against a well-drilled, cohesive team that defends well all over the field. However, with quick enough passing and good movement, the Black-and-Red may be able to break that structure a little bit and isolate defenders. If the Rapids have a weakness, it's that Kimura, Marvell Wynne, and (especially) Anthony Wallace do make the occasional mistake when forced to think quickly. The United that dismantled the Columbus Crew moved well enough to accomplish this; the more sluggish group that showed up for the first half against the Revolution will definitely not.
Speaking of the 2-1 loss in New England, D.C. was done in by a poor start in that game. A huge key against the Rapids will be how United comes out of the gate. With the altitude sure to be a factor, Ben Olsen's side can ill-afford to give away an early goal and let the Rapids settle into the game they want to play. While an early goal for D.C. would be great, the minimum acceptable standard is simply to avoid giving a goal away and to show the Rapids that they're in for a real battle. Matching their fight and intensity from the opening whistle, especially with a back four missing three starters, is vital.
The bottom line is that this will be a very tough game for D.C. The Rapids are strong at just about every position, they have depth, and they are as confident as anyone in MLS right now. While wins over Portland and Chivas USA are hardly landmark victories, it was clear in both games that Colorado were absolutely sure they would win the game. Teams this confident don't give away points, particularly at home. As much as United was praised for its play in the season-opener, they'll have to find a new level to fly back to Washington with a draw or a win.