The 4-1 loss that D.C. United suffered at the hands of the Colorado Rapids last month seems like it might as well have been last year. The teams have been going in different directions recently, so we turned once again to Rapids blog Burgundy Wave for some fresh perspective.
B&RU: The Rapids started the season with three straight wins, but have captured only five points from their last six matches. What changed?
An unfortunately timed rash of injuries that started about halfway through the last match that they played against D.C. United - the first of them was that hammy injury that Conor Casey suffered which he should just now be recovering from - combined with a string of bad luck in matches, pretty much. I've said before that despite the Rapids only being 4-3-2 after the 3-0-0 start, there hasn't really been a game that has flat out worried me about the Rapids season yet simply because they've either been desperately short handed or lost due to circumstances beyond their control. Last game against the New England Revolution, only four of the first choice starting XI were able to start, detailing just how roughed up the Rapids are in the injury department. At one point in the game last week, a backup defensive midfielder was playing striker, a right back was playing in the midfield and a centerback was playing not only right back but was being forced to make runs up the offense simply because nobody else seemed able to in the patchwork team put together. Captain and possibly most important player on the pitch Pablo Mastroeni was missing for a while, something that the Rapids simply don't have the personnel to deal with since Joesph Nane is their first backup in his position. And obviously, for a run of a few games there they just couldn't get any luck, after losing to Salt Lake in a stoppage time goal that even Salt Lake fans agree was about 6 yards offside they were forced to play down a man for 87 minutes in the now famous Mullan/Zakuani incident game... Fortunately the team looks to be getting healthier starting now, partially because they're running out of people to lose.
B&RU: Colorado is averaging just one goal against per game. Is that sustainable for a team that is normally attack focused?
The Colorado defense is one of the more underrated defenses in the league, I think. While Casey-Cummings and Mastroeni-Larentowicz were making headlines for the Rapids last season, the back four that they've put together was quietly and unspectacularly putting together the best defensive season in Rapids history. They also know how to keep scores against down simply by dominating possession when the team is on their game, just look at the Chicago match where while they couldn't put the ball in the net for most of the match, they won the possession battle almost 70-30 and the normally dangerous Chicago offense was simply unable to string together much of anything simply because they never had the ball. So while a goal a game is probably a bit too low for the Rapids to expect for the rest of the season, they do have their methods of keeping balls out of the net. I expect it to level out to about 1.5 by midseason, but then I also expect that the Rapids offense will be anything resembling healthy by that point so their goals for will be raised as well.
B&RU: The official injury report lists Omar Cummings and Caleb Folan as out, and Conor Casey as probable. Who will start up top? And how many more attackers will need to be injured before the Rapids ask you to come in for jersey sizing?
Casey is listed as probable but it's all but certain that he's going to get the start unless something happens to him pregame like what happened to Mastroeni before the FC Dallas match. This may sound innocuous with the more widely loved Omar Cummings out, but I've said many times that Casey is the class of the Rapids offense - every striker that he's paired with looks better, just look at Cummings when paired with him vs. not, look at Folan when paired with him up top vs. not... etc. The other starter up top will most likely be the suddenly surging second year striker out of Harvard, Andre Akpan. Akpan has been my favorite prospect on the Rapids since he was drafted last year, and earned his first start and first goal against the Fire a few weeks ago. Since then, with the rash of injuries getting worse every week he has looked like the best striker on the team by a very wide margin, and that's including a few games where Cummings was playing. I've called him the 'Next Omar Cummings' before so I'm not feeling quite so bad about seeing him pair with Conor up top against D.C. United.
BW: The Rapids faced a pretty rough patchwork looking back four last time these teams met, what will be different and most likely better about the one they'll see on Saturday?
Its been like night and day. In two matches against Western Conference playoff teams last week, the same D.C. United back line that will start against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday didn't give up a single goal from the run of play. And they did it with two rookies. Shifting Perry Kitchen out to right back has looked like a brilliant move by Ben Olsen, and inserting the athletic Ethan White in the middle has given the team more bite, if less experience. Only three D.C. players (Daniel Woolard, Dax McCarty, and Chris Pontius) who started at Dicks last month will start on Saturday, and two of them started that game outside of their best positions.
BW: Last time these two teams played you tipped me off about Chris Pontius when asked about possible younger or unknowns who we might see some action from. I've noticed his name come up a few times in D.C. United matches recently, how has his season gone and will we see him against the Rapids?
Oh, you'll see him alright. You'll probably see him more than you'd like. Pontius is second on the team in minutes and has started all nine games for United. He'll start Saturday on the left wing, where he'll use his speed and energy to press Colorado's fullbacks and take advantage of any mistakes. With Pontius and Andy Najar each playing up to their potential in recent games, the team's attack has become much more dynamic.
BW: Charlie Davies had criticism levied against him at the season's start because he could only score on penalties it seemed. Now that he's started to show some more regular goal-scoring form, how many do you think he'll put in by season's end?
At one time, Davies was on a pace to score 156 goals in 2011. He's slightly off this pace now, but still has a good shot at winning the Golden Boot. While I do think that MLS defenses will learn to adjust to Davies' speed and aggression to some degree, there's no reason why he can't finish with around 15 goals if he stays healthy.