CCL Preview: Rapids to play starters in group opener

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Colorado Rapids head coach Gary Smith didn’t exactly get on the bandwagon earlier this year when all MLS fans were encouraged to get behind Real Salt Lake in their effort to win the CONCACAF Champions League.

Why? He wants his club to be the first MLS team to win the competition.

Their chance to do so begins on Wednesday as the Rapids start the 2011-12 campaign at home against Isidro Metapán of El Salvador (10 pm ET; FOX Soccer, www.concacaf.com). Smith said he is determined to put out a strong side that won’t be radically different from one he would choose for an MLS game. His selection will be a statement of intent.

READ: GROUP B PREVIEW

“I want to make sure, as much as physically possible, we have an energetic team, an aggressive team that’s got goals in it,” he said. “Our home games, we’ve got to win. Come Wednesday, I’ll try to put out the most aggressive team possible to win a game of football.”

Such aggression and focus on goals will very likely mean Omar Cummings and Sanna Nyassi starting up front, Smith said. Both faced grueling travel schedules with their national teams last week, and only Cummings made the weekend trip to San Jose, playing just 30 minutes as a second-half substitute. Mac Kandji could also play a major attacking role off the bench given his long-awaited return from injury at the weekend.

The Rapids have already announced a 23-man roster for this week’s CCL game, and midfielder Jamie Smith and defender Anthony Wallace have been ruled out with injuries.

After the Rapids’ 2-1 win over the Earthquakes on Saturday, Smith said there had been some discussion within the club about playing one of the backup goalkeepers Wednesday to give Matt Pickens a rest. But the coach has since ruled out such a change.

“I want to continue the fluency within that [defensive] group,” Smith told MLSsoccer.com. “There will be one or two changes in the outfield only.”

The time for any substantial squad rotation could be more likely to come on the CCL road trip games. That first away game falls on Wednesday next week at Real España, a match sandwiched between two MLS matches: on Aug. 20 at home to Chivas USA and on Aug. 27 away to the Chicago Fire.

“It will be so hard to ask the senior players to travel all the way and then ask them to play at home or straight after,” defender Kosuke Kimura told MLSsoccer.com. “I think we will keep those [senior] guys for the CONCACAF home games. We have to rotate [the squad], we have to keep some fresh legs whenever we can.”

On the other hand, the experience of playing in tough and unfamiliar venues will also be much needed. Seven of the Rapids players have CCL experience with their previous clubs, including former Seattle Sounders players Tyrone Marshall and Nyassi. The pair played against Metapán in last year’s CCL preliminary round and helped eliminate the Salvadoran club.

Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz also has some CCL experience under his belt, playing for his former club the New England Revolution in Trinidad.

“I think that the Champions League will be a squad effort, and I think we will have to focus on having everybody ready and making sure that the guys that do get their opportunities play well,” Larentowicz told MLSsoccer.com. “Whether it’s a good team or a bad team, the chances are we are not going to know anything about them anyway. When they come in, we just hope we can focus on what we need to do as a team.”

More immediately, that focus has to be on Wednesday when the Rapids trot out against what looks the weakest team in the group. Metapán have lost all of their six road trip CCL games so far, scoring only twice and conceding 18 goals.

Nevertheless, nobody is expecting an easy game even if expectations are raised because the Rapids are at home. Gary Smith said he saw a good Metapán performance in their home game against the Puerto Rico Islanders which saw the team qualify from the preliminary stage.

“The game against Puerto Rico in El Salvador was an extremely competitive one,” he said. “Our home games are therefore vitally important.”