With huge month looming, Rapids approach must-win mode

Suddenly, it feels like do-or-die for the Colorado Rapids.

The defending MLS Cup champs got their due credit from President Obama during a ceremony at the White House on Monday, but they’re well aware that there’s work to do if they hope to return next year as 2011 champions.

The 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the Columbus Crew on Sunday was the second loss in an as many weeks for the Rapids, who have been outscored 7-2 in their previous two matches. Bad defensive errors on the first three goals condemned Colorado, who also lost forward Conor Casey to a red card for a harsh challenge on Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer.

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Casey won’t be available for the team’s home matchup on Sunday against Houston, which marks the start of a seven-game stretch in July that could define the team’s season.

“It’s going to be a very big month,” head coach Gary Smith told MLSsoccer.com. “This next month will really shape our season and the players are going to have to mentally and physically recover and refocus.

“Next Sunday,” Smith insisted, “we have to win.”

Smith rarely describes games as “must-wins,” but he was clearly frustrated after Sunday’s loss that, even with his team returning to something like full health, recent results have not been good.

Sunday’s game saw Omar Cummings get another 45 minutes under his belt as he recovers from a sprained ankle but, with Casey’s early ejection, the Cummings/Casey partnership has still barely played together all season.

Brian Mullan also started and logged 68 minutes after serving his 10-game suspension, Jamie Smith played a full 90 minutes after missing the LA Galaxy game the previous weekend and Marvell Wynne looks likely to be available against Houston.

Macoumba Kandji, meanwhile, should also be back at some point in July after his lengthy ligament injury problem.

But all that won’t necessarily add up to results for the Rapids unless they begin to return to championship form soon.

“The guys will have to look very deep at what we are about to see where we are going this season,” Smith said.