CCL Preview: Rapids head to Mexico with strong squad

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – After the 2-1 home defeat against Real España in the CONCACAF Champions League on Sept. 21, the Colorado Rapids coaches and players all but admitted their CCL dream was over.

Fast-forward almost a month and, remarkably, the Rapids could qualify for the quarterfinal stage of the tournament with a win in Mexico against Santos Laguna on Wednesday night (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer).

One shocking 3-1 victory over Isidro Metapán in El Salvador was the catalyst that turned the tables and gave the defending MLS Cup champions renewed life and a shot at finishing second in Group B behind Santos.

What surprised most about the win at Metapán was that it was virtually a Rapids reserve team that got the result in a venue where the hosts had not lost in CCL play, and having to do so without head coach Gray Smith, who stayed behind in Colorado to prepare his first teamers for an important MLS game against FC Dallas.

This time around, the traveling squad has a stronger air about it, and the head coach is also on the plane.

“It’s going to be a bit of a mix, but the starting lineup isn’t going to be that much different than it was last Friday [against Real Salt Lake],” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz told MLSsoccer.com.

Larentowicz looks set to start in central midfield with Ross LaBauex, himself an important player for the Rapids in CCL this year. Missing from the midfielder, however, will be Pablo Mastroeni (concussion) and Jamie Smith (calf), who are staying behind due to mend their injuries.

Other first-teamers absent from the contest will be Brian Mullan, Tyrone Marshall and ‘keeper Matt Pickens, who remained in Colorado to focus on the team’s final regular-season game against Vancouver on Saturday.

Those who did make the trip to Mexico include back line stalwarts Kosuke Kimura, Marvell Wynne and Drew Moore. Also joining the defensive fold might be Scott Palguta, who has played in every CCL game thus far. The Rapids will need a strong performance from the quartet if they are to contain a Santos team that destroyed them 4-1 in their previous CCL outing.

The forward contingent also has a first team air about it. Sanna Nyassi and Omar Cummings have been the first-choice attacking duo in recent weeks, and they will be joined on the airplane by Caleb Folan – who could get the start after an impressive substitute performance against Salt Lake last Friday – and Macoumba Kandji.

The one weakness appears to be at wide midfield. With Mullan and Jamie Smith out, Wells Thompson is the only regular winger available, which could tempt Gary Smith to start Kandji out wide as a result.

Whoever does start, the head coach knows his team will be focused.

“We have the opportunity in 90 minutes of football on Wednesday to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League, which is something I think all the players would like to achieve,” Smith said. “At this point, it’s been along hard road. There have been some difficulties and some stresses involved, but it comes down to 90 minutes of football.”

Nick Thomas covers the Rapids for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at nthomas459@gmail.com.