Countdown to First Kick: 14 Casey nears return

As First Kick, presented by Dick's Sporting Goods approaches, MLSsoccer.com is marking each passing day with a different statistic, observation or talking point, setting the stage for the beginning of the 2012 MLS campaign. Be sure to check out all of the previous days here.

14 –  Appearances in 2011 by Rapids forward Conor Casey

For all the personal turmoil and triumph Conor Casey dealt with in 2010, he would certainly trade his mixed fortunes that year for what he had to endure last season in Colorado.

Flash back two summers ago for the Rapids striker and it’s a watershed moment: He’s been left out of US national team head coach Bob Bradley’s World Cup camp, and he’s never going back. That’s effectively what he said after what amounted to the latest snub, which saw one of the most prolific goal-scoring forwards in MLS settle for heartbreak instead of South Africa.

WATCH: Casey’s drive beats Nielsen

But Casey got the last laugh that November, when he scored a goal during a gritty postseason series against the Columbus Crew and then again in the MLS Cup final against FC Dallas, helping the Rapids white-knuckle their way to the first MLS title in franchise history.

Casey was primed for another solid season in 2011, but fate dealt him a cruel blow just 14 games in. That’s when a seemingly innocuous step on the turf in Seattle resulted in a snapped Achilles tendon and an abrupt, painful end to his year, which gave the Rapids a crisis at the forward position and instantly put the champs’ hopes of defending their crown in serious jeopardy.

Of course, Colorado couldn’t fully make up for Casey’s absence, and his presence up top was sorely missed when the club limped out of the postseason against a younger, healthier, take-no-prisoners club from Kansas City.

But now, after a lengthy rehab session that actually saw Casey progress faster than expected, the big man is back. Though he’s a question mark for the Rapids’ postseason rematch against the Crew to open the season at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on March 10, there’s no doubt the Rapids expect him as healthy and headstrong as ever by the time the season really kicks into gear this spring.

So what does he bring to the Rapids? When he and fellow striker Omar Cummings are healthy, they’re perhaps the best yin and yang tandem in the league, a perfect match of brute strength (Casey) and blazing speed (Cummings), and both have an uncanny knack for finding the back of the net by any means necessary.

Look no further than the most crucial goal of Casey’s MLS career, which came during the 2010 MLS Cup. He somehow digs the ball out of a clumsy and cluttered scrum in front of the FC Dallas net and toe pokes it past MLS great Kevin Hartmann from his backside, giving the Rapids just enough lifeblood to eventually win the game in extra time.

That’s quintessential Casey, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He isn’t always pretty, but he’s always effective. His 46 goals over the last 86 regular season games speak to that.

Expect him to be hell-bent on returning to the upper echelon of MLS strikers in 2012. He spent the bulk of last season watching players like Robbie Keane, Chris Wondolowksi and Thierry Henry dominate the headlines, but it’s tough to think a healthy Casey won’t regain his form this year and continue burying any personal disappointments deeper into the past.

The Colorado Rapids open their 2012 season at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on March 10 against the Columbus Crew.  GET TICKETS!

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WATCH: Casey settles and slots past Cannon