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Eastern Conference Championship

Akpan gamble pays off for Rapids, Pareja in slump-buster

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The Colorado Rapids knew they were past due to snap out of their recent goal-scoring funk, which had seen them tally multiple goals just once in their last 11 games.

They just didn’t expect it to be a little-used reserve forward who’d get them over the hump.

Star striker Conor Casey watched from the sidelines as Andre Akpan – who came into Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Timbers with just one league start to his name all season – set the tone by scoring in the sixth minute of a slump-busting win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

OPTA CHALKBOARD: Rapids dominate the right flank in 3-0 win

“Andre has been growing in the process,” Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSsoccer.com post-game on Wednesday. “I thought the last month, Andre has been showing his best, getting minutes in the games, and today he started and scored. I think he’s a very legitimate option right now for us.”

Casey, who Pareja said didn’t start because of knee problems stemming from last Friday’s 1-0 loss to Portland, has been in and out of the Rapids’ lineup all season, forcing Pareja to try and find solutions for his largely misfiring squad. So the Rapids skipper offered an opportunity to the 24-year-old Akpan, who in turn delivered with his first league goal of the season.

Akpan’s goal came after fellow youngster Tony Cascio appeared to misplay a cross into the box, which then fell at the feet of Akpan, who gladly fired into the back of the net.

But while it was Akpan’s goal that got the scoring started for the Rapids, it was Cascio’s 27th minute goal that turned out to be the key moment of the match. After Cascio’s sliding shot was initially saved by Timbers ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts, the 22-year-old rookie got up, turned around and blasted a shot off Ricketts’ mitts and into the net for the all-important 2-0 lead, which handed the Rapids their first multiple-goal advantage in over two months.

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“It’s just opportunities, finishing opportunities,” Cascio told MLSsoccer.com post-game on Wednesday. “I had a few chances tonight, and luckily I got one, and it was good.”

All-in-all, Pareja’s gamble to play two relatively unproven youngsters worked in stopping the Rapids’ four-game winless streak, and the coach plans to look to Akpan and Cascio again in the future.

“The boys have been creating options for many games, and we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net,” Pareja said. “In the end, the goals give you the points and the results. Today, we finally found the net. It was something very positive. We’re very proud of the young guys because they came in and helped us.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.