Intensity cranks up as Colorado Rapids return to full health: "They know they’re competing for a job"

Oscar Pareja looks on vs. Toronto FC

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – It’s exactly what Oscar Pareja’s been waiting for since he took the Colorado Rapids head coaching job back in January 2012.

For the first time in his 16 months in charge, Pareja has competition at just about every position on the field. For the first time, he has full confidence in his 18-man squad on Saturdays.

And for the first time, he has what he believes is the squad that he’s wanted ever since his arrival at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

READ: Return to health leads to most participants at Rapids training since start of 2013

“I have not seen this group since [I’ve been] here with such a unity that they have at the moment,” Pareja said on Wednesday. “When [the players] come to training, and they know they’re competing for a job, that’s the environment that we want to create for them.”

The over-achieving Rapids, who have fought through a seemingly never-ending list of critical injuries to unexpectedly sit in fifth in the Western Conference standings, are as close to full health as they’ve been all season. At Wednesday’s practice, every player except for center back Diego Calderón was able to take part in some capacity as Colorado prepare for Saturday's match with Chivas USA (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

Deshorn Brown, Edson Buddle, Jaime Castrillón, Kevin Harbottle, Pablo Mastroeni, Matt Pickens, Martín Rivero, Jamie Smith, Hendry Thomas and Marvell Wynne have all returned to practice and/or the lineup in the last few weeks, bolstering the squad’s depth after Pareja spent much of the first two months of the season struggling to assemble a proper 18-man squad.

READ: Finally healthy, Rivero eager to stay with Colorado: "I'm comfortable here"

Now, however, with all his injured ‘starters’ returning, Pareja will have to make the difficult decisions he’s long been waiting to sweat over.

“The competitiveness and skill level at practice has been higher this year,” 14-year veteran right back Brian Mullan told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “And as you can see, it translates into the games with all these injuries that we’ve had and the results we’ve been getting.”

Pareja wants depth. He doesn’t want to have a steady starting 11 with a predictable lineup week in and week out. The fiery, ever-competitive former player wants battles at every position and at every practice, where his players are constantly looking over their shoulders in an attempt to improve themselves and the team.

READ: Rapids midfielder Nathan Sturgis makes most of his chance

And finally, he has it.

“[The] competition is there for all,” Pareja said. “But the most important part is that they’re more united than ever. That’s a great thing to have.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.