Colorado Rapids look to newly returned Shane O'Neill to shore up faltering defense

Shane O'Neill for Colorado Rapids

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Three continents and 24 hours worth of flying later, and center back Shane O’Neill is ready to help shore up the Colorado Rapids’ crumbling backline.

When Colorado host the New York Red Bulls on a Fourth of July showdown at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (9:30 pm ET, MLS Live), the Rapids will step on the field fresh off a last-gasp thrilling 4-3 win over Montreal last Saturday, but their defense will come in at their lowest point so far this season.

The Rapids allowed 12 goals in five MLS games in June, including at least two goals in each of their matches. It has come mostly as a result of repeated individual mental miscues and miscommunication along the backline, leaving head coach Oscar Pareja scratching his head for answers.

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“It’s difficult [this time of year] because we don’t have too much time really to train,” Pareja said this week of fixing the team’s defensive miscues. “We’re analyzing ourselves to see how we can fix the defensive side.”

Enter the 19-year-old O’Neill, fresh off a trip to Turkey with the US Under-20 national team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. After an adventurous flight back from Turkey (with connections in Istanbul and a lengthy delay in New York), O’Neill was back in training on Monday for the first time since leaving the Rapids on June 1, and could return to his starting center back spot just in time to defend Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls on Thursday night.

“I feel ready, but I have to fight for my spot again,” said O’Neill, who scored a goal in two starts during the U-20 World Cup. “At the end of the day, it’s what the coach wants. If he wants me in there, I’ll do my best. I think me and Drew [Moor] have a pretty good connection there.”

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With a big postgame fireworks show drawing a large crowd, the Fourth of July game is always one of the bigger dates on the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park calendar. And on Thursday, the Rapids will hope to deliver fireworks on the pitch, despite being without attacking midfielder Martín Rivero.

“We have three objectives in the game: The first is to give joy to our fans,” Pareja said. “The other ones would be winning the game, obviously, getting the points back here. I would be delighted to see our team get three points if we score a goal or three.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.