Mile High musical chairs: Oscar Pareja explains why he constantly shuffles Colorado Rapids lineups

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – For novice Colorado Rapids fans and ultra die-hards alike, correctly guessing head coach Oscar Pareja’s weekly lineups is about as easy as picking winning Powerball numbers.

From Day 1, Pareja has preached accountability from his team, threatening to pull players for dips in form while also encouraging competition and opportunity for those who show well in practice, leading to constantly shuffling lineups and, at times, formations as well.

In the Rapids’ 2-1 win over FC Dallas on Saturday night, for example, Pareja left creative midfielder Martin Rivero on the bench, instead starting Atiba Harris in his place. Veteran midfielder Nick LaBrocca, a starter in Colorado’s 2-1 road win over the Galaxy the week prior, didn’t even make the bench, with Harris and Anthony Wallace selected in the midfield over him.

Veteran Vicente Sanchez debuted on the left side of the midfield, and Dillon Powers moved into a central attacking midfield role after playing deeper the week prior.

The primary reason for all that movement? Pareja said he wanted to go with a bigger lineup against a tall FC Dallas side, leaving the smaller Rivero and LaBrocca on the bench, while giving Harris and the more physical Powers a chance in the midfield.

And it worked.

“[Lineups] depend on the opponent or the plan of the game, depending on what we need or what we want,” Pareja said. “I want to say that one of the best players against Los Angeles was Nick LaBrocca. And Nick wasn’t in the roster [Saturday].”

Pareja’s version of musical chairs has helped the Rapids earn big results, particularly of late.

Heading into Friday night’s crucial encounter against the Timbers at JELD-WEN Field (10 pm ET; NBCSN), the Rapids have recorded a result in 11 of their last 12 matches, including three wins in their last four games, boosting them to the third spot in the West with only five matches to go in the regular season.

Playing matchups rather than players is a new luxury for Pareja and the Rapids, who, with only five games to go, are as healthy as they’ve been all year, which will likely keep the coach's lineups predictably unpredictable.

“That’s the way that we are working with this group,” Pareja said. “They know that they have a role to help the team. And everybody brings something different. And that versatility and that chemistry, that makes us as a whole a better team.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.