Midterm Grades: Colorado Rapids pleased, but not satisfied with surprisingly strong start to 2014

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Heading into the 2014 season, their first under rookie head coach Pablo Mastroeni, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the new-look Colorado Rapids.

Gone was midfield ace Hendry Thomas and, far more notably, head coach Oscar Pareja. The Colombian returned to Dallas after a messy, drawn-out, back-and-forth tug-of-war that left the Rapids without a head coach until March 8, when Mastroeni was announced as the club’s new skipper.

Fortunately for the Rapids and their fans, however, things have turned out quite differently than those humble preseason expectations, at least through the mathematical halfway point of the season.

Colorado sit right amidst the Western Conference playoff picture, a point ahead of their record-setting 2013 pace of 51, and they’ve looked particularly strong of late, posting a 3-1-2 record in their last six MLS matches.

Rapids captain Drew Moor credited his former teammate Mastroeni for successfully shouldering the load early in his debut season as a head coach.

“It’s been successful so far,” Moor told MLSsoccer.com of his thoughts on the first half of the season. “Everybody’s buying into what [Mastroeni] wants and he demands from us – which is a lot.

“Pablo’s one of those guys, regardless of tactics and formations and systems, he brings the absolute best out of every single player that steps on the field, certainly in training, and I think that’s translated to the matches so far. And I think that’s why we’re in a decent position right now.”

Outside of Mastroeni, midfielder Dillon Powers has appeared to take the next step in his growth as a player, fellow 2013 first-round SuperDraft pick Deshorn Brown has been on a scoring tear over the last six weeks and the team’s young core is developing as planned.

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin picked up where he left off after a fantastic 2013 MLS debut campaign. New acquisition Jose Mari, despite a sprained ankle suffered late last month, has slotted in comfortably as an effective ball distributor in front of the back four, and the Rapids have admirably survived Designated Player Gabriel Torres’ unproductive start and a series of early-season injuries to emerge in a solid third-place spot after 17 matches.

Consistency isn’t quite there, particularly on the road, where Colorado has just one point in their last four MLS matches. Yet Mastroeni says he isn’t necessarily as focused on game-by-game results as he is the overall picture, a picture he’s enjoyed watching come to fruition so far.

But he also knows there’s plenty of work to be done over the season’s final three months.

“More importantly, I just think the spirit of the group, being the way it is halfway through, is really encouraging moving forward,” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com this week. “What I’ve realized at the halfway point is we have a long ways to go, and we need to work twice as hard as we did in the first 17 games in order to get to a point where we’re going back at the end of the season going, ‘That was a good year.' And we need to build on that moving forward.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.