This year, the Colorado Rapids go on the offensive. New coach Fernando Clavijo revamped the team with the purpose of reinforcing the attacking sector of the Rapids, the lowest scoring team in MLS in 2004.
The Rapids brought in forward Jeff Cunningham from Columbus, to join Jean Philippe Peguero and increase the offensive output of a team that scored only 29 goals in 30 matches. In 2004, the team was too tentative in going forward, netting barely a goal a game, and that was especially evident in the playoff series against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"Clavijo treats you like a professional," says veteran Pablo Mastroeni. "Before, we had too much structure; We had creativity. Now it's more fluid [on the field]."
"Fernando has been a player at the highest levels, and so he has instant credibility and respect," notes veteran midfielder Chris Henderson, who played on the U.S. national team with his current coach and whose main job will be to provide crosses for Peguero and Cunningham.
Many players feel the team was too schematic under former coach Tim Hankinson.
"We were very predictable," explains Henderson. "Clavijo lets you make the decisions."
However, Clavijo himself has some decisions to make. He pared his roster down to 18 on March 1, and then decided which of the camp invitees under 24 years of age, like Haitian international defender Stephane Guillame, could fit in the developmental squad.
Forward and Miami native Luchi Gonzalez came back to MLS from Sporting Cristal of Peru and Hunter Freeman is a new addition to the defense. Moreover, veterans with something to prove, like Jamaican international Wolde Harris, force the coach to consider his options carefully.
"I need to strengthen several positions, especially in attack, and we need as much time to work as possible," said Clavijo, whose last coaching stint was with the Haitian national team. "We came back from a preseason in Ecuador, and I asked [U.S. national team coach] Bruce Arena not to take my players for a month just to train with them."
If the attack was ineffective last year, Colorado is rock-solid on defense. National team goalkeeper Joe Cannon anchors the back. A young Nat Borchers provides size in the middle of the defense and he is flanked by teammate Ritchie Kotschau.
Mastroeni and Kyle Beckerman are mainstays at defensive midfield, while Mark Chung and Henderson will be among the players fighting for two of four starting midfield spots.
"It's going to be better than last year," said Peguero. To partner with Cunningham, a Jamaican-born U.S. international who arrived from the Crew.
The sooner the two forwards can develop a good understanding, the better. "I'm looking to develop that relationship with Peguero. I want to play some quick exchanges. I don't think any player in the league can keep up with me one-on-one," said Cunningham.
"We need [field] chemistry to make the jump," said Henderson. "We always make the playoffs then get knocked out in the semis.
"The fans want an attacking and exciting game. But who doesn't? People were saying, 'Why aren't Chung and Henderson scoring 11 goals [a year]?' Well, before I was getting passes from [Carlos] Valderrama [at the Miami Fusion]."
To shore up depth at the wide midfield positions, Clavijo brought in 26-year-old Martin Morales, who was free after playing for Racing of Argentina (1998-99) and Racing of Montevideo.
"American soccer is very fast and phyisical. Players don't dribble the ball, and there's no let up," Morales said.
Mastroeni, the U.S. national team veteran who is expecting the birth of his first child at the end of the month, said that he is not necessarily focused on wins.
"A successful season would be to have fun," explained Mastroeni.
Keyvan Antonio Heydari is an international journalist and television commentator located in Miami. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.