COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The headlines have been all about New York and Los Angeles, about Thierry Henry and David Beckham, not to mention Landon Donovan, Rafa Márquez and Juan Pablo Angel.
Granted, Friday night’s game is a marquee matchup – but the following day sees an arguably equally huge game between two Rocky Mountain rivals at a crucial stage of the MLS season.
One of them, Real Salt Lake, happens to be the current MLS champions and holders of the longest unbeaten home record in the MLS. The other, the Colorado Rapids, are a team in good form and quietly working their way up the Western Conference, peaking at the right time and entering into serious playoff contention.
Unlike the Red Bulls or Galaxy, the Rapids have no Designated Players (neither do Salt Lake, for that matter), nor a jersey sponsor.
Media coverage of the team, both locally and nationally, is not widespread. In a city dominated by the Denver Broncos, the Colorado Rockies, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche, there doesn’t appear to be much room for its unfashionable soccer team.
But the Rapids’ 2010 record is very similar to the much-discussed Red Bulls. While New York have four more points than Colorado, the Rapids have a game in hand. Both teams have scored 32 goals, and the Rapids have a superior goal difference.
And unlike previous years, when they have faltered in the home stretch, the Rapids are getting stronger as they approach the postseason. The team has won its last three home games by convincing 3-0 margins. The additions last week of veteran Brian Mullan from Houston (a four-time MLS Cup winner) and Macoumba Kandji from New York have strengthened the squad.
Rapids head coach Gary Smith doesn’t see a lack of respect from other MLS teams, per se, but he is puzzled by some of the media reaction to his team, whether they are playing well or poorly.
“I see some of the publicity, the press, and I see any excitement surrounding the group blunted for whatever reason,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week. “The way the team is playing and some of the guys I’ve added is not highlighted and, when we lose, it’s almost as if it was expected.”
But Smith doesn’t want the other extreme where the bar is raised too high and then inflated expectations are not met, either. He is more than aware the Rapids haven’t made the postseason in recent years.
And he certainly doesn’t want to talk about winning the MLS Cup. He simply wants to take the team convincingly into the playoffs and compete in the postseason. The team is in good form at the right time, but there is still a lot of work to do.
“We have three extremely tough games away from home [at Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Los Angeles],” he said. “We have moved forward nicely and it’s a very determined and competitive group that is starting to see a little form.
“But it is not my style to be overly brash about where this is going. For too long, the club has produced nothing and performed poorly. It is naïve to raise the profile of the group overly.”
Build a team that is a genuine playoff contender and can compete well in the postseason – that’s Smith’s aim. He knows that such achievements should raise the appreciation of the Rapids within MLS in general.
Perhaps adding a DP at some point would help raise the underappreciated team’s profile?
“Maybe a DP would get us more acclaim and would give us more press,” Smith conceded, “but I like the manner in which the team is going about its business and their performances are showing what they are about.”
Players such as Omar Cummings, Conor Casey and Pablo Mastroeni are all but DPs in his eyes. Club captain Mastroeni is, according to Smith, playing some of his best soccer ever.
“Some of these guys are not necessarily household names like Henry and Beckham, but they all go about their business in a fabulous way and have helped get us into a great position,” he said.
“[Edson] Buddle and Donovan could make an exceptional claim on Omar and Conor as the best strike pair in the league, but this is the second year running these guys have produced some excellent football. They are extremely hard-working and genuine guys."
Rapids managing director Jeff Plush has intimated a DP signing is not off limits and he said he would expect such a move to improve the team’s image nationally.
“Any target we have would have to matter both off the pitch and on, and it would have to be someone who can help us build our business and brand,” he told MLSsoccer.com.
But Plush, like Smith, wants to focus on the excellence of the team they have right now and their move into the postseason.
“We are not top in the mind on either coast and we have to force our way into the national dialogue,” Plush said. “The only way to do that is by winning.”
What better way to do that than upset their Rocky Mountain rivals this weekend and put an end to RSL's 23-game unbeaten streak at Rio Tinto stadium? Maybe then the Rapids will get some of the national notice they deserve.