COLUMBUS, Ohio – Colorado Rapids head coach Gary Smith said his team's series victory over the Columbus Crew was a testament to the group's determination and self-belief.
The Rapids earned a 2-2 aggregate score with Columbus over two legs before ending the Crew's season with a PK shootout on Saturday night. However, it took an 84th-minute Conor Casey goal to keep the Rapids alive in the playoffs.
“I am so so pleased for the players,” Smith said. “When you put in as much effort, show as much passion and play as well as they did, it’s always great to get a reward.”
That reward is an Eastern Conference championship next weekend in Colorado against San Jose and the possibility of then qualifying for MLS Cup in Toronto.
The Rapids' managing director, Jeff Plush, told MLSsoccer.com that he was exhausted after Saturday’s drama but very much looking forward to next weekend.
“I am so very proud of this group,” he said. “They withstood a phenomenal challenge from the Crew in that first half. It is very exciting for our club and our group. We still have more to achieve and that is a chance for a trophy on Saturday in Denver.”
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As the Rapids lined-up on the halfway line to support each other through the penalty kick drama, their belief in each other was clear to see. All five penalties were well executed with only Macoumba Kandji’s close to being saved by Crew goalie Andy Gruenebaum.
As each one went in, the players clapped, high-fived and showed their unity.
“We said before the game we are not so sure that many people care about us, but we care about each other,” Jeff Larentowicz said after the game. “We definitely fight for each other. At this point, we have come together and there is real cohesion.”
Defender Drew Moor said the ability of the team to bounce back after the challenges of that opening period was proof positive of a real belief in each other.
“They had the front foot for the first 20 minutes and it was as tough as it looked,” Moor told MLSsoccer.com. “We have great individuals, but we have a great team and we have the characters and the attitudes to pull off things like that.”
Kandji said the cohesion of the team helped him adjust quickly when he came on as a 76th minute substitute with the Rapids down 2-0 and facing playoff elimination.
“Everybody was playing for each other and showing for each other and that makes it easier,” he told MLSsoccer.com.
The Rapids will now play San Jose for the Eastern Conference title at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., Saturday Nov. 13. Kickoff is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. ET.