COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Forward Andre Akpan was looking forward to opening the magnum of champagne he received for his Man of the Match performance for the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night after his goal clinched the first point for the defending MLS Cup champions in four games.
The second-year player, making his first-ever MLS league start, fired a hard shot into the roof of the net in the 49th minute following a perfect through ball behind the defense from strike partner Omar Cummings. It was precisely the response the Rapids needed early in the second half after they fell behind to a goal by Chicago’s Marco Pappa goal in the 43rd minute of the first half.
Akpan almost ignored his teammates on the field to sprint over to the bench where players such as Ross LaBaeux and Steward Ceus embraced him to celebrate his first MLS goal. These are players who have worked together daily for the past year-and-a-half or so with very limited opportunities to show their talent on the field.
“That was out of joy and adrenalin,” Akpan said of his sprint towards the bench following the goal. “It’s nice to go and have a celebration with them. It doesn’t happen too often.”
Manager Gary Smith expressed his delight at the way Akpan and Cummings had combined, especially given the fact they formed the sixth different strike partnership the Rapids have used in just seven games, mainly because of extensive injuries to the club’s forward line.
“I thought the pair of them were great,” Smith said. “There’s always going to be that little bit of miscommunication, a lack of rapport. It’s probably Omar’s fourth partner. At the moment, it’s our time of the season to dig deep and I thought they did tonight.”
Smith said he was particularly happy with the way the 23-year-old Akpan responded to the challenge.
“I thought Andre was wonderful tonight,” the manager said. “He really put in a shift. He looked very well balanced, he showed some nice touches and creativity, and, when all of our forwards are fit, I have a bit of a choice.”
The strike partnership certainly offered different options to ones that may typically be used with bigger forwards such as Conor Casey and Caleb Folan, who tend to rely more on hold-up play.
Akpan and Cummings both said they were encouraged by the coaching staff to make as many angled runs at and behind the Fire defense as they could. The Jamaican felt good about how the new partnership worked out.
“He’s been doing very well in practice,” Cummings said of Akpan. “We are not big forwards and we wanted the ball moving. I always thought he would do well once he got the start.”
It's job at least half done for the Rapids. The aim was to score, play better possession soccer and stop the losing streak. All that was missing was the three points at home. But Smith was still convinced that Saturday night’s performance would help lift some flagging spirits.
“You can always feel disappointed when you don’t win at home,” he said. “But we have had to fight against a lot of adversity. All in all, with a side that has struggled with health, the guys out there gave a terrific display and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
And a huge step in the right direction for Akpan who grabbed a rare opportunity with both hands.