COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The last time the Colorado Rapids had a CONCACAF Champions League game and an MLS game in the same week, head coach Gary Smith was maligned for keeping the first team behind in Colorado for the CCL tilt to prepare for the domestic league game at the weekend.
That controversial decision from Smith worked, yielding wins in both games. However this time around, with crucial games at Santos Laguna in the CCL on Wednesday (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer) and then a trip to Vancouver on Saturday to wrap up the MLS season, the approach is somewhat different.
The Rapids may have secured their wild card playoff spot over the weekend, but they need a win against Vancouver to guarantee second place in the competition, and the subsequent opportunity to host a play-in game. Similarly, a win over Santos Laguna would also guarantee qualification for the knockout stages of the CCL. If they fail to find a victory in both games, the Rapids are then dependent on other results going their way.
That reality means Smith will be mixing it up this week with some players expected to appear in both games, some staying behind in Colorado and others just making the trip south of the border.
“It might be slightly different to the usual set-up that we would expect,” Smith said about the group traveling to Mexico, "but it will be a team that can win a game of football and get us through to the next round."
Some regular first-teamers will definitely not be making the trip to face Santos, however. Pablo Mastroeni left the field early in the scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake with a mild concussion and Smith is hoping his team captain will be available for the weekend. Jamie Smith is also dealing with a persistent calf problem that restricted his play last weekend to a second-half substitute appearance. In addition, midfielder Joseph Nane has some visa issues that may prevent him from making either trip this week.
Smith said it may be next week before midfield linchpin Mastroeni can get back on the field.
“He’s going this morning for some testing,” Smith said. “What we all hope is that it is positive and he can use this week to make sure his body and, more importantly, any issues he had coming off the field, are fine towards the weekend. Worst-case scenario is that it’s not quite right and he needs a little bit longer for the Wednesday or Thursday [play-in] game, but I’m hoping for Saturday.”
For now, all eyes are on the Santos Laguna game. The Rapids can finish as runners-up even with a draw or loss on Wednesday, but that would depend on what happens the following night when Isidro Metapán take on Real España. A draw in that game would mean the Rapids get through regardless of the result against los Guerreros.
Santos Laguna are currently leading the Mexican Primera División and face a heavy domestic schedule. Having already qualified for the CCL knockout stages, they may be tempted to rest some of their starters. Santos, with a strong 11, ran over the Rapids 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last month in Colorado.
Smith said he will put out a team he believes can compete against a very good side.
“They have qualified, nobody can catch them as the top seed in our group,” he said. “Who knows? Schedules do play into it. The balance of our group, I think it looks exciting, it looks competitive and it looks like anyone can win a game.”