COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — When the Colorado Rapids looked out at 2013, not even the most optimistic of burgundy-wearers could have envisioned a defense that would have been the Western Conference’s best over a third of the way into the season.
But 14 games in, the Rapids are indeed best in the West with only 12 goals allowed so far this year and second in MLS only to the New England Revolution’s nine goals allowed in their first 13 games.
Now, however, Colorado’s stingy backline will be without one of its unexpected key defensive stalwarts, 19-year-old center back Shane O’Neill, who left on Sunday to meet up with the US U-20 squad as they prepare for the World Cup later this month and started eight of Colorado’s last 10 games.
The good news for Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja, however, is that he has options to pick from. Right back Marvell Wynne, who has played center back for the majority of his time in Colorado, could shift back to the middle and veteran Brian Mullan could reclaim a starting spot at right back in Wynne’s place.
Or, another option could see Pareja insert Colombian newcomer Germán Mera at center back and leave Wynne at right back and Chris Klute out left. Either way, Pareja believes he has the tools on his roster to get by while O’Neill is overseas.
“It’s an option to play Wynne in the middle or Mera,“ Pareja said on Wednesday. “We’ll see.”
Pareja is probably most likely to shift Wynne to center back and reunite him with old center back partner Drew Moor while inserting Mullan back at right. But Pareja has been known to change his mind once or twice, and the 6-foot-2 Mera will have a chance to impress this weekend in the Rapids’ Reserve League match at Harrisburg, where the 23-year-old is expected to get a long look.
“I’m working,” Mera told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “I’m waiting on the coaching staff and working so that when I get called on, I’m in proper shape to help the team.”
The Rapids have patched up their defense in large part by limiting opposing set piece goals and reducing lapses in concentration, both of which severely plagued Colorado in 2012. And while O’Neill has been a big part of that improvement, Pareja believes that a deeper defense is now better suited to absorb O’Neill’s loss.
“We’re using these guys in the best way possible,” Pareja said. “[Wynne] has the ability to play outside and in the middle, and it’s great. And that is still consistent, because we’re not playing eight guys, we’re playing five or six, and that has given us consistency there.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.