COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Only two teams remain in contention for the Supporters' Shield entering Decision Day, as FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids will each look to stake their claim as Major League Soccer’s best regular-season team of 2016.
In the driver’s seat last weekend, Colorado saw control of their own destiny slip away in a 1-0 loss to Portland, coupled with a late 2-1 Dallas win over Seattle. But a Rapids win at home this Sunday against the Houston Dynamo (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE), combined with a Dallas loss at LA (Sunday, 4 pm ET, FS1 | MLS LIVE in Canada) would propel Colorado back to the league’s top spot and hand them the trophy.
For Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni, it’s all about taking care of his team’s end of the bargain.
“This whole year, it’s never been about what other teams are doing,” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com this week. “It’s been about us, being a better group and being the best in every game. We continue to fine tune the way we play, whether it’s at home or away.”
Lifting the club’s first ever Supporters' Shield isn’t “fairy dust stuff.” FC Dallas suffered a significant blow with the loss of Mauro Diaz to an Achilles injury in the late stages against the Sounders and will face a Galaxy side that has only lost once at Stubhub Center this season. Dallas will also be on short rest following Thursday’s 5-2 CONCACAF Champions League victory over Suchitepéquez in a rain-soaked Guatemala City.
But Colorado are neither counting on, nor reveling in, their Western Conference rival's misfortunes.
“Of course I saw the Diaz injury,” Rapids center back Axel Sjoberg said. “As a soccer player, it’s very unfortunate for anyone to get that kind of injury and to be out that long. No one would ever wish that on anyone.
"But as far as our Shield chances, it helps a little bit. We’re going to focus on our part, and do our jobs to put ourselves in the best position to win the Shield.”
The two sides have been closely matched in head-to-head meetings, with Colorado winning the teams’ most recent contest in a 1-0 victory at Toyota Stadium, one which still stands as FCD’s lone blemish at home this season.
Rapids second-year striker Dominique Badji, who has scored two of his eight regular season goals at Dallas, and one more in US Open Cup play, believes that Colorado are the best team in the league, regardless of how the final standings play out.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Badji said. “I think that we’ve proven that week in and week out and we still feel that way.”
Badji’s swagger is a mark of the confidence Colorado have built up throughout a successful 2016 campaign.
“Last season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, and I think it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths,” he continued. “We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong. We’re also a lot closer in the locker room. This year the captains have stepped up and made it a point that we need to be a family. Pablo had a game plan and we trusted in him, we believed in him and it’s paid off.”
Rapids players and coaches agree that there was no “aha” moment in the turnaround. Instead, the team credits the upward rise to the groundwork and preparation first laid out in the preseason.
“Pablo had a talk with us right as we came in and explained what he had done in the offseason and how he wanted to approach the preseason,” said Sjoberg. “He wanted us to be the focal point of it all – a player-led culture. I think that’s when we really started to buy in.”
For a team that could prove to be the best at the conclusion of the season, it’s fitting that the plan has been there from the beginning.
“I think the plan was to come in and have an impactful 2016 so that we have something to build on,” said Mastroeni. “The mentality of this group has been there since we started on January 22.”