The Colorado Rapids entered the 2016 season short on hope, hype and household names.


Even with the offseason additions of Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi and the impending midseason arrival of Tim Howard, few outside of Denver expected at the start of the year that the Rapids would be able to climb out of the Western Conference basement, let alone challenge for a playoff spot.


Thinking the Rapids could win the Supporters’ Shield? In the words of Colorado head coach-cum-MLS philosopher king Pablo Mastroeni, that’d have been some “fairy dust stuff.”


And yet, here we are. The Rapids aren’t quite in control of the Supporters’ Shield race, but they do have a darn good shot at lifting the trophy for the first time in club history on Sunday. If Dallas, who will be without injured star Mauro Diaz and coming off of short rest following a CCL game in Guatemala on Thursday, lose at LA, who have just six regular season home losses in the last four years, and the Rapids, who are unbeaten at home this year, take care of business at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park against last-place Houston, they’ll win the Shield.


Fairy dust stuff, indeed.


Even if the Shield doesn’t land in Denver, the MLS Coach of the Year honor should. No one in MLS has done more with less than Mastroeni, with the third-year head coach taking a roster full of other teams’ castoffs, unheralded young players and a few bigger-name veterans and turning them into a team that’s one good afternoon away from the regular season title.


No, the Rapids don’t score many goals – their 38 strikes tied for second-fewest in the league this year. Yes, there are legitimate questions about how their defensive approach will translate in a two-leg playoff series.


Neither of those things should matter in the Coach of the Year debate.


What should count is Mastroeni’s ability to pragmatically play to his team’s strengths. After they conceded just 43 goals last season, Mastroeni knew entering the year that his team had a solid defensive foundation. He also knew that, even with the additions of Gashi, Jones and Marco Pappa, plus a full season with Kevin Doyle, the Rapids didn’t have the attacking horses of most of the other teams in the West.


Understanding that, he didn’t fall into the trap of trying to play attractive soccer with a team that wasn’t suited to do so. Instead, he focused on forging the league’s stingiest defense, trusting young defenders Axel Sjoberg, Eric Miller, Jared Watts and Mekeil Williams, coaxing a career year out of defensive midfielder Michael Azira and, perhaps most importantly, getting established, well-paid internationals Gashi and Doyle to buy into the conservative approach and defend from the front.


To hear Mastroeni tell it, all of his players have played a key role in the interconnected system, with the defensive work of the forwards making things easier on the midfielders, whose running and shepherding has made attacks easier to handle for the back four.


The results have been fantastic. Colorado have only conceded 31 times in their 33 regular season games – five of which came in an outlier game at Yankee Stadium – best in the league by a comfortable margin. They’ve gotten timely goals from their attack to post a sparkling 15-6-12 record, one that has them potentially on the verge of a trophy.


Of course, all of that is largely due to the players, who, after all, are the ones out on the field putting in the work. But it’s also down to Mastroeni, who created a defensive identity, got his team to buy into it and has remained true to it all year.


Other coaches have done the same thing, and they – FC Dallas’ Oscar Pareja, D.C. United’s Ben Olsen and New York City FC’s Patrick Vieira, to name a few – are worthy of mention in the Coach of the Year discussion, too. But none of them should finish above Mastroeni in the voting. Even though he probably has less talent on his roster than any of the other contenders, and even though four of his highest-regarded attacking players – Jones, Gashi, Doyle and Pappa – have all missed significant time due to injuries and international duty, Mastroeni's team has put up as good of a record as any team in the league.


The Rapids know who they are, and they make no apologies for their style. It might not lead to the prettiest soccer in the league, but it has been some of the most effective. Considering where they came from in 2014 and 2015 and the very, very low preseason expectations for the club, I’m not sure there’s a coach in the world that could’ve gotten more out of this Rapids team than Pablo.


What better way to decide Coach of the Year than that?


Dallas moves on in wake of Diaz injury


Colorado may be the story of the year in MLS, but Mauro Diaz’s injury is the biggest news of the week. The star FC Dallas playmaker will miss the rest of the year and presumably a significant portion of 2017 after tearing his Achilles against Seattle on Sunday and going under the knife to repair the injury on Wednesday.


It’s a brutal, brutal blow for Dallas, who will now have to go through the playoffs without their leading assist man and attacking engine. The loss will sting. Dallas have been worse in nearly every major metric without Diaz than with him in 2016, losing the same number of games – four – in the nine games he didn’t start as in the 24 he did.

Diaz in starting lineup
Diaz not in starting lineup
Games
24
9
Record
14-4-6
3-4-2
Points per game
2.0
1.2
Goals for
38
12
Average goals for
1.58
1.33
Goals against
22
18
Average goals against
0.92
2.0

Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo acknowledged the enormity of Diaz's injury, but noted that he feels FCD have several solid options to replace him.


In a phone interview on Tuesday, Clavijo – who was getting ready to travel to Guatemala, where Dallas, despite needing a result to advance to the quarterfinals, are likely to use a reserve-heavy lineup in a CCL match at Suchitepequez – said that the club could insert Mauro Rosales, Carlos Lizarazo or newly signed 16-year-old Homegrown midfielder Paxton Pomykal directly into Diaz's No. 10 spot or move from their 4-2-3-1 formation to a two-forward setup they’ve used in previous games that Diaz missed this season.


"You’re talking about Rosales, you’re talking Lizarazo, you’re talking about younger players like Paxton, we're talking about a quality group right now and it all depends on how Oscar wants to play, what kind of a system he wants to play," Clavijo said. "And so I think you will be surprised at how quick FC Dallas will adapt to this and how quick, how strong of a mentality this group have [when facing] adversity. This has been a team that Oscar has managed throughout the year to battle and perform well, regardless of how many games someone has missed, regardless of injuries or regardless of issues like [Fabian Castillo's departure]. This team is being motivated, this team is being on top of its game all the time, so we’re prepared for whatever is out there for us." 


One player Dallas likely won’t have to replace on Sunday is midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who suffered a hip injury and had to be removed in the first half against Seattle. Clavijo said on Tuesday that the injury was a minor concern and that he thought Acosta would be ready for Sunday's match. 


Cronin compares Rapids, 2012 Quakes


Switching back to Colorado for a moment, I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately that the Rapids – if they do indeed lift the trophy on Sunday – would be the most unlikely Supporters’ Shield winners in league history.


One of the other teams in contention for that title? The 2012 San Jose Earthquakes. Powered by Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart and a whole lot of late goals, those Quakes – who finished 14th in what was then an 18-team MLS in 2011 – stormed through the league to finish with 66 points and a plus-29 goal differential, the second-highest totals since MLS switched to its current 34-game schedule in 2011.


Rapids midfielder Sam Cronin was a key part of that San Jose squad, notching a goal and six assists in 31 appearances and 30 starts for the Quakes in 2012. He’s been an equally important contributor to this year’s Rapids team, recording a goal and three helpers in 32 starts, with his lone missed match coming due to a yellow card accumulation suspension.


I spoke to Cronin about the 2016 Rapids and 2012 Quakes this week, and, while the 29-year-old midfielder noted that the two squads didn’t really look anything alike in terms of on-field product, he did draw a couple of psychological comparisons.  


“In both instances the team failed to make the playoffs the year before," he said, "so I think that gives you a little extra drive going into the season to prove to yourself that you’re a much better team than you showed the previous season.


“Throughout the offseason, through preseason, you have a big chip on your shoulder and you want to prove to yourself and to your teammates that you guys are an improved team. And then in MLS you win a couple games at the start, you get some belief in you and, all of a sudden, you can feel like you’re invincible. You feel like you can win any game on any day. I felt that in 2012 with San Jose and I absolutely feel it this year with our team.”


Of course, the 2012 season didn’t exactly end how San Jose wanted. The Quakes bowed out in their first playoff series, beating LA 1-0 in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal before falling flat at home to drop the series 3-2 on aggregate. Cronin learned a tough lesson that fall, one he’s determined to not have to repeat this postseason with Colorado.


“I just learned the lesson that the playoffs are just a different beast altogether,” Cronin said. “We obviously had a fantastic regular season, we felt good about ourselves, then we won 1-0 at LA in the first leg and we came home and we just laid an egg and we lost. The season was done. It can end that abruptly and it’s heartbreaking when it does.


"So we want to win on Sunday, obviously to lift a trophy, but then we’ve got to refocus ourselves see who our opponent’s going to be for the first round of the playoffs and get our minds right to win the game. We want to be playing into December. We’re having too much fun right now – we don’t want this journey to end just yet.”


Ahead of USL Cup, talking USL-MLS partnership


The focus of our North American soccer community is (rightly) on Decision Day and the upcoming MLS Cup Playoffs, but it shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle that the USL is set to contest its championship on Sunday, when a pair of teams owned by MLS clubs will square off in USL Cup.


Regular season champions New York Red Bulls II will host Sporting Kansas City’s Swope Park Rangers in the final on Sunday at Red Bull Arena (8 pm ET; ESPNU, WatchESPN, ESPN International). I spoke to USL president Jake Edwards on Wednesday, covering the state of the league, expansion and a number of other issues for a larger piece that’ll run in the very near future.


One of the issues we spoke about was the partnership between USL and MLS. The ties between the leagues are deeper than ever, with 11 MLS clubs fielding their own team in USL and one other MLS team overseeing the soccer operations for an independently owned USL side this year.


The partnership has begun to pay dividends on the field, with plenty of players under contract with MLS impressing in USL this year and two – New York’s Brandon Allen and Aaron Long – earning spots on the USL All-League First Team.


“It’s met the objectives for the partnership in terms of the need to get some of the MLS players who are not getting the regular games in the first team, or some of the more outstanding players in the academy who are just not quite ready to make the jump into the first team,” Edwards said.


“The point of it is to not have those players fall by the wayside, which is what happens when you don’t have an outlet for them to play. So putting those guys in the highest level of competition below MLS, putting them in stadiums with crowds and pressurized situations, playing at a competitive level, the idea was to obviously accelerate the development of those players into the first team, which we’ve got a huge number of examples across the board.”


Many of the other aspects of the USL-MLS partnership have been mutually beneficial, as well, including the notable Video Assistant Referee program that’s been tested at Red Bulls II games this season. Not everything is perfect, however, and, as Edwards discussed, that could shape the relationship between MLS clubs and the USL in the relatively near future.