Virtually no team reaches the Conference Championship round of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs with no injury issues. In that regard, the Colorado Rapids are normal.
But with starting goalkeeper Tim Howardruled out for the rest of the season due to an adductor injury, and questions regarding other contributors, the Rapids are hopeful their plan to build the roster this season will lead to a run to the MLS Cup final.
"The one thing we set out, at the beginning of the year, is to be a complete team," Colorado head coach Pablo Mastroeni told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. "And throughout the course of the year, there's been big players missing. Jermaine Jones missed the first six games and then he missed four months. Tim Howard didn't come in until July. [Shkelzen] Gashi went away to the Euros. Kevin Doyle was out eight weeks with an injury to his lower leg.
"And the group just keeps moving forward. The first 34 games of the regular season were a fantastic dress rehearsal for us. … This is not about individuals, it's about a collective effort in finding a way to beat a great Seattle team over two legs."
Howard's absence means Zac MacMath is on tap to reprise his role as starting goalkeeper. The 25-year-old began the season as the Rapids' No. 1, starting 16 games before making way after Howard joined the team midseason from English Premier League side Everton. He would make one more appearance for the Rapids in September, while Howard was away on international duty.
MacMath, who has never previously played a playoff game in his MLS career, understood the stakes of the Western Conference Championship, which begins on Tuesday against the Sounders in Seattle (10 pm ET, FS1 | TSN1/3, RDS2 in Canada).
"This is as big an opportunity as I'll get," he said during the same conference call.
As for getting back up to speed in game play, MacMath has been working on getting ready, though he acknowledged he'll likely need some time to get settled.
"Well, I think with the practice leading up to this game on Tuesday, I'll get plenty of live reps with the first team, which is always nice. But I think getting myself settled in the first 20 minutes of that game will be very helpful, just kind of getting used to the pace of the game again.
"I'm excited to get back in there."
Mastroeni, who explained his decision to give the gloves to Howard after MacMath's strong start to the season was difficult, also endorsed MacMath's credentials ahead of the season's biggest games.
"I think [MacMath] has proven over the course of several months, until July, that he's a first-rate goalkeeper in this league. Fantastic with his feet, great in distribution, making great saves, great goals against percentage this year."
In addition to the goalkeeping change, there are several injury question marks leading up to the first leg against the Sounders. Gashi, who scored the crucial goal in the previous round for the Rapids before departing during the game due to an ankle injury, is still a doubt for Tuesday, although Mastroeni would not rule him out.
"Gashi is making many improvements every day with his ankle," he said. "Having said that, we're going to continue to wait before making a decision as to whether or not we want him to go in that game, whether he's capable of going in that game, and/or do we wait to have him at the home leg here."
Jones, a recent returnee to the Rapids following a knee injury, played in both of the US national team World Cup qualifiers during the international break, but Mastroeni expects him to be available against Seattle, saying the midfielder "didn't report any injury, so he should be full-go."
Meanwhile, midfielder Marco Pappa, who has chipped in with timely contributions during the regular season, is battling a hamstring injury and Mastroeni said his availability for the Western Conference Championship is still in the air.