COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — In the days before the Colorado Rapids’ 1-1 home tie with Philadelphia last month, head coach Gary Smith posted some damning comments by Peter Nowak on the locker-room wall as motivation for his players.
Nowak — who is expecting a scrappy game with the Rapids on Friday as the Union take on the defending MLS Cup champions at PPL Park (7:30 pm, Fox Soccer) — said Colorado’s success last year had come even as the team had no exceptional talent in its ranks. Smith said he may have to locate the piece of paper with Nowak’s comments for Friday night’s game.
“I’m not sure if it’s still there, but I might have an opportunity to remind everyone,” he said.
Smith and his players know they will be in for a tough game against the Eastern Conference leaders, who present an intimidating atmosphere, have not lost at home all year and whose defense is key.
Smith pointed out the likes of Carlos Ruiz, Sébastien LeToux, Justin Mapp, Brian Carroll and Danny Mwanga as important players for the Union. But he is perhaps most wary of their tight defense, which has only allowed 16 goals all season, one of only three MLS teams that have conceded less than 20 goals in 2011. The addition of Faryd Mondragón in the Union nets has been key to the stronger defense.
“They have certainly built enormously on their form from last year,” Smith said. “The goalkeeper looks extremely confident, and I think that has spread to the rest of that defending group.”
Smith has a relatively strong squad to choose from for Friday. Apart from long-term injury concern Conor Casey, Macoumba Kandji and left backs Anthony Wallace and Danny Earls did not make the trip. Kandji had another 45 minutes of play during the week in a reserve game and is targeted for a return in the Columbus game at home next Friday, August 5. Wallace and Earls should also be ready for that game.
Midfielder Jamie Smith did get on the airplane and is expected to play a role off the bench after missing the past three games with hamstring and calf problems. Omar Cummings, who played 45 minutes in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star game, joined his Rapids teammates in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Smith may be tempted to play a similar starting XI as he did in the New England game last weekend, though Tyrone Marshall, rested last Saturday, is expected to return in place of Scott Palguta in the back four. That could mean a bench start for Cummings after his exploits this week. Sanna Nyassi and Caleb Folan would likely start up front in that scenario.
Whoever starts, it will be a difficult assignment against a much-improved Philadelphia team. But the Rapids are confident they can get a result anywhere.
“Philly’s a tough place to play in,” Wallace said earlier this week. “They have their fan support there, it’s a tough place, but we should be able to pull out a result there. It’s all just in the moment."