The Colorado Rapids survived continued second-half pressure and unbearable heat and humidity to record a mighty road win Friday night against the Philadelphia Union, who hadn’t yet lost at PPL Park this season.
In a game of contrasting halves, the Rapids strode to a convincing 2-0 halftime lead on goals from Pablo Mastroeni and Sanna Nyassi before sucking up wave upon wave of Philadelphia pressure in the second half and holding out for the win despite some frantic moments late in the match as the home side pulled one back through Roger Torres in stoppage time.
It was hearts-in-the-mouth stuff in the second 45 and nobody was as nervous as Mastroeni in the last quarter of an hour, as he observed the game from the bench afer making way for Joseph Nane in the 78th minute.
But head coach Gary Smith’s game plan of having his team hang back and spring on the counter attack worked in the end.
“Tonight, we achieved everything we wanted to achieve,” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com. “Gary did a great job setting up a game plan, and with Omar [Cummings] and Sanna in such great form, it proved a great strategy.”
Cummings and Nyassi started together up front as they had in the 4-1 home victory over the New York Red Bulls just over a week ago. While they couldn’t dominate the Union as they did the Red Bulls, it was a moment of magic between the two of them in the 45th minute that sent Colorado into the dressing room with a crucial two-goal lead at halftime.
Cummings, who had struggled for much of the first half, played an inch perfect pass into the path of a sprinting Nyassi behind the Union defense, and the Gambian finished perfectly with a first-time shot low into the corner.
Mastroeni had given the Rapids the lead 10 minutes earlier when he picked up the ball from a throw-in, cut into the penalty area and placed a great left foot shot out of Faryd Mondragon’s reach. It was his first goal of the season and he celebrated it with a few nods to the not-so-welcoming Union fans.
“I was actually trying to find the loudest person in the stand,” Mastroeni said, “but it all went very quiet after the goal – you couldn’t hear the drums anymore.”
Smith admitted it had been a very difficult second half and that the Rapids could have defended their lead better.
However, he was obviously delighted to get three points on the road in tough conditions and a difficult atmosphere.
“They gathered a bit of a head of steam and we looked a bit shaky,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “It was certainly backs to the wall in 110 degrees and a million percent humidity. It was like playing in pea soup and it was not easy.
“There’s certainly room for improvement, but this is a game that lasts 90 minutes and I don’t want to harp on that too much. Let’s be nice and positive about a very big win.”
Smith and the Rapids had goalkeeper Matt Pickens to thank for keeping the three points, as he made a point-blank save at the death to keep out a header from Carlos Valdés right after Torres’ goal.
Pickens appeared to be suffering from some heat related problems for much of the game and admitted he was spent when it came to those last few moments.
“You know they’re going to play direct there and I feel like I didn’t really have much energy left to even come out to try to challenge it for a punch,” Pickens said. “So I just kind of absorbed it and tried to react to the ball.”
Smith said he wasn’t sure of the exact nature of Pickens’ problem. The goalkeeper appeared to be struggling even in the first half.
“He seemed to lose his legs a bit, almost blacked out and felt groggy, but he took a bit of a count, gathered himself and made two or three world class saves,” Smith said.