Oscar Pareja
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2012 Colorado Rapids Preview: Pareja's vision for Rapids

MLSsoccer.com is previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Colorado's 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.

Setting the Scene

A championship in 2010 and back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 2006 would normally be enough to ensure the return of a head coach and team president the following year, right?

Rapids transitioning to a fluid formation

Apparently not, at least if you ask the Rapids. Colorado cut ties with not only Smith (contract not renewed) but team president Jeff Plush (mutual parting) after several years apiece in Commerce City, leading to big changes atop for a Rapids squad just 16 months removed from hoisting its first-ever MLS Cup.

The roster might look similar to last year’s, with veteran stalwarts Pablo Mastroeni, Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, Jeff Larentowicz, Drew Moor and Matt Pickens all set for another season in burgundy. But notable attack-minded moves, most notably the arrival of Jaime Castrillón (Colombia) and Martín Rivero (Argentina) from South America, will offer a glimpse into Pareja’s free-flowing offense and his new 4-3-3 formation, a drastic change from Smith’s 4-4-2 the last three seasons.

Then there’s the budding return of local hero Conor Casey, who could possibly return from a torn Achilles in time for the March 10 opener against Columbus, but can he return to his high-scoring ways (46 goals in last 86 regular season games)? Only time will tell.

After an injury-riddled 2011 season, the Rapids hope that a new coach coupled with a little luck on the injury front can help lead the Rapids back to the promised land of the postseason.


In and Out

IN: D Hunter Freeman (12/12: Re-Entry Stage 2/Houston); M Tony Cascio (1/12: SuperDraft); M Kohei Yamada (1/17: supplemental draft); G Joel Helmick (1/17: supplemental draft); M Jaime Castrillón (1/25: free/Independiente Medellín); M Martín Rivero (2/16: loan/Rosario Central); D Luis Zapata (2/24: free)

OUT:Sanna Nyassi (11/23: expansion draft); D Mike Holody (11/30: option declined); D Danny Earls (11/30: option declined); D Miguel Comminges (11/30: option declined); F Caleb Folan (2/3: released); F/M Macoumba Kandji (2/8: trade to Houston)

READ: 2012 Colorado Rapids Depth Chart


Star Attraction: Jeff Larentowicz

In an up-and-down campaign where key injuries and inconsistent play could‘ve led to a full-on collapse for the Rapids in 2011, Larentowicz was easily the most consistent player in helping lead the Rapids back to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Jurgen Klinsmann rewarded Larentowicz for a career year in 2011 (career high seven goals) with his first-ever call up to the US national team in December, and Larentowicz also spent part of the offseason overseas training with Premiership side Bolton. Larentowicz will be called upon to once again anchor the midfield as Pareja transitions to a 4-3-3.

READ: Countdown to First Kick: Casey nears return

Unsung Hero: Drew Moor

Just like an offensive lineman in football and a fourth-liner in hockey, center backs in soccer often don’t often get the credit they deserve. That’s certainly the case with Moor (pictured right), who’s been an anchor in the heart of the Rapids’ defense since his arrival from FC Dallas in 2009, and last year, Moor even contributed four surprise goals — including a couple game-winners — in a well-rounded 2011 for the Dallas native.

But, playing behind Mastroeni and Larentowicz and ahead of the steady Pickens, Moor is often overshadowed on a side best known for its firepower up front than its prowess along its back four. Moor will be especially important during the transition to the 4-3-3, and look for Pareja to lean on the 28-year-old in helping the team make a clean switch.

Ready for Primetime: Tony Cascio

The Rapids surprised most everyone — including Cascio himself — when the team selected the midfielder out of the University of Connecticut with the 14th overall pick in January’s SuperDraft. Early in preseason, not only has Cascio seen extensive playing time (including a surprise start in the Rapids’ Hawaiian Invitational opener against Yokohama FC), but he’s made a clear statement to his veteran teammates and coach that he deserves to be considered for a sizeable role in his first professional season.

Look for Cascio to get a healthy amount of playing time in his rookie year, though his playing time could be sliced if Rivero impresses early in the season. But as the first SuperDraft selection of Pareja’s, Cascio will be thrown into the fire quickly. And if the first month of preseason is any indication, then he's ready for the challenge.


READ: Cascio's goal caps positive week for Rapids in Hawaii

Storylines to Watch

1. Is seven weeks of preseason training is really enough time to assimilate into Pareja’s 4-3-3? The veteran backbone of this team is used to playing — and winning — under Smith’s somewhat bunker-ish 4-4-2. While fans will likely take right-away to the eye-catching 4-3-3, it may be a struggle for the Rapids to notch wins in the first month or two of the season, particularly if Casey needs a few weeks to regain his footing after eight months on the shelf.

2. Can the Rapids' explosive partnership stay together for a full season? Avoiding injuries will be critical; if the strike force of Casey and Cummings up top can stay on the field most of the season, the goal-scoring cannon at Dick’s Sporting Goods park may need to be replaced by season’s end.

READ: Zapata looking to weave way into Rapids starting lineup

What He Said

“Having that veteran leadership, having those guys who’ve been in the league for a while, we have that presence of mind to understand [the 4-3-3]. It’s not day and night, and it will certainly take time, but one of the reasons Oscar is confident that he can make the change is the guys on the roster. Pablo, Jeff, Castrillón are all familiar with 4-3-3 and, after a little bit of time, it’ll be the right move for the organization.”

Rapids center back defender Drew Moor

SEE: 2012 Season Preview Archive

If Everything Goes Right

Many attribute the Rapids’ 2010 run to the MLS title to luck, but that title-winning squad is almost still entirely intact and one that’s still capable of big things. This is a roster that is certainly ready to win now, with several former, current and budding internationals for Pareja to pick from. If the Rapids can adapt and take to Pareja’s formation — and Casey can quickly return to form — then the Rapids will challenge the Galaxy and Sounders for one of the top two or three spots in the west, and a run to the MLS Cup can’t be ruled out under such a scenario either. The players seem excited to play under Pareja, and this is a team that is certainly built to win now.

Also don’t underplay the importance of youngsters Cascio and Rivero, who if they can provide a creative spark in their first seasons a mile high, could prove to be valuable X factors, drawing defenders away from the elite Casey-Cummings tandem. It’ll be an interesting year at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, but the ceiling is high for Pareja and his team of veterans, and don’t count out the men in burgundy in the west.

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.

WATCH: Pareja preaches possession

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