COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Sometime in January, Colorado Rapids players started dropping like flies.
The injuries came one after the other – at least 11 players have been forced to miss at least one MLS game so far this season – and often.
But through it all, the Rapids have done more than hold their own, posting a 3-4-3 record through their first 10 games, and head coach Oscar Pareja attributes it to a new mentality that he’s trying to drill into his injury-bit locker room.
“One of the things that we have standardized in the locker room is we don’t talk too much about the obstacles other than the adversity to overcome them,” Pareja told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “You always have competition.”
Pareja doesn’t want his players talking about injuries in the locker room and he repeatedly shies away from using it as an excuse. He expects every player to step in and perform the same way his starters do. And so far, it’s led to promising results despite losing almost every player in his starting lineup to injury or suspension so far this season.
Perhaps there’s no better example of Pareja’s new "next man up" mentality than Clint Irwin. Signed in February to be the team’s third-string goalkeeper, a brutal season debut from backup Steward Ceus and starter Matt Pickens’ subsequent broken forearm forced him into quick action.
Expectations were low for the unknown 23-year-old MLS debutant. But all Irwin has done since is make himself a leading candidate for the Newcomer of the Year Award, helping the Rapids stay afloat in Pickens’ prolonged absence. And now, he’s forced what Pareja wants at every position on the field: competition.
“I think it’s a healthy competition since everyone wants to play,” Pareja said. “When you have faith in the squad all the time thinking they have a chance to play for a spot that’s important.”
There are plenty of other good stories on Colorado’s roster, too. There’s the Homegrown teenager starting at center back (Shane O’Neill), the 23-year-old with all of one game of MLS experience heading into this season at left back (Chris Klute), the rookie who’s started every game so far this season (Dillon Powers) and the MLS journeyman who’s found his way into the starting lineup in almost every game so far this season (Atiba Harris).
Most fans and pundits may look at Colorado’s starting lineup with a blank stare, unable to recognize the majority of team’s players. But regardless of pedigree, the expectation is now clear in the Rapids locker room: If there’s an injury, it’s next man up.
“I’ve been in some places where they haven’t had the trust in [players],” Irwin told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Even here, if you’re a left back and that spot’s open, that spot’s open for you no matter how old you are, how much experience you have or anything like that. It’s a little bit different.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.