Colorado Rapids earn a hard fought point in Philadelphia behind two rookies, rebuilt backline

In Saturday afternoon’s 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union, seven new faces made their Rapids debut as part of Colorado’s starting eleven. Of those seven, two rookies made their professional debuts when 2015 MLS SuperDraft picks Dominique Badji and Axel Sjoberg took to the field.

Over the past few seasons, it’s been commonplace for Colorado to find instant contributors via the draft, including 2013 Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers, but Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni admitted after Saturday’s game that the rookies’ debuts came earlier than anticipated.

“It wasn’t a part of the plan but that’s why we do preseason.” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com. “These two guys have proven that they’re fully capable and ready to contribute to the team right now.”

Sjoberg, 24, entered the game as the youngest member of an entirely new back four for the Rapids alongside center back partner Bobbly Burling and fullbacks Michael Harrington and James Riley.

“The two most prepared center backs were Bobby and Axel,” Mastroeni said of the selection. “We saw them in a few games together and they paired well.”

Fourth-year player Shane O’Neill has been a regular in the Rapids defense over the past two seasons, but recovery from an illness suffered late in the preseason has kept the 21-year-old homegrown player out of the starting lineup.

In place of O’Neill, Sjoberg looked at ease. The 6-foot-7 Swede used his height to his advantage while taking down the majority of long balls that the Union’s attack sent his way.

“I was calm and focused on the game.” Sjoberg said. “It wasn’t different from any other game.”

But Sjoberg and the Rapids’ defense faced a bump in the road in the 68th minute, going down a man following Burling’s second yellow card of the match.  It was indicative of the physical stalemate that went on throughout the game, one which saw a total of seven bookings between the two sides (five for Colorado).

“Going down a man, [Sjoberg] was a big catalyst in keeping that back line organized once Bobby went out.” Mastroeni said. “Axel has proven he deserves an opportunity and tonight he took it.”

Sjoberg’s offensive counterpart was unable to score, but in his first professional start, Badji looked threatening at times. The Boston University product’s most dangerous chance came in the 62nd minute on a shot that missed wide of a diving Rais M’bohli.

A point on the road was a positive start to a new campaign after the Rapids ended the 2014 season winless in 14 games. But there’s still room for improvement as Colorado heads into a bye week before their home opener against NYCFC on March 21. 

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