Widely picked to finish last in the league after ending the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the second-lowest combined points total in MLS, the Colorado Rapids have been the surprise team of 2016.
Colorado have ridden one of the stingiest defenses in league history to the brink of a playoff berth, with the club currently boasting the second-best points-per-game average in MLS and looking like a sure thing to qualify for the postseason.
They’ve done it with most of the same players they had on the roster in 2015, with an unheralded backline led by center backs Axel Sjoberg and Bobby Burling conceding just 24 goals in 28 games, the fewest in the league by a significant margin.
The Rapids have, of course, had some help from new arrivals, though their two biggest additions – US internationals Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard – have only played a combined 19 regular season matches in Colorado.
They also have their issues, particularly in the attack. Colorado have scored a league low 29 goals this year, and there are real questions about how their defensive style will translate in the playoffs. This weekend they travel to face the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday (7 pm ET on TSN in Canada; MLS LIVE in USA).
Still, even with their shortcomings, the drastic turnaround has shined a light on the head coach who engineered it: former Rapids captain, Pablo Mastroeni, who happens to be on an expiring contract at season's end.
Mastroeni, who was officially was hired as Rapids head coach just prior to the start of the 2014 season after former manager Oscar Pareja unexpectedly left for Dallas with a year remaining on his contract, told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Tuesday that he hasn’t yet had preliminary discussions with the Rapids about a possible extension, let alone received a new offer from the club.
“No one’s said to me, ‘We’re going to re-sign you for next year,’” he said. “[People have said], ‘We’re fantastic, we gotta make a run’ and then it’s almost like, it’s kind of a wait-and-see situation. The feeling that I get, without having any kind of dialogue, is that it’s a wait-and-see type of scenario.”
A Rapids legend as a player, Mastroeni is in the final year of a three-year deal he signed with the team in March 2014. His first two seasons were very underwhelming, as the Rapids finished with just 30 points in 2014 and ended the 2015 campaign dead-last in the West with 37 points.
Their turnaround this year has been drastic, however, as Mastroeni’s ultra-defensive approach has paid off in the win column. The 40-year-old admits that their product hasn’t always been pretty, but he makes no apologies for it. The team’s pragmatism has yielded results, with the Rapids very much in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield and on the verge of qualifying for their first postseason since Pareja took a young group to the first-round of the playoffs in his final season of 2013.
Mastroeni, who has been with Colorado as a player or a coach every year since 2002, said he’d like to stay in Denver, but made it clear that he thinks the matter is out of his hands.
“I can only control what I can control,” he said. “I can’t control what management thinks or what the front office thinks. I can’t control any of that stuff. All I can control is making sure that myself and my coaching staff work relentlessly throughout the year to really lead the group, to be stewards of the club and really, I think, just give a lot of ourselves every day to the situation that we’re currently in.
“The focus for me is basically stay the course,” he continued. “I think the body of work that we’ve put forth this year speaks for itself. Who acknowledges it and who doesn’t is out of my control. You just hope that at the end of the day, when all the dust settles, you see that all the hard work that myself and the coaching staff have put forth was validated by where we end up at the end of the season and that someone – whether it’s here or somewhere else – recognizes that effort and gives us another chance to go at it again.”
The Rapids, who declined to comment for this story, have had three head coaches in the last five seasons. Pareja left for Dallas in January 2014 just two seasons into a three-year deal and former head coach Gary Smith exited the club following the 2011 season due to what he called a dispute with management after leading the team to MLS Cup in 2010 and a playoff berth in 2011.
Colorado still have plenty of time to work out a new deal with Mastroeni, but they might have competition for him if they wait until after the season to negotiate. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported in July that a "couple" of MLS teams "were monitoring" his contract situation with the Rapids. With several head coaching vacancies potentially set to open this winter, interest in the ex-US international could very well heat up in the offseason.
“I think any coach would love to remain where he is,” Mastroeni said. “I would love to stay in Colorado forever, I would love it. But what I want more, and something I think any other coach would want, is to be in a place where he’s valued for his work.”
Jones still not in training, Mastroeni expects 2016 return
Moving from one matter out of Mastroeni’s control to another, the Rapids head coach shared an update on Jermaine Jones’ status on Tuesday.
Mastroeni said that the 34-year-old US international midfielder, who hasn’t played since he suffered an LCL sprain in his knee on July 4 against Portland, recently received a Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) injection in his injured knee and that the club hopes the treatment will accelerate his recovery.
Mastroeni officially called Jones’ status “day-to-day,” but it’s clear that a return for the German-American is far from imminent. Jones still isn’t training with his Colorado teammates. Currently, the most he can do is jog or ride a stationary bike – lateral movement is out of the question and he still feels pain anytime he moves from a jog into a faster run.
“He just had an injection in his knee, a PRP injection and he’s got a lot of pain with it and he’s recovering from that,” Mastroeni said. “We’re trying everything we can under the scope of medicine that is allowable to get him back on the field. It’s been so hard for him for whatever it’s been, three months now, to not be able to be a part of it. So it’s just day-to-day.
“We’re hoping that this injection kind of expedites the last bit of the healing process that needs to be done, but I think every time we set a goal we’re always disappointed, so at this point it’s just day-to-day. We’re kind of backing off, letting him recover the right way and hoping his body reacts in the way that gets him out on the field as soon as possible, but at the moment he hasn’t been training with the group.”
In addition to working with Colorado’s medical staff, Jones has been in touch with US Soccer’s doctors in LA, and was even called-up to US men’s national team camp earlier this month for a check-in with manager Jurgen Klinsmann about his injury progress. The call-up was taken by some as a signal that Jones was nearing a return, but recovery has been slow, with Mastroeni and the Rapids remaining adamant that the veteran not rush back and increase the chances of suffering another injury.
Colorado have certainly been a different team since Jones left the lineup. The club opened the season 3-2-1 while Jones served a six-game ban and then ripped off a 5-0-2 record in the seven games Jones played before departing for the Copa America Centenario in May.
Used mainly as a holding midfielder throughout his career, Jones had some serious success in an advanced role in that early-season stretch. He scored three goals and added two assists (numbers still tied for third and fourth on Colorado, respectively) as the Rapids scored 11 goals in seven games, good for a 1.57 goals per game average. In their other 21 matches, Colorado have scored just 18 times, an average of 0.86 tallies per match.
After missing three games due to international duty, Jones returned for one encounter – the Rapids’ scoreless draw against Portland on the Fourth of July – before going down injured. Colorado are 3-3-4 with a -1 goal differential in the 10 matches since he’s been out. They’re 7-5-8 overall this season without Jones. Both of those numbers are respectable enough, but they’re far cry from the 2.25 points per game the Rapids have averaged with Jones in the lineup.
With Jones not yet having returned to training and only a month remaining in the regular season, I asked Mastroeni: does he think that his midfield workhorse will play another game in 2016?
“I do, I do,” he said. “I think he’s a fighter and I think when push comes to shove, he’ll find a way to be out there. I think the recommendations from our doctors, the recommendations from myself has been, 'Make sure that we don’t set you back by you coming back too early.' And I think those words only resonate so long before he says, ‘You know what, I need to get back out there, I need to get back on the field. I want to help the team win.’ And so I think at some point, and I don’t know when it is, I think Jermaine will find himself on the field in 2016.”
Ahead of Kei's return to Columbus, revisiting the Kamara deal
Nearly five months after he was traded to New England for a mix of general (GAM) and targeted allocation money (TAM), a package of draft picks and an international spot, Kei Kamara will make his return to Columbus on Sunday (7 pm ET; FS1 in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
The 2015 MLS co-leader in goals, Kamara left Columbus in a bit of a cloud. He was traded days after he got into an on-field spat with Federico Higuain and criticized the Crew SC No. 10 over a disagreement about who would take a penalty kick in a Columbus home match.
Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter suspended the Sierra Leone international for one game following his outburst. Kamara, who said he "didn't agree" to the ban, was shipped out to New England two days after Columbus announced his suspension.
The move was the blockbuster trade of the 2016 season, but it hasn’t really had too big of an impact on the campaign. Both teams were struggling at the time of the deal and both remain on the playoff bubble entering the season’s final month, with the Revs currently holding the sixth spot in the East and ninth-place Columbus virtually facing elimination if they lose on Sunday.
Kamara hasn’t produced all that much in New England, recording five goals and one assist in 17 MLS games for the Revs, who paid a hefty price to acquire him. His addition also created a bit of a logjam at forward in New England, eventually making the trade of Charlie Davies – who in August was sent to Philadelphia for GAM, TAM and the Union's first-round pick – possible.
Columbus did manage to get a good haul for Kamara, and have replaced him effectively with early-season reserve Ola Kamara, who has 13 goals and two assists in 21 appearances and 17 starts this year.
The TAM they acquired from New England gave them the space to add Norwegian defender Nicolai Naess. He’s started in Crew SC’s last seven matches, including the last three appearances at the holding midfield position, recording two assists and helping the team to a 3-3-1 record with two clean sheets after they had just four in their previous 21 contests.
Columbus will also have plenty of picks in next year’s SuperDraft thanks to the deal, with Crew SC currently set to hold the No. 4 overall selection and New England’s first round pick, currently pegged at No. 11.
Columbus got more long-term assets out of the deal, which they’ll need to put to use after what's been a disappointing follow-up to their excellent 2015 season. New England paid a heavy price, but they got a good haul back in the Davies deal, which they likely wouldn't have made had they not acquired Kamara. They also now have a striker who, if they hang onto that final playoff spot, could take them far this fall.
Neither team is where they thought they’d be at the close of September, but that isn’t due to their May trade, which I view as a decent enough move for both New England and Columbus.