Colorado Rapids looking to altitude, psychology for upper hand in Leg Two

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – They might be down a goal and lacking the services of team captain Sam Cronin, due to a yellow card suspension. But the Colorado Rapids still aren’t short on confidence as the Western Conference Championship turns to the second leg this Sun., Nov. 27 (4 pm ET, ESPN in US, TSN in Canada).

“Other than belief in the self and belief in a group of guys, there was no reason to believe we’d be in this situation,” Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni told reporters via conference call on Wednesday. “It starts with hope and belief and bringing a bunch of guys together. No one looks at us like we’re going to be world-beaters, but as long as we believe in ourselves collectively and what we can achieve as a group, then we can achieve great things.”

No doubt, the team collectively expressed concerns following Colorado’s 2-1 loss to Seattle at CenturyLink Field on Tuesday. But with the series headed back to Colorado, the focus shifted to which players will step up in Cronin’s absence.

Mastroeni pointed to former Sounder Micheal Azira as an important midfielder in the absence of Cronin, who’s featured in all but one Rapids games this season.

“Obviously Sam has been a stalwart for us in the middle of the group all year. He’s played pretty much every game minus one,” said Mastroeni. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about the situation and now it’s about the next man up. I think Azira did a good job [at Seattle] of getting on the ball and on top of the game a little bit. He will be a natural replacement for Sam.”

Colorado will still have additional decisions to make in the midfield, however, including whether or not Dillon Powers or Jermaine Jones slot in next to Azira in the Rapids’ base 4-2-3-1 formation. The Rapids have shown a variety of looks throughout the course of the season, but Mastroeni wouldn’t reveal which of them he might utilize come game time.

“We’re looking at a couple of different options and obviously we don’t want to show our hand too early and give up the tactical applications we’re trying to employ,” he said. “But we definitely have some options in there. We’ve played with a different look in those three central positions all year.

“We’re obviously going to have to make one change and how we make that decision will be decided over the next couple of days.”

What Mastroeni would reveal, however, is that altitude will once again be a key element in Colorado’s game plan, pointing to their last playoff match against the LA Galaxy as precedent.

“When you look at the overtime period, you saw the LA group getting massages, laying down, catching their breath and trying to wriggle out their legs with signs of fatigue. Our group was standing; no one took a seat,” he said. “There’s definitely a physical impact, but it only become validated when the psychology is there, by imposing yourself on your opponents for long periods of time and bringing that into play. We’re looking to replicate that at the weekend.”

Colorado only needs to replicate another 1-0 result to advance on Sunday, something the team accomplished a league-leading eight times during the regular season. Also pointing an undefeated home record in 2016, Mastroeni’s group retained a sense of composure in preparation this week.

 “Our goal going into [the first leg] was to make sure we made the second leg relevant, and I think that away goal definitely did that,” Mastroeni said. “So now, it’s business as usual coming back home and doing what we’ve done all year, which is finding a way keep teams off the score sheet and secure that goal we’re looking for at home.”