Colorado Rapids vs. Columbus Crew – Playoffs 1st Leg – A Preview

The Rapids have returned to the MLS playoffs for the first time in four years.  The road to the MLS Cup begins 7:00 PM Thursday evening at Dicks Sporting Goods Park against the Columbus Crew.

In U.S. professional sports, and civilized college sports,  champions are determined by playoffs and not how the teams finished the regular season.  To soccer purists (pronounced elitists snobs) that’s sacrilege as they will tell you it’s the final results of a single table that truly determine the best team.  I’m not here to defend one nor attack the other (clearly wrong) system.   This post is a preview of the upcoming game.

Thursday’s  game is what’s called the “first leg” of a home and away (or home and home, depending on whether you wear boxers or briefs), series.  The second leg, or away or the other home game will be Saturday November 6th at 2:00 PM MT in Columbus.  The winner will be determined (in another slap at the soccer elite) by total goals with “away” goals counting no different then home goals.   Should, after that game, both teams have the same number of goals, there will be a mini game played on a 110 yard long foosball table after which if still tied the winner will be decided by penalty kicks.

Still with me?

As you may recall, the Rapids finished their regular season this past Saturday with a 2-2 tie against Real Salt Lake.  Sorry, but I must digress again.  If you read this and you are a Rapids fan, you will note that I say Real Salt Lake instead of Fake Salt Lake.  While calling them Fake instead of Real certainly is a knee slapper and never fails to tickle my funny bone, I can’t help but think about the reason Real is in the name Real Salt Lake.  When in doubt consult the Internet because as we know, the Internet is never wrong.  Looking here, you see that Real is actually pronounced re’al and has Spanish origins which should be translated into English as Royal.  But as most linguists know, we suck at language,  butchering real (not re’al) English, making up words as we go, using letters we don’t pronounce and pronounce other letters six different ways depending upon the location of other letters, how much they weigh or if spoken in months having R’s  in them.

So the bottom line is saying Fake Salt Lake as a “funny” pun on Royal Salt Lake, well, it’s just not the same.  So they decided to name it Real Salt Lake and so there you go…

umm, the actual game?

Yes, the game…

Getting Serious Now
I need to get serious now because it says so in bold letters just above.

The Rapids have been playing very well the past three weeks.  They’ve played the two best teams in MLS and another which finished with the fifth highest number of points.  It can be easily argued that they outplayed all three even though they only won one while drawing  the other two.    Some have said the playoffs are like a second season and therefore the slate is wiped clean.  One of the most popular phrase as the playoff begins is, the team that gets hot at the end of the year is the one that wins the playoffs.   That was certainly true in the MLS in 2009 when Real Salt Lake (RSL) went into the play-offs with a losing record but got hot and won the MLS Cup.

In terms of playoff position, the Rapids are sitting exactly where RSL was last year, in fact, even playing the same team in the first round.

Without going into details of the most recent game, I will say I expect the Rapids to come out Thursday night with adrenalin pumping.  They have something to prove to the Rapids fans.  And that is exactly my biggest concern about the game.  They need to focus that energy while keeping their wits about them.  I expect the Crew to sit back and try to absorb the energy and counter, trying to catch the Rapids over committed in their offensive end.

The key to success on Thursday night is for the Rapids veterans to control the game, emotionally and tactically.  Specifically I’m referring to, Matt Pickens, Drew Moor, Pablo Mastroeni and Brian Mullan.  Where the excess energy and adrenalin may hurt the team is at forward with Omar Cummings and Conor Casey.  I’m concerned the extra energy will manifest itself in impatient passing,  mis-timed runs and very hard but very wild shots.   With Columbus sitting back, clogging up lanes, lack of composure on offense could be devastating.

Not scoring while devastating, is not deadly but giving up a goal or more would be which is why I picked the players above as key players to watch.  Pickens and Moor need to organize the defense and Pablo needs to ensure defensive shape is maintained, even while the team attacks.  Giving up a counter attack goal will kill the energy and the teams morale.  Mullan is a key because he may get the opportunities (as the Crew concentrate on Omar and Casey)  to create and finish.  If he gets just one chance, he needs to make the perfect pass or  finish the shot and score.

I expect a frustrating game for fans as the Rapids will control the flow and spend lots of time in the Crew defensive half of the field.  The Rapids will get their chances but they need to be calm and precise when they come.  The Crew will get counter opportunities but the Rapids need to recover quick and shut the runs down without drawing fouls allowing dangerous free kicks.

In the BigSoccer pre-game thread I predicted a 1-1 draw with the Rapids getting beat on such a counter.  I hope I’m wrong.   The Rapid are good enough to win by multiple goals, if they can play with energy, focus and intelligence.

A note about the picture – It’s what I found when I Googled for “first leg”.  It seemed to fit on a couple of levels.

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