If it weren’t for the winter storm moving through Colorado, the real story of the MLS Wild Card match between the Rapids and the Columbus Crew would be the absence of one key midfielder on each team. However, with up to a foot of snow expected in the vicinity and the game-time temperature hovering near the freezing mark, nature has taken a firm grip on the proceedings.
At least that should make for some drama, because this match-up lacks much interest. The major US soccer networks passed on the game. As a result, the game will be streamed live on mlssoccer.com starting at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time Thursday night. The local outlets for each team and TSN2 in Canada will also have coverage.
The teams have to ignore the weather and the lack of a national television audience and focus on winning. The Rapids won the MLS Cup playoffs last year, led by the striker tandem of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey. Casey suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in July and won’t return until next year. Cummings’ production dropped from fourteen goals in 2010 to three in 2011. Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz leads the team in goals with seven. That’s not going to have too many defenses quaking in their boots.
What may be a problem for the Rapids is the absence of veteran Pablo Mastroeni. He has been suffering from post-concussion symptoms and the club will probably not risk him just eleven days after the injury. There is no clear replacement for his defensive midfield duties, so manager Gary Smith may have to shuffle his tactics to provide cover.
Irish international Caleb Folan and Gambian international Sanna Nyassi will have to pick up the offensive slack in the absence of Casey and to support the slumping Cummings. At least the Rapids have two decent wingers to provide service for them. Veteran Brian Mullan, brought in from Houston in 2010, has come back from a lengthy ban early in the season to provide width on the right. Jamie Smith, an underrated player who missed a number of games through injury, should be ready to go on the left.
Matt Pickens played every minute of all 34 league games in goal, conceding 41 goals. Only five teams gave up fewer goals in 2011, but the Rapids lack of firepower meant that they only had a +3 goal difference. Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne anchor the back line. While neither is national team material, they are solid league players.
The Crew can boast one of the league’s top goalscorers in Andres Mendoza. The Peruvian Designated Player found the net thirteen times in 2011, including five penalty kicks. That’s not bad, especially for a team with a negative goal difference during the season. They are the only playoff team with a negative goal difference.
Nigerian Emmanuel Ekpo will be the midfielder who misses out on this game for the visitors. He received a red card in stoppage time of the regular season finale at Chicago and is suspended. That will cause Robert Warzycha to switch some players around. The most likely move is bringing Dilly Duka into the middle and leaving Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven out wide to counter Smith and Mullan. They stand every chance of canceling each other out, meaning the battle in the middle will likely decide the game.
Duka will likely be paired with Kevin Burns or Danny O’Rourke, although O’Rourke may not be fully fit. If Duka has time on the ball, he can pick out the kind of incisive passes that could undo the Rapids back line. However, he has no MLS playoff experience and will be facing the team that won the trophy last year. It will be a real proving ground for him.
One would think that the presence of former Defender of the Year Chad Marshall would make the Crew solid at the back, but that hasn’t been the case. Marshall can certainly challenge any player aerial duels, but he lacks mobility and speed, making it possible for quick forwards such as Cummings and Nyassi to have chances. Julius James and Shaun Francis have been inconsistent and goalkeeper Will Hesmer would not be considered one of the league’s elite at that crucial position.
Even with the potential for inclement weather, this was never likely to be a rousing affair. These are two of the blandest teams in the league, hence the limited television appeal. Of course, that could just mean it turns into an all-time classic. The Rapids look like a better bet though, playing at home in weather that favors them.