The MLS Wrap: Rapids make statement

Ives Galarcep
Exclusive: Pareja steps down as Rapids coach

The Seattle Sounders went into Saturday night's visit to the Colorado Rapids as a team considered a top title contender, and a good bet to take a step closer to the Supporters Shield. By the end of the night, it wasn’t the Sounders that had the look of a serious MLS Cup contender.

The Colorado Rapids didn’t just beat the Sounders on Saturday. They annihilated them. They combined power and speed and technical ability and beat Seattle like a green pinata, and made the jump from under the radar to squarely in the conversation of teams capable of lifting the MLS Cup in December.

It might feel like a bit of an overreaction to consider the Rapids a title contender after Saturday’s big win, but it wasn’t Colorado’s first victory against a top team. Before smashing the Sounders, the Rapids already owned two wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy and had defeated both Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls.

In fact, the Rapids' 8-2-4 mark is the best record in the past 14 matches in MLS. The team with the second-best record during that time? The same Sounders team Colorado just dismantled.

This is the same Rapids team that started the 2013 season without a win in their first five matches amid a plethora of key injuries. The interesting thing about that poor start is that it played a key role in the team’s current success.

The rash of early-season injuries forced head coach Oscar Pareja to turn to younger players and unproven newcomers and the process uncovered several players who exceeded all possible expectations.

Players like rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown, who stand as the two leading candidates for MLS Rookie of the Year honors. Players like former NASL defender Chris Klute, who has been the best left back in the league this year, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league after starting the season as a reserve with no MLS experience. Players like 19-year-old defender Shane O’Neill, who jumped from the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team into a starting role in central defense without skipping a beat.

Pareja’s handling of so many new players helped the Rapids overcome their slow start, and as players returned from injury, Colorado began to grow stronger, deeper and more dangerous. The return of players such as Martin Rivero and Edson Buddle has given the team more options, but the boost that just might help the Rapids lift a second MLS Cup came in the summer.

The Rapids offense needed a boost and they added that with the summer acquisitions of Uruguayan forward Vicente Sanchez and Panamanian striker Gabriel Torres. Sanchez has made an instant impact, with his two assists against Seattle upping his totals to one goal and four assists in six games. Torres hasn’t had the impact expected just yet, but he scored his first Rapids goal on Saturday and could be a serious force come playoff time.

The Rapids may not have the star power of teams like New York, LA or Seattle, but what Colorado has is a deep team playing with confidence, and featuring the attacking weapons and strong defense capable of pulling together a surprising title run, much like the team did in 2010. In fact, the current Rapids team is significantly stronger than that championship Rapids team.

The Rapids may have been under the radar before Saturday, but a 5-1 humbling of the team previously regarded as one of the top MLS Cup title contenders has let the secret out for folks outside of Colorado. The Rapids are more than just a team fighting to get into the playoffs. They are a bonafide title contender.