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Five questions with The Denver Post’s Nick Groke

Nick Groke covers the Colorado Rapids for the Denver Post. PSP reached out to him for an interview ahead of this weekend’s Union home opener, hoping to get a bit of insider information on how Colorado so completely dissected the Columbus Crew a week ago. We got that and a whole lot more, as Nick provided a set of fantastic answers to our queries. Check out Nick’s work at DenverPost.com or at his Denver Post blog, The Terrace, where you can read the five questions he asked PSP about the Union. Also, be sure to follow Nick before and during Sunday’s match on Twitter at @TerraceBlog.

PSP: Was new coach Oscar Pareja’s system a big reason behind Colorado’s dominating performance last weekend? What have been some notable changes with the team since he arrived? Are some of the old guard like Conor Casey going to be on the outside looking in?

Pareja’s free-form, creative-minded, all-on attacking system played a big part in Colorado’s rout of Columbus last week. It’s likely the Rapids would have won that game with former coach Gary Smith anyway (Columbus is struggling to start the season). But the Rapids really pressed forward against the Crew, and dominated control of the midfield, using Pareja’s newly-installed 4-3-3. The score really could have been bigger than 2-0.

Under Smith, Colorado was a tightly-wound group that based itself on holding the backline, then moving forward down the flanks. Piecing together possession through the midfield wasn’t really a priority. It’s an opposite approach under Pareja. They want creativity in the middle and the ball at their feet all the time.

The old  guard so far seems very comfortable in the new system, with two notable exceptions. Brian Mullan was moved from an outside midfield spot to a forward wing and he was bit out of place in the first week, although not ineffective. And Conor Casey is a real question mark. He’s not expected back for two more months, leaving him without the chance to adapt as the team grows. And as a target-type striker, his immobility seems antithetical to Pareja’s system. But he’s so strong and such a load for opposing defenses, they’d be nuts to not try to make it work with Casey when he’s healthy.

PSP: It looked like Mastroeni, Larentowicz and Castrillon dominated the middle of the park against Columbus. Tell us about Castrillon and whether Mastroeni and Larentowicz can still play every weekend. Will they need built-in rest as the season progresses?

The Rapids now work from a triangle in the middle, with Jeff Larentowicz the back-point pivot, and Pablo Mastroeni and Jaime Castrillon the top two.  In a way it’s a real risk. Larentowicz was the team’s top scorer last season and now he’s a defensive midfielder; Mastroeni was a defensive midfielder last season, and now he’s an attacker; and Castrillon comes from the Colombian game to a team that last season was so British.

Any team trying to thwart Colorado would be wise to start by targeting those three players. They are key to the Rapids organization on defense and their attack.

For fitness, Larentowicz and Mastroeni can go 90 minutes for most, if not all, games this season. Larentowicz led Colorado field players in minutes last season, and likely will again. Mastroeni was in the top five.  A very real concern, though, is a concussion suffered by Mastroeni last season that kept him out of the back-end of a playoff series with Kansas City.Since then, he’s taken two shots to the head that forced him out of games (one in the preseason and again last week against Columbus). The Rapids should be red-alert concerned for their captain. Anybody who follows hockey knows that even one concussion can spiral out of control.

PSP: After something of a down year last season, how has the team been received by the fans and locals so far? Is there any buzz around the Rapids from either the fans or media, or are they flying under the radar?

It’s actually a great compliment to the Rapids that a second-round playoff exit would be considered a down year. During the playoffs last season, fans and media expected Colorado to compete for another MLS Cup berth… until injuries scuttled any chance the Rapids had. They were without six key players by the time the K.C. series ended. By then, all hope was lost.

This season, there’s a definite buzz, mostly surrounding all the offseason changes. Fans seem to enjoy the possibilities posed by Pareja’s focus on offense. And Colorado’s front office and players are very visibile (on Twitter, with supporters groups, at bars and fundraising events, etc). There’s not a team in Denver more accessible — and fans really appreciate that.

Nationally? Philly fans would know better, but it seems the Rapids are still under the radar.

PSP: Quincy Amarikwa’s sensational goal against Columbus after coming on for rookie Tony Cascio was something special. The Union struggled against Portland’s wingers last week. Leaving aside Amarikwa’s moment of genius, how good are the Rapids down the flanks?

That Amarikwa goal was a great strike, and not to take too much away from it, but his first touch on that ball was not good. He went back before going forward and nearly lost control, then recovered with an un-savable shot. He would be a very dangerous reserve this season if the Rapids don’t instead need him in a starting role at some point. Cascio, too, has a great eye for goal, though he seemed nervy in his first pro start.

The purpose of Colorado’s flanks seems like a work in progress. Last week, defenders Kisuke Kimura and Luis Zapata played a good portion of the game in the attacking third — an unheard of idea last season. It was Kimura’s service from the flank that set up central defender Drew Moor’s headed goal to go ahead 1-0. That flanking pressure from the backline puts incredible pressure on an opposing team and can be a real advantage. But it’s risky. It leaves them open for counter-attack and requires those players be very fit.

PSP: What matchup – either position (e.g., mid vs mid, strikers vs defenders) or player (e.g., Wynne vs Mwanga) – do the Rapids need to win if they want to walk out of PPL Park with three points for the second straight season?

Those flanks might be the big questions for Philadelphia against Colorado: Can the Union take advantage of the Rapids’ aggressive outside defenders? Or will Colorado retreat on the road and shell up in the back?

The MLS remains a league that’s very difficult to win on the road. A road draw is really a successful result. So will Colorado continue to press forward, even recklessly? Or will they return to a defensive-minded set? With the little evidence gleaned from the first week, Colorado seems best fitted against an opponent with only one true forward. Without the threat of Sebastien Le Toux, the Union seem like an ideal opponent for the Rapids this week.


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