Commerce City, CO (SportsNetwork.com) - Count the Colorado Rapids as the surprise team of 2013. One year later, the Rapids will surprise no one, but can they repeat last season's results?
Colorado entered the 2013 campaign with a lot of question marks, but ended the season with a lot of pleasant surprises as the club saw the emergence of several talented youngsters over the course of the season.
The Rapids struggled early on and didn't notch their first win until a 1-0 result over Real Salt Lake on April 6, but they continued to kick on under the guidance of then-head coach Oscar Pareja and eventually went on an impressive nine-match unbeaten streak from June 29-Aug. 17.
Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers and runner-up Deshorn Brown provided instant impact in the starting 11 as Brown finished as the team's leading scorer with 10 goals. There was also emergence of young talent along the back line with the growth of U.S. youth international Shane O'Neill and Chris Klute.
Clint Irwin took over in net for an injured Matt Pickens early in the year and was one of the best goalkeeper in the league with a 1.09 goals-against average, helping the Rapids earn the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 51 points.
This season, the Rapids won't surprise anyone as the league has seen what Powers and Brown can do. But they'll still provide some dynamic scoring punch from the midfield along with Designated Player Gabriel Torres, who arrived in Commerce City last summer.
The wild card in attack will be Edson Buddle, who returns for his second season in Colorado. Buddle made a name for himself with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2010 when he scored a career-best 17 goals. But he hasn't been the same player over the past few seasons due to myriad of injuries. He scored just five goals in 24 appearances for the Rapids last term. The club will need him to increase that number if they want to get past the knockout round of the postseason.
In defense, O'Neill established himself well last campaign, but he is still young and will likely give way in the starting 11 to veterans Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne, while Nathan Sturgis will take the right back spot and Klute will handle left back duties.
The club lost Hendry Thomas, who was sent to FC Dallas via trade, but replaced him in midfield with Jose Mari, who has played well for the club in preseason after making a permanent move from Spain. The 26-year-old holding midfielder has played 200 games in Spain from La Liga all the way down to the fourth tier.
"It is special for me to be a part of the Colorado Rapids," said Mari. "This is an important club, and I'm happy to be a part of this wonderful group. I hope we can accomplish great things, both individually and collectively, and I will be giving everything to help the team be as successful as possible."
Even if everything goes to plan on the pitch, there is still an issue on the touchline as the club does not have a permanent head coach after Pareja left for FC Dallas this offseason.
Former Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni currently holds the interim tag, but having just retired from playing after last season, questions remain as to whether or not he can handle a full-time head coaching job.
ADDITIONS: Jose Mari (M), Marvin Chavez (M), Grant Van De Casteele (D), Marc Burch (D/M).
LOSSES: Diego Calderon (D), Jaime Castrillon (M), Jamie Smith (M), Atiba Harris (F), Hendry Thomas (M), Tony Cascio (M).
OUTLOOK: The Rapids young core of Brown, Powers, O'Neill and Klute is certainly a formidable and exciting bunch for Rapids fans. Buddle will need to increase his goal total so the club is not so reliant on Brown and Powers for offense. The back line will be solid as O'Neill will likely regain his starting spot as the season progresses and Irwin is already one of the best 'keepers in the league. The key to the season will how the youngsters cope with some raised expectations, and whether or not they can replicate what they did in 2013.