For months we've talked about the games in hand that the Colorado Rapids had on their direct competition in the standings, and for months we wondered if those games would turn into wins, allowing the Rapids to close the gap and get back atop the Western Conference standings.
By beating the San Jose Earthquakes Thursday night 2-1, the Rapids took a one-point lead in the MLS standings with only two regular season games left. The hero of the game for the home side was striker Kevin Doyle in his return from a month-long injury absence.
With San Jose playing for their playoff lives and the Rapids in a race for the league's Supporters Shield, both teams played nervous soccer early on. Passing wasn't crisp and neither team seemed keen on taking control.
As the game picked up the Rapids on ball ability began to show, with Doyle's return quickly proving to be fundamental. In a surprising move, coach Pablo Mastroeni kept hot young striker Dominique Badji as the central forward and had the veteran Irish DP playing behind him in a quasi-number 10 role.
The combination proved deadly in the 38th minute when Badji held up play and dished the ball off to the left flank where full-back Marc Burch one-timed a cross in for a diving Doyle header that went right into the upper right corner of the net.
A man paid for bagging goals, Doyle scored for the first time since July 9th against the Vancouver Whitecaps. His flying header is exactly the kind of skill that makes him so crucial to this team, and getting him back in scoring mode just in time for the playoffs is essential. The Rapids controlled most of the game and dominated in the chances department from there on.
Right before the half, Badji had a golden opportunity on his right foot, as he found space, faked out the goalie and created an open shot at goal. Off balance on the shot after just having speed by David Bingham, Badji took a slow and accurate strike, right as the ball was dribbling into the net, Earthquakes defender Víctor Bernardez stopped it at the goalline. Bernardez managed to poke the ball out right as more than half the sphere was crossing the line, avoiding the two-goal advantage by mere millimeters.
With that missed opportunity there was a sense that again Colorado risked wasting a lead as the second half began. That quickly proved to be true as Henok Goitom had a point blank opportunity on a rebound Tim Howard wasn't able to hold onto, but missed terribly high over the net. Less than 10 minutes after that, San Jose found their goal with Chris Wondoloswski craftily creating a penalty and then scoring the PK in the 58th minute.
But this Colorado team was different, not looking overwhelmed by the moment. The Rapids got forward and took over the final 30 minutes, creating three big chances and a penalty. The penalty is the chance that would ultimately put the Earthquakes away, coming off an unexplainable shove in the box on a corner kick, a foul too obvious for the referee not to whistle. Kevin Doyle stepped up and put the ball away in the 73 minute to take the definitive 2-1 lead.
It was Doyle who a few minute earlier put a brilliant shot on goal that Bingham had to stretch out to save into a corner kick. After the goal, San Jose's spacing and defending was lost and Colorado found more opportunities, with Caleb Calvert and Sebastian Le Toux both getting close to scoring in the game's final moments.
The Rapids have now won three games in less than a two weeks and are now in sole control of their own destiny, not to mention in prime position to take home some silverware before the playoffs even begin. Few would have anticipated this considering a tough month of September, but with their fourth game in 15 days this Sunday, the Rapids could lock up their Supporters Shield win with a win in Portland and a loss by FC Dallas.
The season is in full swing and every result matters now, Colorado is in prime position to make history this year. We'll see if this magical October run can continue.