Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni has said it before: soccer can be a fickle sport and it certainly was Sunday for his team. The Rapids implemented the game plan almost exactly as they wanted. They seemed perfectly set up to bring home a scoreless draw and be in the driver's seat for the second playoff leg in their house. But one unfortunate mistake changes it all.
It should be said the Los Angeles Galaxy dominated in the chance department, particularly early on, as Tim Howard had to come up big time and time again. Howard first had to stop an Alan Gordon header right on the goal line, wagging his finger after the save, not to brag but to tell the refs that the ball didn’t cross the line.
That was only the start, as Howard had to stretch out on a run on chance the Galaxy had later on in the first half and was soon after crucial intercepting a dangerous Robbie Rogers cross. While Colorado got forward, the danger was never real and possession was rarely translated into quality play.
Despite all of that, the Rapids seemed capable of bending but not breaking. They seemed more than able to take the punches, allow LA to get frustrated and hit them back on the counter.
However, a crazy play changed everything, significantly hindering the men in burgundy’s plans. After a couple blocked shots in the box, big central defender Jelle Van Damme invented an odd cross that Giovanni dos Santos headed down to bounce off the ground. In an attempt to clear the shot, Axel Sjoberg - the Rapids go-to guy with his head - sent the ball into a wild trajectory for it to end in the top left corner, putting the Galaxy up at the 55th minute.
It appeared as if Howard could have saved the original dos Santos shot had it not been tipped. Everything was set up perfectly for the Rapids to avoid disaster there, too, but sometimes even your best players don’t come through.
Colorado was able to find a spark with Jermaine Jones entering in the second half. Playing a feisty brand of soccer, upping the team's aggression and even receiving a yellow card, Jones was also able to get the teams one shot on goal, a powerful attempt in the 58th minute from outside the box. The ball was headed for the top right corner but Galaxy keeper Brian Rowe was up to the task.
There were several opportunities for the Rapids, particularly on set pieces, with five corners but the Galaxy’s veteran defense was ready and managed to avoid any danger. An away goal would have completely changed everything but it wasn’t to be.
Now the Rapids playoff chances rest on 90 more minutes at altitude. This team has built their season on proving people wrong who count them out, we’ll see if they can do that again.
The Rapids and Galaxy will square off next Sunday for the second leg, this time in Colorado. Kickoff has been announced at noon and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.
The defense struggled some with Landon Donovan’s return and creativity on the flanks for LA. After having played against him this week, expect Colorado to have a different plan for him defensively.
Also, anticipate a few moves from Mastroeni from the 60th minute on to take advantage of playing at altitude and making up the goal difference.
How do the Rapids get through now that they're down 1-0?
Let’s run through some scenarios. First and foremost for them to pass through to the next round in the next 90 minutes at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park they’ll need to win by two goals; 2-0, 3-1, 4-2 and so on. The Rapids can also extend the series by winning 1-0 sending the match into overtime and eventually penalty kicks if needed.
The only score that will take the game to OT is a Colorado 1-0 win. Winning 2-1 or by just one goal won’t be enough. This is because LA would pass in that case because they have an away goal while Colorado has two home scores. Keeping a clean sheet at home is almost more important than getting the goals.