COMMERCE CITY - Don’t ever count this Colorado Rapids team out. Entering the second leg of the MLS Playoffs Western Conference Seminals at home against the LA Galaxy, the Rapids had important ground to make up being down 1-0 after the first leg.
A piece of brilliance by Shkelzen Gashi put the two teams level at the 36th minute and it was a hard-fought playoff battle from their on.
Colorado at first immediately got forward thanks to Jermaine Jones, in so getting two quick shots on goal within the first minute of play. You could tell that Pablo Mastroeni had his men ready to go. The playoff atmosphere was felt in both the stands and on the pitch as everything was heightened in this one and the intensity was a mile high.
The Rapids came out swinging, dominating possession, getting forward and taking advantage of some added creativity and forward thinking on the pitch today, as Mastroeni started five forward-thinking players.
However, the game didn’t really break open until Gashi broke through. As he pushed forward in an organized team maneuver, the Albanian magician saw Ashley Cole backing off him with Marc Burch free down the right flank. Instead of dishing the ball to Burch on the wing Gashi gathered himself in the span of a millisecond and let rip a patented left footbed blast, though we had yet to see one quite like this from Colorado's designated player.
From 40-yards out Gashi absolutely blasted a sniper shot that curled inside out (kicked it with the outside of his foot), to bounce off the inside left post and into the net. Disbelief, hysteria, amazement, and pure unadulterated joy were just some of the raw and extremely primal emotions that unleashed from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in that moment.
The first half ended with LA on their back heel and Colorado having thoroughly dominated; holding the lead in possession (58-percent), shots on goal (5 to 1) and even corner kick opportunities (4 to 1).
In the second half, the visitors made some moves and managed to control the game better. Even with more control, the Galaxy managed to never truly threaten Tim Howard with a dangerous attempt on goal.
Again it was the men in Burgundy who created the greater danger. A distressing note in the midst of the excitement entering the half all tied up was that Gashi's game was done (due to an ankle injury), but his substitute Marlon Hairston proved crucial. Both with his runs down the flank crosses and shot attempts Hairston was a thorn in the spine of the LA defense for the entire second half. Hairston, Badji, and Doyle all had their shots but never seemed to get that perfect clean strike.
With four minutes of added time to the final 90, Colorado did everything in their power to get the at the death score but to no avail. It would be bonus soccer time in Colorado in the form of extra time.
The Rapids dominance and will to advance were even more apparent in extra time. Particularly in the first 15, the Rapids seemed to be the forward thinking team the entire time. Though only to, again, get all so close and but never finding a way through. This game would require a penalty shootout.
“Going into the PK’s I was in a place of comfort knowing that we had Tim Howard in the goal," explained Mastroeni post-game. "I thought it was fitting for the performance and the effort that we put forward in that game to end up coming up ahead in the PK’s. I thought it was a fantastic effort.”
As regulation and extra time ended with LA holding on for dear life, Colorado had the confidence and desire to go on to advance. After Steven Gerrard and Kevin Doyle matched one another's first makes, it was the Galaxy's star Giovanni dos Santos who stepped up and missed terribly, sailing the shot above goal, sending the Burgandy faithful into an absolute frenzy.
Sebastian Le Toux and Marco Pappa would make their next two shots, while Howard took over from there. After the dos Santos miss, the visitors stepped up and took two good angled shots, but against maybe the greatest American soccer player of all time in Tim Howard, good wasn't enough.
Ashley Cole first and Jeff Larentowicz would both place their shots in the left corner, Howard was up to the task guessing correctly and sticking out his big paws to block both shots. After the first save Howard kicked the air in excitement, on his second one he walked off calmly as his teammates began to mob him.
After the emotional win, a thoughtful Mastroeni showed lots of pride in his team and what they'd accomplished.
“Being part of a group that nobody believes in and no one still believes in... the power of team I think was a strength today. I think when you have a bunch of guys - and there’s not a lot of playoff experience in that group, there’s very little experience in that group - but what we have is a belief beyond most teams that I’ve ever been a part of. I think that for me is something that if you could bottle up and sell, that would be the secret to this team.”
That team spirit has carried the Rapids all year long, but they also found some important performances from some of their biggest players as well. Particularly with the special Gashi strike and the big Howard saves in the shootout.
“I think in big games you need your big players to make plays. So whether it’s Tim Howard making saves, or Gashi scoring goals, or Jermaine bossing that midfield, you need big players to step up. I think tonight, across that field the big players stepped up for us today. I think from the first whistle the rest of the group really did a great job. Everyone did a really good job of raising the bar.”
Now with international break Colorado will have a week off before having to play either Dallas FC or the Seattle Sounders. Whoever it may be, they better be ready to play all out till the end because this Rapids team is hard to die.