Rapids hope to flourish under Clavijo
Editor's note: Over the next six weeks, ESPN.com will be previewing all 12 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2005 season. Marc Connolly will be tackling the clubs in the Western Conference, while Ives Galarcep will take the teams in the East. The Colorado Rapids kick off our preseason coverage.
2004 record and finish: 10-9-11 (third place in the Western Conference)
Key additions: F Jeff Cunningham, M Leo Cullen, F Wolde Harris, F Luchi Gonzalez, M Martin Morales, D Hunter Freeman, D Guy Melamed, M Amir Lowery
Key losses: F Jordan Cila, F John Spencer, M Daryl Powell, D Antonio de la Torre, D Gary Sullivan
Three questions facing this team:
1. Which Jeff Cunningham will show up this year?
When Cunningham is on his game, he's amongst the most dangerous attackers in all of Major League Soccer. When he's not playing well, the diminutive forward tends to force the issue and dribble at players when teammates are open, not to mention openly sulk if he gets pulled from a match in favor of someone else.
While he scored nine goals and registered four assists for the Columbus Crew last year, he found himself demoted to the bench during the second half of the year in favor of the Edson Buddle-Kyle Martino combination.
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Just 28 years old and only two seasons removed from being a Best XI performer, how the speedy striker adapts to his new environment and produces for his new club will determine just how dangerous the Rapids attack is in 2005.
2. Is Clavijo the answer?
There's no question that the majority of the Rapids players were desperately waiting for Tim Hankinson to get the axe. For the past two seasons, the grumblings have been there, and it resulted in a side that didn't have the type of strong chemistry in the locker room that is needed to succeed in this league.
Now that Fernando Clavijo is in charge, the level of optimism is high around the Denver area, as the former U.S. international and New England Revolution head coach is a player's coach in many different ways and has been said to be a "breath of fresh air" compared to the old regime.
Despite being a popular choice to take over the side, Clavijo still has a lot to prove as a head coach. While the Revs started out with a 13-13-6 record under his leadership in 2000, they quickly slumped the next year to a 7-14-6 mark. That season was followed by a poor 2-4-1 start in 2002, which led to his firing in late May.
Considering that his friend and former teammate, Marcelo Balboa, is in the front office, and Clavijo is surrounded by two strong assistant coaches who he has worked with in the past -- former teammate Steve Trittschuh and John Murphy, who was an assistant coach on his staff with the Revolution -- he appears to have everything in place to be successful in Colorado.
3. Who will be the playmaker?
Ever since Carlos Valderrama retired in 2002, the rapids have struggled to find a suitable playmaker to take his place in the center of the field. While Kyle Beckerman showed more prowess as a two-way midfielder last season, he's much better in a holding role. One option appears to be Leo Cullen, who signed with the Rapids particularly to play for Clavijo and Murphy after sitting out the 2004 season. The former Revolution and Miami Fusion standout just turned 29 this past off-season, and is a cerebral type of player that will add nicely to a midfield that already contains longtime veterans Chris Henderson and Mark Chung.
With the signing of Uruguayan international Martin Morales, who is a left-sided player, Clavijo also has the option of moving Chung to the center of the park on a permanent basis. The 34-year-old had a bit of a down year in 2004, registering just three goals and four assists, which is well below his usual output. Fans around the Rocky Mountain State have to wonder whether this is the beginning of the end for the longtime MLS standout, or just an aberration.
Biggest X-factor: Joe Cannon.
As long as Cannon is in the goal, the Rapids will always have a shot to win games. At times last season, he almost single-handedly earned the team points. For the Rapids to make some noise in 2005, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year needs to be as equally "on" this coming season, especially if the Rapids attack more aggressively out of the back as they are expected to do under Clavijo. Limiting goals on counterattacks will be a huge factor for this side.
Breakout player to watch: D Hunter Freeman
Everyone around the Rapids has been raving about this rookie out of the University of Virginia. While the coaching staff knew that he would add a strong attacking personality out of the back and give the side some versatility since he can play on both sides of the backline, they have been surprised by his aggressiveness and intensity. One member of the organization described his toughness and competitiveness level as being on par with Real Salt Lake defender Rusty Pierce, who has a reputation for his hard-nosed play.
As of now, the Rapids coaching staff has the U-20 national team starter pegged as the team's starting right back, where he'll be able to combine up that flank with Henderson.
Close behind Freeman in the breakout player department could be Melamed, who wasn't selected until the fourth round of the MLS SuperDraft because of his age (25) and international status being from Israel. Having watched him closely at Boston College for four years, Murphy recommended this selection. Thus far, it has been paying off, as those in Colorado are saying he could log a lot of minutes as a rookie and be the surprise pick of the draft.
Outlook: The problem in Rapidsville has always been the mood of the team. At least during the Hankinson Years. Now that he is out and Clavijo is in, everything seems different within this club. Henderson says he is rejuvenated, as are several of the longtime Rapids players, and players from all over the country have inquired about playing for Clavijo.
Word out of Denver is that former Revs striker Wolde Harris is in better shape than he's ever been and checked his ego at the door before signing with the club. Along with the strong play that has been seen by Luchi Gonzalez, Clavijo was able to trade last year's surprise rookie standout Jordan Cila to Real Salt Lake. If Harris and Gonzalez can add some of the punch to relieve Cunningham and Peguero, there's no reason this team can't make some noise in a depleted Western Conference.
Predicted finish: Second place in the Western Conference.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.