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Rapids improved but still seek consistency

Editor's note: This is the seventh of 13 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2007 season.

2006 record and finish: 11-13-8, 41 points (seventh in MLS).

Key additions: F Roberto Brown, M Nico Colaluca, F Omar Cummings, F Herculez Gomez, D Ugo Ihemelu, M Yherland McDonald, D Brandon Prideaux, GK Zach Thornton, D Greg Vanney.

Key losses: GK Joe Cannon, D Eric Denton, D Hunter Freeman, F Thiago Martins.

Key questions facing the team:

1. How will the new additions affect team chemistry?

Most of the key newcomers are veterans with something to prove, so motivation should not be a factor. But teams often need several months to determine how new players will mesh. Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown has been impressive at the CONCACAF level and McDonald is a promising talent. Prideaux, Thornton and Vanney were considered castoffs by previous teams but could be valuable veterans with the Rapids, as players such as Jovan Kirovski have proven to be.

2. Can Clint Mathis return to form?

Mathis displayed hints of his talent in the playoffs but scored only twice in 25 games during the regular season. The MLS is set up to reward teams which peak near the end of the season and carry momentum into the playoffs. But first, the Rapids must qualify for the postseason.

3. Can Zach Thornton replace Joe Cannon?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Fernando Clavijo hasn't always put a lot of weight into the draft. He's always been a coach who almost bypasses the draft. He gives away all his picks and ends up trying to find foreign talent. That's what he did last year and he built a pretty good team. This year, he got a couple of players through the work of his assistant coach, John Murphy, who handled that draft. The one to watch is Nico Colaluca, from Virginia, who has an opportunity to be one of the few college kids to come into Colorado and make something happen. I think Colorado is going to miss Joe Cannon. In my eyes, Cannon is the best goalkeeper in the league. Clint Mathis -- I don't think he's done, but he needs to find a role. I don't think he's a 90-minute player. He needs to be a spark plug and find a way to be a good teammate and make things happen for the club. I was always a big fan of Clint. It really comes down to how he addresses the preseason and what kind of health he's in."

Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.

Thornton remains a strong presence and shot-stopper. But Cannon's instinct, mobility and clutch performances in the playoffs will be missed.

Biggest X factor: Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

The new stadium factor usually favors the home team; but it is no guarantee of success, as the Rapids proved in eliminating FC Dallas on the Texas team's home field in the playoffs the last two seasons. The new facility, though, gives the Rapids a point of reference and also signals a commitment from ownership, which is also reflected in the Rapids' partnership with Arsenal FC. Even if this doesn't pay off immediately, it will in the long run.

Breakout player to watch: Terry Cooke.

Though Cooke missed nine games because of injury, he led the MLS in assists last season. The Rapids should take even better advantage of Cooke's crossing ability from the wing this year with the addition of forwards Brown and Gomez. Few teams can match Cooke's savvy on the wing, his speed with the ball at his feet, and the accuracy of his service.

Outlook:

The Rapids were resourceful last season but the team also displayed its limitations, qualifying for the playoffs despite being outscored by opponents. The Rapids' lack of depth caused players like Nicolas Hernandez to play out of position, creating a domino effect which disrupted continuity.

Clavijo has upgraded the personnel but does not have much time to determine how the team is going to click. Clavijo has made significant moves, acquiring veteran talent from within the league, but also adding athleticism in the attack with Brown, a Panamanian, and McDonald, a Costa Rican.

ESPN Zone
Kyle Beckerman (Colorado Rapids) and Bobby Boswell (D.C. United) will be at the ESPN Zone in Denver on Thursday April 5th at 5:30 MST for an autograph signing and informal question and answer session. The Zone will also be giving away tickets to the MLS opener between D.C. United and Colorado.

In the past, Clavijo has sought performers who have been dismissed, overlooked, or have damaged reputations, combining them with promising youngsters. The formula has paid off with some exciting performances, but Clavijo's MLS teams (New England 2000-02 and the Rapids) have struggled to reach the elite level. In New England, Clavijo laid some of the groundwork for the Revolution's recent success, but was fired before completing his third season; he should be allowed to complete the cycle with the Rapids, though it might take another year to fulfill the team's potential.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.