If there was ever proof that few conclusions can be drawn from opening day, one only has to look at this season's opener between the Colorado Rapids and D.C. United. Enthused by their debut match in Dick's Sporting Goods Park, the Rapids defeated the Black and Red 2-1, looking composed in defense and dangerous in attack, while their opponents looked oddly uninspired.
While that same script played out through the rest of April, the ensuing months have seen the teams reverse roles. Colorado has won just two of its last nine matches, while United enjoyed a seven-game unbeaten streak during that time. When the two teams meet again on this week's edition of MLS Primetime Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), it will be Colorado looking to get well at United's expense.
Five story lines to follow
1. Copa casualties
With the Gold Cup now complete, several MLS teams will be welcoming back players from international duty. Unfortunately for Colorado and United, Copa America, the South American continental championship, looks like it will plunder the ranks of both sides. The Rapids, while welcoming back Pablo Mastroeni from the Gold Cup, will lose the services of forward Herculez Gomez and midfielder Kyle Beckerman. United will be even harder hit. Jaime Moreno has already been with the Bolivian national team for the last few weeks, and Bobby Boswell and Ben Olsen are now with the U.S. side.
2. Colorado's missing offense
The offseason efforts of Rapids head coach Fernando Clavijo to revamp his defense have largely paid off, with Colorado's 1.31 goals-against average good enough for fifth in the league. But along the way, the Rapids have lost their offense, with their tally of 13 goals in 13 matches the second-worst mark in MLS.
The loss of leading scorer Gomez as well as Beckerman will not help, although it is hoped that Roberto Brown, whose Gold Cup commitments with Panama ended a week ago, will regain the form that saw him notch three goals early in the season. Colorado will need some improved play from its midfield as well; Nico Hernandez and Jovan Kirovski have both been struggling.
3. Will United get back on their feet?
United were running along nicely, before losing a shocker of a match over the weekend at previously winless Real Salt Lake. It was a game in which United failed to match RSL's intensity, despite head coach Tom Soehn's warning that it was a trap game. But the Black and Red have been in worse situations this year, having dropped their first three matches of the season before righting their ship with their seven-game unbeaten streak.
4. Pablo's back, but where?
Having Mastroeni back in the lineup will no doubt help the Rapids' cause, but finding the best place to put him on the field has presented Clavijo with another dilemma. Given their similar styles, Mastroeni appeared set to replace Beckerman, but that was before Ugo Ihemelu's red card in their 1-0 loss to Dallas left the Rapids with a sizable hole in the back. It's possible that Greg Vanney could slide into the center of the defense, thus freeing Mastroeni to impose his will in midfield. However, Vanney has just recently returned from injury, meaning Clavijo may opt for the more conservative approach and play Mastroeni alongside Mike Petke in the back.
5. Fortress RFK
After their collapse in the second half of last season, United vowed to become more formidable at home. A 4-2 loss to Kansas City in their home opener made that pledge sound hollow, but United have fashioned a 4-0-1 record at RFK Stadium since, averaging better than two goals a game during that stretch. With tough road matches against Kansas City and Houston looming on the horizon, United will be especially keen to maintain their dominance at RFK.
Five players to watch
1. Terry Cooke, M, Colorado
Last year's MLS assists leader has taken a while to get going this season, perhaps because teams are more mindful of his pinpoint crosses. But if Colorado is to break its scoreless streak of 258 minutes, they'll need to find a way to free Cooke on the wing. The Englishman is on record as saying that the Rapids need to get the ball wide more often, and given their recent struggles, they'd be wise to heed his advice.
2. Devon McTavish, D, D.C. United
With Boswell absent, it will be up to McTavish to help keep things together in the back. A midfielder by trade, McTavish has filled in admirably in defense this season when injury or suspension has made playing time available. At 5-foot-11, McTavish lacks Boswell's height, but he adds a bit more pace to United's back line.
3. Jose Cancela, M, Colorado
Cancela has long been one of the more creative midfielders in MLS, and given Kirovski's struggles, it stands to reason that the former Revolution midfielder will play some role in this match. Cancela's suspect defense will make life more difficult for whoever his partner is in the center of midfield, but with the Rapids starving for goals, putting him on from the start may be worth the risk.
4. Luciano Emilio, F, D.C. United
Emilio entered the season with high expectations, but a six-game barren spell in front of goal left some wondering if he was overhyped. Emilio has since regained his scoring touch, tallying four goals in his last three games, and talk of him contending for the MLS goal-scoring crown has resurfaced. Even when he wasn't scoring, the Brazilian was using his passing and hold-up play to contribute to the United attack, but his recent success should create more space for fellow attacker Christian Gomez.
5. Greg Vanney, D, Colorado
Vanney was sidelined for five games earlier this season with a sprained ankle, and the Rapids did not fare well in his absence, going 1-3-1. During that time, Colorado missed his distribution out of the back, especially his long-range passing. Vanney returned last week to face Dallas and played the entire 90 minutes, but showed some rust in the process. The hope is that another few days of training will see him pick his game up a few notches.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.