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Rapids banking on C. Gomez to provide a spark

Editor's note: This is the first of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 9-13-8, fourth in Western Conference (missed the playoffs)

Key additions: M Christian Gomez, D Jose Burciaga Jr., D Tim Ward

Key losses: Nicolas Hernandez, Jose Cancela, Zach Thornton, Tony Sanneh

Key questions facing team

1. Will failure to address issues at striker prove a blunder?

Last year's playoff bust isn't difficult to dissect: The team simply couldn't score goals. Fernando Clavijo held his managerial post -- for now, at least -- despite a club that notched just 29 goals in 30 matches. The Rapids were shut out in nine of their last 17 contests as playoff visions, lit from a fast start, slowly circled the drain.

Jovan Kirovski led individual scoring in 2007 with six. Six! And four of those were on penalty kicks! That means Herculez Gomez's four led the pack in the run of play, which is utterly anemic.

Gomez was good in spots, but his production had fallen off before a season-ending knee injury in September. Conor Casey, beset with injuries, never quite got going. Kirovski? He has underachieved with clockwork dependability. With all that, the Rapids will still plow into 2008 without a significant upgrade at forward.

2. Can Fernando Clavijo piece together a contending defense from assorted parts?

The Rapids have some intriguing options but may suffer if they can't establish stable roles this year. Injuries certainly have something to say about it all. Still, Ugo Ihemelu, with as much physical ability as any MLS defender, will never properly develop unless Clavijo, a defender in his playing days, or someone else identifies his ideal spot. Is he a right back or a center back?

And what of Facundo Erpen, who has played on the outside, in the middle and even as a defensive midfielder at DSG Park? Mike Petke, about to begin his 12th MLS season, is the steady old hand. Tim Ward, a late-February Generation adidas trade acquisition, started six matches last year for Columbus. Finally, Jose Burciaga Jr. was picked up from Kansas City, where he lost his starting spot late last year. Burciaga is frequently a defensive liability and his passing from the back is sketchy, although he was the league's highest scoring left back last year.

3. Is there an overall plan?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"They're always the team who no one ever says anything good about. They just expect them to survive. I think there's a reason for that. They never really do anything special. They win some games, they lose some games. Fernando Clavijo is still there after having some tumultuous times, but he's got some good assistant coaches and some good new blood in that group. He made a couple of moves by the end of last year that could end up helping them, but you never know with this group. They could come in last, they could come in the middle, but they will never come in first."

Former D.C. United playmaker Christian Gomez was brought aboard to punch up the offense, which sorely needed it. But wasn't that why the club gave away workhorse Kyle Beckerman last season in exchange for disappointing playmaker Mehdi Ballouchy?

Gomez is clearly an upgrade as offensive conduit, but Colorado probably should have kept Beckerman. A three-man midfield with Beckerman, Gomez and Mastroeni, feeding wingers Terry Cooke and Colin Clark? Now that would cause some alarm around MLS.

With offensive collapse a threat, the Rapids curiously added two defenders in offseason trades. Colorado's personnel moves too often seem to occur in a vacuum, independent of and disconnected to others.

4. Is Terry Cooke a game-changer or just a fellow with a decent cross?

Cooke has one of the league's sweetest services from the right. But you always get the feeling he should be doing more. Perhaps the problem is the pitiful lack of striking power on the end of his service.

Cooke should benefit with Christian Gomez now pulling the offensive strings. The new playmaker won't just get Cooke the ball, but should supply passes in good spots. Cooke had seven assists last year. If he lands in the 12-14 range Colorado can probably make the playoffs.

5. Is it still Bouna Time?

Rapids goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul answered question about his reliability in 2007, although sometimes comically so. Misadventure always lurked nearby, but he was usually OK at the end of the day. Coundoul played one match for Senegal, standing tall in the recently completed African Nations Cup. And he has reportedly worked to improve his dicey distribution habits. There are so many other issues for the Rapids, that Coundoul absolutely must be Mr. Consistency for any chance at club prosperity.

Biggest X Factor: Pablo Mastroeni

The longtime U.S. international can certainly be a difference-maker. But availability is always an issue, and so, too, is his total commitment to the club.

Mastroeni's needless ejection in Week 28 last year with the team's playoff fate still in the balance was a shining example of why his allegiance to the cause deserves inspection.

He has averaged 17 starts in six seasons in Denver. National team call-ups have contributed, but so have injuries and disciplinary suspensions. Suffice to say, the Rapids need more than 17 starts from their veteran enforcement arm. Complicating the problem is middling depth at defensive midfielder. The backups are rookie Ciaran O'Brein or defender Facundo Erpen.

Finally, Mastroeni's ability to get forward is limited. In 23 total appearances last year (two as a sub) he had no goals, one assist and just nine total shots. That's not enough for an international-level central midfielder, even one who lists defense as a specialty.

The Rapids shopped Mastroeni, 31, hard in the offseason, with no takers. So it hardly seems unfair to wonder if the veteran's heart can truly be in it.

Breakout Player to Watch Colin Clark

One of the well-kept secrets of MLS in 2007 (matters at DSG Park often fly below the radar, the price for wandering fairly aimlessly through 12 MLS seasons) was how dominant Clark looked in certain matches. Indeed, when motivated and on his game, the local product was occasionally the best player on the field, boldly attacking defenders while not neglecting defensive chores. Can Clark build on the 2007 season and turn that audacity into greater consistency and production? He had just two goals and two assists in 16 matches in 2007. (Like Cooke, some of his modest production can be pinned on Colorado's lack of striking power.)

If Clark can turn that speed and aggressiveness from the left midfield spot into, say, 6-8 goals and 8-10 assists, he may squeeze into a crowded national team quagmire at the left midfield spot. With Christian Gomez drawing extra attention to the center of the field, and with Cooke on the other side, Clark has ample opportunity to harvest the left. It's on Clavijo and staff to help Clark develop a greater sense of tactical awareness and help him make better choices in matches.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England vs. Chicago
8 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Outlook

Things aren't starting well in the Rapids' recovery efforts. The list of names already having missed significant preseason time due to injury includes Herculez Gomez, Casey, Mastroeni, Ihemelu, Ballouchy, Petke and Dan Gargan. Gargan, Casey and Gomez all return from ACL reconstruction, each targeting an April or May return. Few players, however, return from that major procedure without a big recovery curve in form.

Clavijo's primary aim in 2007 was to shore up a porous defense. Check. The club allowed 34 goals, fourth best in the league. But the woeful offense and the inability to make spanking new DSG Park a fortress proved disastrous. The Rapids were quite average at home with a 6-4-5 mark and just 16 total goals.

So it really is quite simple: Clavijo must augment a solid defense with additional scoring punch. And yet, the club chose not to directly address the dearth of quality, healthy forwards. Instead, management traded away its DP slot for Christian Gomez, banking on better service as the solution. Clavijo believes that Herculez Gomez and Casey, when healthy, are worthy MLS goalscorers.

He'd better be right. His job likely depends on it.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.