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Colorado in transition yet again

Editor's note: This is the sixth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. The seventh will be Toronto on Saturday.

2008 record and finish: 11-14-5 (38 points), fourth in Western Conference.

Key additions: F Kwame Adjeman-Pamboe, M Ivan Guerrero, G Matt Pickens

Key losses: D Jose Luis Burciaga Jr., G Bouna Coundoul, D Facundo Erpen, M Christian Gomez, F Tom McManus, D Mike Petke

Key questions facing team

1. How will the Rapids adjust to Gary Smith's coaching style?

Smith took over as interim coach from Fernando Clavijo in August and the Rapids concluded last season about where they usually finish, but were edged out of playoff contention by New York. Now, Smith is no longer interim and he has control of the team from the start, along with assistant coach Steve Guppy, who played in the Premiership and briefly in MLS with D.C. United. Smith started the preseason experimenting with lineups, building around Pablo Mastroeni. But the Rapids' identity will not likely emerge for a while.

2. Can Cory Gibbs make the defense better?

Gibbs' experience in Europe and with the U.S. national team makes him a point of reference, with his leadership qualities bolstering the back line's confidence. Gibbs is the type of player who can not only take care of his own defensive responsibilities, he can make other defenders perform better and should be able to help players such as Ugo Ihemelu reach their potential. With Mastroeni in front of Gibbs and Matt Pickens, the Rapids' up-the-middle defense should be set.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

3. Can Conor Casey and Gibbs stay healthy?

Both Casey and Gibbs have made the grade in Europe and with the national team, but both have missed long periods of action with injuries. Casey's combination of size and skill, plus Bundesliga experience, is rare in the MLS. Casey, who can make space and set up a speedy partner such as Omar Cummings, scored 11 goals in 21 games last season, but he started slowly while recovering from knee surgery and was limited to 16 starts. Casey and Gibbs were playing for the U.S. in preparation for the 2006 World Cup before both sustained knee injuries and missed a chance to go to Germany for the finals.

4. Will Terry Cooke's crosses find a target?

Cooke went through the Manchester United ranks along with David Beckham and his crossing ability is a copy of Beckham's. Well, maybe not an exact copy, but Cooke's compact build allows him to pinpoint his crosses and do so very quickly. Cooke has been among the league leaders in assists since joining the MLS in 2005. And, with Colin Clark attracting increasing attention on the left wing, Cooke should be getting even more time to find Rapid strikers in the penalty area.

John Harkes' Take:
"I guess the Christian Gomez experiment is over; it just didn't work for whatever reason. I'm not sure. Obviously with Gomez gone they have a big void to fill there. The one thing about Colorado, on the outside looking in, it seems like nobody's happy there. There's a lot of players that have gone through that system and have taken off and moved on. Another guy that comes to mind is Mike Petke, a very solid center back who's grown tremendously as a mature leader over the years and it didn't even work for him there at times. So they've gotta get themselves sorted out. They've got to find some form, which I don't think they can. And then the biggest change is going to be in goal. They signed Matt Pickens from the Chicago Fire, so that should help them out. He's a good goalkeeper, so hopefully they'll have a little stability in the back."

Biggest X Factor: Matt Pickens

After a steady season with the Chicago Fire in 2006, Pickens went to Queen's Park Rangers in England. The move paid off financially but Pickens seldom performed with the QPR first team and could be rusty on his return to the MLS. If Pickens returns to form, the Rapids could return to the playoffs.

Breakout Player to Watch: Omar Cummings

Cummings' play with Colorado earned him a place on the Jamaican national team, a major jump for a third-round draft choice. Cummings, who scored six goals last season, has the quickness and speed to complement Casey.

Outlook:

Recent Colorado seasons have been filled with tension. Last year, Clavijo clashed with management, while players such as Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wingert departed in acrimonious circumstances and the team made its usual dramatic rush to the finish line. The plan is to gain stability and the hope is for key players to remain healthy. Smith's offseason moves signal the Rapids are heading in a build-from-the-back direction. Last season, the Rapids dipped as goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul joined Senegal for national team duty and midfielder Gomez struggled to adjust. Coundoul then declined to re-sign with the Rapids to pursue overseas opportunities.

The Rapids have long been on the verge of being a contending team, but have lacked a breakout player or two to complement Mastroeni. That player could arrive in the form of a Designated Player. The Rapids regained a DP slot and midfielder Ivan Guerrero in a trade which returned Gomez to D.C. United. The team has promising youth -- the Rapids have successfully developed young players such as Colin Clark, Omar Cummings, Kosuke Kimura and Nick LaBrocca. Mehdi Bellouchy could fill Gomez's playmaking role and Greg Dalby adds midfield depth. Last season, John DiRaimondo and LaBrocca emerged in the midfield; the next surprises could be 6-foot-6 goalkeeper Steward Ceus and striker Ross Schunk.

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

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