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Mar 19, 2010

In Casey the Rapids (must) trust

2009 record and finish: 10-10-10, 40 points

Key additions: F Andre Akpan (Harvard University), M Danny Earls (Rochester Rhinos), G Ian Joyce (Southend United), M Jeff Larentowicz (New England), M Ross LaBauex (University of Virginia), D Oscar Murillo (Deportes Quindio), M Wells Thompson (New England)

Key losses: G Preston Burpo (New England), D Cory Gibbs (New England), D Ty Harden (Toronto), D Jordan Harvey (Philadelphia), F Jacob Peterson (Toronto)

Key questions facing team:

1. How go the recoveries of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni?

Both Larentowicz (knee) and Mastroeni (ankle) are returning from surgery, and both are driving forces in midfield (and strong backups in central defense). The Rapids have an abundance of holding midfielders (including Nick LaBrocca), and they will be counted on to provide support for Mehdi Ballouchy. Larentowicz is also a threat on free kicks, and Commerce City's elevation will only add to the velocity of his blasts.

2. Who will replace Conor Casey?

The MLS is playing a reduced schedule during the World Cup, but if Casey is called upon by the U.S. national team, he still will miss several Rapids games. Andre Akpan and Pat Noonan can provide some of Casey's qualities, but neither can be expected to be as effective as Casey, who scored 16 goals last season.

3. What about left-side defending?

Jordan Harvey departed in the expansion draft. Danny Earls, the top candidate to replace Harvey, will also have to learn to work with Colin Clark to cover the vast spaces of Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC
Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

Biggest X factor: Colin Clark and Jamie Smith

The Rapids' wide game will depend on Clark's and Smith's recoveries from season-ending knee surgery. Clark had developed into one of the most dynamic left-sided players in the league, and his slashing style depends on a return to health. Smith replaced Terry Cooke on the right side; his endurance and willingness to fulfill both defensive and offensive responsibilities are good fits for his tactical role. Smith's hard-running style also depends on being in top shape physically. Pat Noonan and Wells Thompson are in reserve.

Breakout player to watch: Andre Akpan

Akpan excelled on the U.S. under-20 team and at Harvard. His motivation has been questioned, as is the case for many Ivy Leaguers whose degrees are worth more outside the soccer world -- at least at the MLS salary level. Akpan also was reportedly unimpressive during the MLS combine. But he has fit into the professional environment and could get his chance if Casey is called to international duty.

Outlook:

It has taken coach Gary Smith a year to make the Rapids his team, having taken over from Fernando Clavijo late in the 2008 season. The Rapids should be solid in central defense, but they will miss Cory Gibbs (replaced by Drew Moor). Matt Pickens provides better-than-average goalkeeping, but the loss of Preston Burpo leaves no experienced backup -- Ian Joyce has been acquired from Southend United, but Joyce has performed mostly in reserve games since moving to England in 2007. Kosuke Kimura covers the right back role, but left back is not as certain. Scott Palguta and Rob Valentino provide defensive backup.

The acquisition of Larentowicz indicates the Rapids will emphasize strength over style, since the team already had LaBrocca, who leads the team in minutes played over the last three seasons, and Mastroeni in midfield. Wells Thompson provides insurance behind Clark and Smith on the outside, and the home-field dimensions and playing surface should be a good fit for his creative style.

But the Rapids' fortunes will be determined by the Casey-Omar Cummings strike combination. Casey provided the finishing ability, guile and strength, Cummings (12 assists) the speed and unselfishness as the duo combined for 24 goals last year.

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

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