Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Colorado Rapids: Western Conference jockeying
Rapids aim to get back on top, Whitecaps look to return to form in crucial Western Conference showdown.
The Colorado Rapids (9-2-6) are riding a 12-game MLS unbeaten streak but they've settled for draws in two of their last three home games and fell from the top of the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield tables into second place after a 0-0 result Monday against Portland. FC Dallas (10-5-4), which plays Friday night at San Jose, surged ahead by a point with a 4-0 Fourth of July romp over Orlando City, but Colorado has two games in hand -- three once the action in Northern California is done.
The Rapids' attack hasn't done a whole lot -- they've scored multiple goals just once in eight league games (and 10 in all competitions) since the end of April -- but the returns of midfield leader Jermaine Jones from Copa America Centenario and Swiss-born Albanian attacker Shkelzen Gashi from Euro 2016, who played Monday, should help in that regard. Colorado, coming off back-to-back scoreless ties, hasn't scored in 181 minutes but hasn't conceded in 189.
Tim Howard has, as expected, supplanted MLS goals-against leader Zac MacMath as the Rapids' No. 1 netminder. He was rarely tested by Portland, making just two saves.
The Vancouver Whitecaps (7-8-3), which sits sixth in the West, has won just once in their last five (since three wins in an eight-day stretch of May) and is coming off a 2-0 Fourth-of-July loss to the LA Galaxy in which they were the better team much of the night, built a 26-9 shot advantage, and were knocked aside when Jeff Larentowicz got away with a push to head home a corner kick for the second goal at the start of the second half. Defense has been the biggest problem: The Whitecaps have conceded a league-worst 31 goals, are ranked 18th with a 1.72 goals-against average, and have given up multiple goals in five of their last six league outings.
The Whitecaps, who are opening a three-game homestand (with Real Salt Lake to visit Wednesday and Orlando City next Saturday) are in the market for a top striker after Wednesday's transfer of disappointing Uruguayan designated player Octavio Rivero to Chile's Colo Colo, a move that had been anticipated for weeks.
Howard, the long-time No. 1 goalkeeper for the U.S. national team, on Monday played his first MLS game since July 2003 after returning home following 13 years in England, the last 11 at Everton. There was never any question he would step into Colorado's nets, no matter how solid MacMath has been. And MacMath has been good: He leads the league with a 0.67 GAA, six shutouts and nine wins. His 70.4 save percentage is 10th.
Vancouver's back line is close to full strength following center back Kendall Waston's return from Copa America Centenario and a delayed red-card suspension, but right back Fraser Aird, who hasn't seen MLS action since he was red-carded on May 14, is out with a calf strain. Also ailing: midfielders Marco Bustos (eye) and Russell Teibert (quadriceps) and defender Christian Dean (meniscus). Dean hasn't been on the field this year.
Colorado could use more goals -- it ranks 15th in MLS with a 1.12 goals average -- but has no pressing needs in the summer transfer window. Paul Bravo, the Rapids' vice president of soccer operations, has said he wouldn't mind adding pace. “We've identified the position. We’ve identified a couple of players,” Bravo told the Denver Post. “Now it's a matter of whether we want to move forward with it. … We probably need a little pace to stretch the field, but it’s not the most important thing because we do have some young players that can fill those roles. So it's really a matter of trying to find out if there's one particular person that can help move the needle for us.”
The Rapids lost backup midfielder Dillon Serna for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the fifth-round U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Dallas nine days ago. Defenders Bobby Burling and Sean St. Ledger also are sidelined with knee injuries; St. Ledger hasn't played this season.
Player to watch: Kekuta Manneh
The speedy winger sure can stretch defenses, and he's a finisher, too, with four goals in his last five league appearances and five all season, tied for second-best on the team. But he was a no-go Monday in L.A., where head coach Carl Robinson called it a “just a coach's decision” to leave him out of the 18. Manneh did something to get into the former Welsh national-teamer's doghouse, and asked what kind of statement he was making, Robinson said it was a “message to the group: 'Listen, we're together, we're a team; when you get your chance, take your chance.' ... He'll be back involved [against Colorado].”
This is the third season in charge for Colorado's Pablo Mastroeni and Vancouver's Carl Robinson, both of whom will turn 40 later this year. Mastroeni (26-35-24 overall) has the rebuilt Rapids in their best form since winning the 2010 MLS Cup title, and he's matched his previous high for wins (9), has with 33 points surpassed his first-year total (31) and is just four off the 37 claimed last year, and is streaking toward his first postseason berth.
Robinson (35-29-22) has taken the Whitecaps to the playoffs, without a victory, in each of his first two campaigns and is looking to improve on last year's second-place finish in the West. Both have primarily utilized 4-2-3-1 alignments, anchored by strong holding midfielders (Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira for Colorado, DP Matias Laba for Vancouver) and headed by speedy, multifaceted attacks. Colorado's defensive emphasis has been the difference between the sides this year.
Facts and figures
• Vancouver's David Ousted, who likely will make his 100th MLS appearance and start, leads the league with 65 saves, and midfielder Matias Laba's 57 tackles are No. 1, too. Colorado midfielder Micheal Azira leads MLS wit 63 interceptions.
• Vancouver has done better since the start of the 2015 season when Nicolas Mezquida, nominally Pedro Morales' backup in the attacking midfield slot, is on the field. The Whitecaps in that span are 12-6-3, with 38 goals for and 23 against, when Mezquida starts. When he comes on as a substitute, they're 4-3-1 while being outscored, 12-9. When he sits, they're 7-12-3 with 25 goals for and 32 against.
• Colorado scores 1.4 goals per 90 minutes when Jermaine Jones is in the lineup. When the U.S. national team midfielder isn't on the field, the Rapids average 0.8 goals per 90.
• The Rapids are the only MLS team without a goal in the first 15 minutes of a match this season. Their earliest strike was by Luis Solignac in the 18th minute of the 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on April 2. Colorado has conceded just once in the first 15 -- Montreal's Didier Drogba struck in the ninth minute of a 2-2 draw on April 30 -- and just twice in the first half.
• The Whitecaps are 4-2-1 all-time at home against Colorado, and all four wins have been by shutout. The Rapids tallied twice in the other three games.
Vancouver needs to pile up some points during this stretch of three home games in eight days, and a refocused Manneh -- watch him drive the attack after his benching against the Galaxy -- will have something to say about that. Breaking down Colorado isn't simple, and Howard's presence makes it even tougher. The Rapids need to start scoring goals, and they believe that will happen now that Jones and Gashi are back and Marco Pappa and Kevin Doyle are healthy. This could be an end-to-end slugfest or a tactical struggle defined by the Rapids' defensive organization. Expect the latter. Whitecaps 0, Rapids 0.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.