Colorado Rapids 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

Eduardo MendezCorrespondent IIFebruary 28, 2014

Colorado Rapids 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    The enigma that is the Colorado Rapids' coaching situation will be the club's story to watch in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete your season preview?

    In part 12 of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Rapids this season, the number and the player to watch as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar.

    Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.

Offseason Transactions

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

    Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS' complete list of offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.

     

    Players In:

    D/MMarc BurchMLS Re-Entry Draft Stage 1
    MMarvin ChavezTrade from San Jose
    MMarlon HairstonMLS SuperDraft
    DGrant Van De CasteeleMLS SuperDraft
    GKJoe NascoFree Transfer
    MJared WattsMLS SuperDraft
    GKJohn BernerMLS SuperDraft

     

    Players Out:

    DDiego CalderonLoan Expired
    MJaime CastrillonOption Declined
    GKSteward CeusOption Declined
    MJamie SmithOption Declined
    M/DAnthony WallaceOut of Contract
    FAtiba HarrisTraded to San Jose
    MJamie SmithRetired
    MTony CascioLoaned to Houston
    MHendry ThomasTraded to FC Dallas
    DKory KindleRetired

The Story to Watch: Who Needs a Head Coach?

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    So...who's going to coach this team?

    After a messy ordeal to negotiate the release of former head coach Oscar Pareja, the Rapids did so with less than two months before the season opener. March 8 is rapidly approaching. MLS' first kick is just a week away.

    Colorado still doesn't have a coach.

    Technically, it's former club legend Pablo Mastroeni who's been pegged as the man in charge. The 17-year veteran was initially hired as a special assistant to the technical director, but that position has undergone a few transformations in the offseason.

    For now, Mastroeni is the coach in charge of the preseason and auditioning for a position he's recently interviewed for, as per Nick Groke of the Denver Post.  

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    It should.

    Just last year, the New York Red Bulls found themselves in a similarly peculiar situation. The search for Hans Backe's replacement nearly netted Paulo Sousa, but an inability to land a work permit, as per The New York Post (h/t SI.com), ultimately forced the Red Bulls brass to promote a former club legend who was running the show in the preseason.

    Mike Petke would then go on to win the club's first-ever major trophy in his first season as head coach.

    So, no, the Rapids aren't in an ideal spot. But they're not exactly in uncharted territory, either. As odd as this all seems, some sort of precedent was set in 2013 for situations like this. Maybe, just maybe, Mastroeni can continue to buck the trend in 2014.

The Number to Watch: 23

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

    Perhaps Eric Wynalda is on to something.

    The Atlanta Silverbacks head coach and analyst for Fox Soccer hasn't exactly been cryptic with his public gushing over Rapids left-back Chris Klute. After discovering the 23-year-old in the summer of 2012, Wynalda basically employed himself as an unpaid publicist.

    First, there were his comparisons to former U.S. men's national team defender Eddie Pope, via ColoradoRapids.com. Then, there was his trolling tirade in the comments section of MLS' official website, via the Rapids' website. The emoticon at the end was a nice touch:

    Klute is better than ANYBODY we've ever had. Sorry, but we need to understand what potential actually looks like. Now, think about a World Cup. Ribery, Ronaldo, Robben, Walcott, etc...Who do we have that can run with those guys. NOBODY. Klute can and that's the difference. I don't think people realize how fast he is. I've never seen pick up pace like that in an American player. We've just never had it before. I hope he gets a shot. He doesn't need six months. He needs six seconds, and that's usually how games are decided. In six seconds or less. I think I'm done here. :)

    Fortunately for Wynalda, the numbers back him up.

    The promising left-back didn't just lead his club with seven assists, he led all MLS defenders under 25 in the same category. His 74 percent passing accuracy ranks fifth among defenders who played in at least 25 matches and met the same age requirements.

    But the one category that Klute excelled in and warrants your attention is key passes. No MLS defender under 25 had more key passes last season than Colorado's No. 15 (23).

    Not bad for a player who entered the season with just one start under his belt.

    Off the strength of a successful campaign, Klute left a mark on Jurgen Klinsmann's radar. Though he failed to feature in a friendly against South Korea, Klute still gained invaluable experience at the international level.

    He's barely scratched the surface of his talents. Expect key passes and key performances to rise in 2014.

The Player to Watch: Shane O'Neill

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Don't you hate it when you're just too good?

    Homegrown product Shane O'Neill spent most of the 2013 season at center-back for the Rapids. Pairing with veteran Drew Moor, O'Neill finished the season with 205 defensive actions. Only five players under 24 finished with more in 2013. Such a promising start to a career led to a surprise call-up with the U.S. men's national team.

    But even a promising defensive start isn't enough to satisfy O'Neill's ambition.

    The 20-year-old spent a majority of his youth career at his more natural midfield position. Injuries to Colorado's back line forced the Irish-American to utilize his versatility and help patch up the club's defense. 

    According to Chris Bianchi of MLS' official website, O'Neill isn't interested in patchwork this season.

    He's anxious to move forward:

    Hopefully I can play midfield next year. Hopefully I'll be able to stick into the middle and because I think that's probably my best position and I think I can make an impact going forward, so hopefully I'll be able to play in there.

    Mastroeni thinks otherwise in another of Bianchi's featured stories:

    I think Shane is a guy that is capable of playing in the midfield, however, I think that if [US national team head coach] Jurgen Klinsmann is calling you up as a center back, there's a lot of thinking to be done about switching those positions.

    Being one of the more young, promising defensive prospects in the league isn't a bad thing, but any center-back with an offensive mindset that can help build the attack from the back is worth watching. 

    Especially this one.

The Match to Watch: The Rocky Mountain Cup

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Colorado Rapids secured the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time since 2006 last season. A 1-0 victory in Week 6 proved to be the deciding contest between Colorado and Real Salt Lake. A 2-2 draw in Week 23 prevented RSL from capturing their seventh consecutive trophy.

    They'll look to take it back when the Rapids make a nationally televised visit to Rio Tinto Stadium on Sept. 19.

    But what condition will Colorado be in entering the match?

    A brutal stretch awaits the club in the final third of the 2014 season. Starting in late August, and stretching to early October, six of the Rapids' seven opponents are playoff teams from the year prior. The club will be more than battled tested when it enters Sandy, Utah in mid-September. 

    If they're not worn down by then, securing only the fourth Rocky Mountain Cup in the rivalry's history remains a goal and a plausible possibility. It could also be momentous enough to carry Colorado past the finish line. 

     

    Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics.