Colorado Rapids on Accelerated Path Toward Winning Trophies in 2016

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2016

Oct 1, 2016; Commerce City, CO, USA; Colorado Rapids midfielder Jared Watts (33) celebrates the goal of forward Sebastien Le Toux (7) in the second half against the Portland Timbers at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The path to achieve a string of advantageous goals was set out during the preseason by the Colorado Rapids. They just didn't think they'd travel down that path so fast in only one season. 

After finishing with the worst record in Major League Soccer's Western Conference a year ago, the Rapids have the inside track to win the Supporters' Shield, which is awarded to the team with the most regular-season points. 

“We set very tangible goals, clear goals as a group, and had a pathway and process in which we’re going to achieve those things," Colorado manager Pablo Mastroeni told Bleacher Report in a phone conversation.

"I think when you clearly define what you want to achieve, the road you want to take to get there and what it’s going to take to get there, I think things become a little bit more achievable because they’re always in sight," Mastroeni continued. 

Mastroeni has led the Rapids out of the cellar and into the postseason.
Mastroeni has led the Rapids out of the cellar and into the postseason.Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

"Looking back, if you would’ve said we’d be in this place, I would say that’s where we want to go, but I think you’d still go, 'Wow, that’s quite an achievement,'" Mastroeni said. 

The Rapids enter Thursday's match with the San Jose Earthquakes two points back of Western Conference leaders FC Dallas, but the clash at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is the game in hand Colorado have on the current top club in MLS. 

Colorado can ascend into the top spot in the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings with a win over San Jose, and there's a decent chance they'll stay there with results against the Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo to end the regular season. 

If the Rapids were to end up with the Supporters' Shield, it would be a massive victory for the club after plenty of recent struggles. The Rapids haven't qualified for the postseason in three of the last four seasons and they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs since winning the 2010 MLS Cup. 

"I think it would validate all the changes we made in the offseason and I’m not talking about players in particular," Mastroeni said. "I’m talking about the mindset of not only the locker room, but the entire organization.

The Rapids celebrate a goal in their last match against Houston.
The Rapids celebrate a goal in their last match against Houston.Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

"We really made great strides in the way we operate," Mastroeni said. "It would mean a lot because what we’ve been through the last two years has been an absolute struggle." 

The Rapids have reached this point thanks to a few shrewd acquisitions, strong defensive performances and some valuable veteran leadership. 

One of the biggest moves of the offseason came at the start of the new league year as the Rapids picked up midfielder Micheal Azira in the waiver draft from the Seattle Sounders. Azira has formed one of the best midfield partnerships in the league alongside Sam Cronin. The duo may not be known on a national level, but their teammates know how much they mean to the club. 

"I started this thing at the beginning of the year with the core values we’re going to live by," Mastroeni said. "The three are: being a good teammate and quantifying that, doing all the little things in games, [secondly], be the best player on the field and perseverance, a guy that has a tough time but finds a way to manage through."

Azira has been one of the most underrated players in MLS in 2016.
Azira has been one of the most underrated players in MLS in 2016.Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

"All year long these guys have been voting on who these players are in the locker room after every game," the Colorado boss said. "The players have taken accountability for their performances and then voting every game who’s the player that best represents this. Cronin and Azira are literally all over that locker room. They’re all over the board where we have these names and the games."

"I think it’s a reflection of how important their teammates think they are," Mastroeni said. "I think without these type of players everything crumbles and these guys have been the backbone, along with guys like Axel [Sjoberg], [Jared] Watts and Bobby Burling, who have really been immense in being the backbone of the group."

The entire defensive unit has been stellar for the Rapids as they've let in a league low 29 goals in 31 matches. The Rapids have also proven they can play in tight matches as they've won eight contests in 2016 by a 1-0 score. 

With a grind-it-out mentality already instilled in the players, the challenges of the postseason may end up being a bit easier on the club hungry to pack a punch in November and December. 

"I think the reason why we’ve won more of those games than not is because the mentality of the group is strong," Mastroeni said. "We believe that it doesn’t matter when the moment comes, that we’ll find the right moment to score. And then because of the way we defend as a group, we’re able to keep other teams off the board long enough for us to find the opportunity to score." 

Towering center-back Axel Sjoberg has been a key to Colorado's defensive success.
Towering center-back Axel Sjoberg has been a key to Colorado's defensive success.Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

"When you get into the playoffs, the games have a lot more emotion and are played with a lot more passion," the former United States international said. "There’s a lot more mistakes being made and teams aren’t willing to risk everything in a home and away contest."

"What we’ve tried to do as a group is play the same way at home as we do away," Mastroeni continued. "I find a lot of comfort in our ability to have this mentality that where we go doesn’t matter. We try to play the same type of ball we’ve been playing all year and I think that suits us well." 

An added amount of leadership from United States men's national team regulars Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, as well as Albanian Shkelzen Gashi and Republic of Ireland forward Kevin Doyle, has also helped the Rapids form a brand-new identity. These players have made a mark on the budding stars in the group like Axel Sjoberg and Marlon Hairston. 

Gashi leads the Rapids with eight goals.
Gashi leads the Rapids with eight goals.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

"I think the glue of the group are all the young pieces that have a burning desire to do something with their careers and achieve some great things," Mastroeni said. "The pathway for these guys becomes more tangible when you see guys like Jermaine, Tim and Gashi who have actually achieved those things these guys want, which is playing international football, playing Champions League football and playing for their national teams." 

"As a player, I could impact the locker room in a different way," the former Miami, LA and Colorado man said. "But as a coach, now you rely on your experienced players to carry your message. Not only carry it, but live it every day." 

"These guys carry themselves like true pros and it’s no accident that they’ve had the kind of careers they’ve had," Mastroeni said. "The ability to live the message of professionalism is what they bring on a day-in and day-out basis."

Even if the Rapids don't end up with the Supporters' Shield, they have all the ingredients to put together a deep run into the postseason. Few teams are as organized as Colorado, and although they don't have a superstar that will carry them to MLS Cup, they have a squad full of confident players that are ready to show what they've built in front of a national audience. 

        

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.