Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: Colorado Rapids' Hot Start Is No Fluke

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2016

Apr 23, 2016; Commerce City, CO, USA; Colorado Rapids forward Kevin Doyle (9) celebrates with midfielder Shkelzen Gashi (11) after his goal in the second half against the Seattle Sounders at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids defeated the Sounders 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Go ahead and take a look at the Western Conference standings in Major League Soccer.

Now take one more glance at the table since you probably didn't believe what you saw the first time around.

After being the laughing stock of the league in 2015, the Colorado Rapids lead the West and the Supporters' Shield standings with 17 points through nine weeks. 

There's no guarantee Pablo Mastroeni's men will stay in first place as the traditional powers in the West get better over the coming months, but the Rapids have made a statement at the start of 2016 that they have improved despite plenty of skepticism. 

The Rapids, who caught a good amount of criticism for acquiring Jermaine Jones in the offseason, are benefiting from the play of a few other new signings in midfield. Colorado brought in Micheal Azira by way of the waiver draft and Shkelzen Gashi on a transfer from FC Basel before the thought of inking Jones to a deal was a possibility. 

Feb 24, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Colorado Rapids midfielder Micheal Azira (22) controls the ball under pressure from Sporting Kansas City forward Kenny Cooper (31) during the first half at Kino North Stadium. Sporting Kansas City won 4 -1. Mandatory Credit:
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 28-year-old Azira, who played for the Seattle Sounders over the last two seasons, has brought some stability to the central part of midfield after Marcelo Sarvas left for D.C. United. Thanks to Azira's success in the holding role, Mastroeni started Jones in the No. 10 position when he returned from his six-game suspension. 

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Gashi's numbers suggest he is just finding his form in his first season in MLS, but he's been an impact player for most of the year on the left wing. The 27-year-old has slowly moved into the spotlight of late with two goals and two assists in his last four contests. 

Jones and Gashi have brought some much-needed support and link-up play to Kevin Doyle and Luis Solignac up top.

For the majority of 2015, the Rapids seemed lost in attack as the players in each third of the field failed to show any type of chemistry. 

Apr 23, 2016; Commerce City, CO, USA; Colorado Rapids midfielder Shkelzen Gashi (11) dribbles the ball ahead of Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (6) in the first half at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids defeated the Sounders 3-1. Mandatory
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When Clint Irwin and Drew Moor left for Toronto FC, the thinking was Colorado's defense would suffer. The opposite has happened as Colorado is tied for the league's second-best defensive record. Irwin, Moor and their new teammates in Toronto have given up one less tally than the Rapids. 

More attention will be drawn to the personnel on the Rapids roster when Tim Howard joins the club from Everton, but the most impressive aspect of their early-season start has been the ability to earn points from matches they wouldn't have in 2015. 

Colorado is tied with Week 10 opponent and Rocky Mountain Cup rival Real Salt Lake for the best home record in MLS at 4-0-0. Those four victories have come against the LA Galaxy, Toronto, New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders. 

In addition to the impressive slew of home results, the Rapids have gone on the road and taken down Sporting Kansas City and drawn with D.C. United and Montreal. 

It's clear the turnaround taking place inside the walls at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is not a fluke. Now Colorado has to prove it's a side worthy of qualifying for the postseason. That won't be easy in the difficult West, but the Rapids have the potential to make another statement in their top-of-the-table showdown with RSL on Saturday. 

We'll have a look at that contest and the other eight matches taking place across the United States and Canada below in our weekend preview. 

Week 10 Schedule

New York Red Bulls at Orlando City (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, UniMas) 

Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

FC Dallas at Toronto FC (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

New England Revolution at LA Galaxy (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

New York City FC at D.C. United (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Players to Watch 

Aurelien Collin, CB, New York Red Bulls

One week after being traded by Orlando City to the New York Red Bulls, Aurelien Collin returns to the Citrus Bowl with his new teammates on Friday. 

Apr 8, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Orlando City FC defender Aurelien Collin (78) looks for a loose ball during the second half against the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium. The Union won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The addition of Collin reinforced the struggling Red Bulls back line that failed to string together consistent performances during the first two months of the season.

In order to keep their current hot streak alive in Week 10, the Red Bulls will need a strong showingor a solid scouting report at the bare minimumout of Collin.

If Jesse Marsch's men contain the movement of Cyle Larin in the final third, they could leave central Florida with three points. 

Brad Davis, LM, Sporting Kansas City 

Keeping with the theme of players taking on their old sides in Week 10, Brad Davis travels back to BBVA Compass Stadium for the first time since leaving the Houston Dynamo for Sporting KC. 

May 1, 2016; Kansas City, KS, USA; Sporting KC mid-fielder Brad Davis (11) dribbles the ball up the field past LA Galaxy forward Emmanuel Boateng (24) during the first half at Children's Mercy Park. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Davis and his trademark left foot produced the only tally for Peter Vermes' side in Week 9 against LA, and he has a good chance of playing a significant role in Saturday's match. 

The 34-year-old and his teammates will look to have plenty of success against a poor Houston defense that has let in 16 goals in eight matches.

The chances will be there for Sporting KC. It's just a matter of converting them on the road against Owen Coyle's side. 

Luciano Acosta, FW, D.C. United

It's becoming clear Luciano Acosta should be one of the first names written on Ben Olsen's teamsheet every week. 

Apr 9, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United midfielder Luciano Acosta (11) dribbles past Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Kianz Froese (38) during the second half at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. D.C. United won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY S
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The 21-year-old playmaker dazzled off the bench against Vancouver and New England before earning a spot in the starting XI for the Week 9 draw with Chicago.

Acosta, who has one goal and three assists in 2016, should be able to take advantage of the lackluster New York City FC back four in the final match of the weekend at RFK Stadium.

If he finds gaps in the NYCFC defense early on Sunday night, Acosta could end up on the highlight reels come Monday. 

Game of the Week

Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids

If we're going to heap praise on the resurgent Rapids, it's only fair we hand RSL some credit for their fast start as well. 

Jeff Cassar's side suffered through an unusually poor 2015, but the Claret and Cobalt are back this season thanks to a ferocious front four led by Juan Manuel Martinez and Yura Movsisyan. Even if Joao Plata misses his third consecutive match, the duo mentioned above, along with Javier Morales, will test the Rapids with their movement and passing ability in the final third. 

Azira's mettle in the middle of the park will be tested as well by the RSL attack, while Kyle Beckerman will be handed the job of stopping Jones if he lines up in an attacking position again. 

Not only will Colorado's attackers have to deal with RSL's improved defense, they must get a few shots past the reliable Nick Rimando. Besting the United States international won't be an easy task, but nothing has stopped the Rapids yet this season. 

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

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