The Colorado Rapids, on paper, are one of those teams the Sounders should be able to beat handily. But the last week or two, the laughingstock Rapids managed to string some decent matches together and have actually moved ahead of the Sounders in the Western Conference standings.
The good news for the Sounders is that they’ve actually found an opponent to play that is reputed to be far worse than they are.
The bad news is the Sounders have to put that theory to the test by actually playing the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday in the first of three straight road contests. For all the jokes about how awful the Rapids are and have been the past two seasons, they are riding a two-game win streak and three-match unbeaten stretch that’s actually propelled them ahead of the Sounders in the Western Conference.
“Every game now becomes a real vital, must-win type of situation,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters Tuesday before boarding a flight to Colorado for the match. “We have to perform well to collect points.’’
That seemed an automatic outcome just two weeks ago, with the Rapids languishing at a Major League Soccer worst 2-9-2 record with only eight points in 13 games and a minus-10 goal differential. Now, they are 4-9-3, which is one victory and three points better than the Sounders — albeit having played one more game — and their minus-8 goal differential is exactly the same as the Rave Green boasts.
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Meanwhile, the Sounders, at 3-9-3, are tied for last place with San Jose in the conference, though Schmetzer’s group enjoys two games in-hand. They also don’t have the worst record in MLS, that honor belonging to 2-7-4 D.C. United and their 10 points — though they enjoy two games in-hand on the Sounders.
It’s worth noting that when the Sounders faced D.C. United at home four weeks ago, they were losing in the second half before rallying for a 2-1 victory with a go-ahead goal in the 83rd minute. In other words, the Sounders can’t take anything for granted, especially with goalkeeper Stefan Frei fresh off concussion protocol, right back Kelvin Leerdam still not right after a hamstring injury and midfielder Gustav Svensson still playing for Sweden in the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals having started and played the entire game Tuesday in an upset win over Switzerland.
Altitude is always a concern for teams visiting the Rapids, though the Sounders are 6-3-1 all-time at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and have had recent success there. A year ago on July 4, the Sounders notched a 3-1 win at Colorado. The prior season, they captured the opener of the Western Conference Final there ahead of winning their first MLS Cup.
“Tactics can help prevent any sort of feeling that you might get,’’ Schmetzer said, shrugging off the altitude question. “If you control it, the ball never gets tired.’’
The question is whether the Sounders will have enough gas left after this one to stay in the conference playoff hunt. They head to New England for what should be a tough match on Saturday and then to Atlanta for an even tougher one eight days after that.
At 11 points out of a playoff spot, they can’t squander any more chances against beatable opponents. The Sounders also need to tighten up defensively after looking porous in a 3-2 loss at home to Portland last Saturday.
“It’s tough to come back from a game like that and win a game,’’ midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We’re going to be on the road and … this game is going to be a tough road game. We have to be strong mentally and strong defensively as a unit.’’
Their poor results at home mean the Sounders will likely need to steal a road win someplace soon against teams besides the ones — like the Rapids — that they are expected to beat to get back in the playoff hunt. Roldan talked about how winning at Colorado and New England could serve as a “catapult” to launch the Sounders’ season.
“As players, we play this game to win,’’ Roldan said of the Sounders. “Not for money, not for losing, not for fame. We play this game to win trophies and that’s been the goal since Day One.’’
But before any trophies are put up for grabs, they’ll have to prove they are better than a franchise that, until the past week or two, was widely viewed as nothing short of a laughing stock.