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The Seattle Sounders have Rookie of the Year, Jordan Morris, Toronto FC have Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Montreal Impact have Didier Drogba and Colorado Rapids have Tim Howard…oh wait, no they don’t.
After picking up an injury with the national team, the former Everton shot-stopper was diagnosed with a fracture of the right adductor, located in the top part of the groin.
He will undergo surgery before the first-leg and is expected to be sidelined for up to four months. Without him, the Rapids may not even have made it this far. In the Conference Semifinal against L.A Galaxy, Howard would save two penalties in the shootout, setting up their Final against the Sounders.
The goalkeeper joined in the summer, making his debut in the goalless draw with Portland Timbers, that was the first of his seven clean sheets, but he’s not the only reason the Rapids have made it this far.
Step forward 10-goal hero Shkelzen Gashi, the Albanian midfielder, one of the lesser celebrated Designated Players in Major League Soccer, he is exactly the type of player that teams should be targeting. During the 2014/15 campaign, he scored 25 goals in 38 appearances for FC Basel. He finished as Switzerland’s top scorer for the second season in a row, and he managed it with two different clubs.
Gashi joined Colorado in March and with 10 goals and three assists, his contribution has been invaluable, with his left foot unstoppable at times.
At the end of the regular season he was rewarded for his amazing free-kick against Vancouver Whitecaps, with the AT&T Goal of the Year.
Outside of Gashi’s goals and the goalkeeping heroics of Howard, the Rapids success has been built on defensive solidity.
Colorado allowed a league-low 32 goals in 34 matches this season and feature blue-collar midfielders ahead of a bullish back line all coached by bruising former U.S. national team and Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni.
The Denver based club finished second in the Western Conference, just two points behind FC Dallas and second overall in MLS.
When the Galaxy set up a Conference Semifinal against the Rapids, many believed that the West Coast side would roll on to the final. Giovani dos Santos' 55th minute goal gave the home side a 1-0 lead to take into the second leg. Gashi levelled it up and then Howard would become the hero on penalties.
Once again, their defensive strength has been turned into their weakness, with many believing that Seattle’s attacking style will prove the tipping point. But no one should take them lightly.
“Sam Cronin, Mike Azira, Jermaine Jones are three hardworking midfielders,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan. “They get into a lot of tackles, they create a lot of fouls. Their fitness levels are very high and their soccer IQs are even better.”
Behind them, Swedish centre-back Axel Sjöberg was voted as the third-best defender in MLS. The giant Scandinavian helped the Rapids concede just seven goals at home, only Cronin has played more minutes and the defender made nearly two more clearances per game than anyone else in his team.
Experience is key when you get to the post-season, and in Maestroni, Colorado have a man who has been there and done it all before.
In 2010, the midfielder was the Rapids captain as they beat FC Dallas 2-1 to lift the MLS Cup in Extra-Time.
“You’ve got to ride momentum. Portland did it last year, teams in lower seeds always ride momentum. They’ve got the play-in game, they can build in to it. It’s about confidence and belief and riding that, and getting the crowd involved.”
“I think a lot of this comes down to belief. Do you believe that you're good enough to win MLS Cup? Mentality is everything in the playoffs. It's win or go home. You're fighting for your lives.”
Out of the four teams left in the cup, it seems, despite finishing with the best record, they still haven’t been installed as favourites.
“We have been at the top of the table all season, yet no one seems to have paid too much attention to us,” former Reading striker Kevin Doyle told ESPN. “But people will start noticing us now that we have beaten LA Galaxy. I'm guessing that most “experts” were expecting us to lose on Sunday, but we knew we could get a result and proved it in the end.”
“You look at the squad we have assembled and the organization at the club and it should not be a surprise that we are in the mix to win the MLS Cup,” Doyle continued. The Irishman joined the Rapids last season, but it’s been this year he has really found his feet. Scoring six goals and adding two assists, the forward has played his part in helping the other forwards get involved, despite the lack of attention, he is determined to make everyone sit up and take notice.
“Maybe we are not a team that people have a huge focus on, but that's fine by us. Everyone will notice us if we win the big prize next month.”
Far from a team of superstars, the Rapids are a well-constructed, very functional, but ultimately strong unit. When you can call upon veterans like Sam Cronin and Marc Burch, plus internationals of Jermaine Jones quality, plus youngsters Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston, there should be no surprise that the club has reached this stage. Only a fool would rule them out at this stage.