2016 MLS season preview: Colorado Rapids

After finishing bottom of the Western Conference last season, the Rapids are hoping that some shrewd signings can help turn things around in 2016.

2015 regular season: 10th Western Conference (19th overall)

MLS Cup odds: 80/1

Players in: Micheal Azira (Waiver Draft), Marco Pappa (,Seattle Sounders, trade), Zach Pfeffer (Philadelphia Union, trade), Shkelzen Gashi (FC Basel, undisclosed), Mekeil Williams (Antigua GFC, undisclosed), Conor Doyle (D.C. United, trade), Eric Miller (Montreal Impact, trade)

Players out: James Riley (option declined), Drew Moor (option declined), Nick LaBrocca (option declined), Lucas Pittinari (option declined), Vicente Sanchez (option declined), Carlos Alvarez (option declined), Charles Eloundou (option declined), Gabriel Torres, (option declined), Michael Harrington (out of contract), Clint Irwin (Toronto FC, trade), Maynor Figueroa (FC Dallas, trade), Juan Ramirez (Almeria, loan), Marcelo Sarvas (D.C. United, trade)

After a 14-game winless streak marred the end of Pablo Mastroeni’s first year in charge, the Rapids went into 2015 hoping that a new-look roster would lead them back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the results weren’t much better, as they proceeded to win just two of their opening 17 games due largely to an anaemic attack. Performances improved over the second half of the campaign once Designated Player Kevin Doyle started to find his rhythm, but the club still ultimately finished the bottom of the Western Conference with only nine victories.

Mastroeni somehow held onto his job against the odds, but it remains to be seen how much longer he will remain at the helm if his side don’t get off to a decent start this term.

Reasons to be positive

Despite their poor overall record, Colorado’s defence actually performed well at times in 2015, conceding fewer goals (43) than playoff teams like the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin and club captain Drew Moor have since been shipped out, but the backline still looks fairly sturdy thanks to a mixture of new recruits and proven holdovers such as Sean St Ledger. The rumoured arrival of Tim Howard in the summer would also prove a big coup – albeit a drain on salary cap space – but the incumbent Zac MacMath will be a solid option between the posts in the interim.

The larger issue the club needed to address this winter was further up the pitch. Doyle was far from terrible in his first season in MLS, but a stark lack of service meant the Irishman scored only five times in 20 games as the team netted a league-low 33 goals. However, with Albanian playmaker Shkelzen Gashi and former Seattle Sounders winger Marco Pappa now on board, it shouldn’t be hard to better that total.

Just as crucially, midfielder Dillon Powers is also returning to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park after an offseason of uncertainty. The 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year looked set to join Reading this winter following a successful trial but the deal collapsed with the sacking of manager Steve Clarke. Now set to take up a deeper role in central midfield, a move to his favoured position could prove a huge benefit to the US national team hopeful.

Trouble on the horizon?

While Colorado’s roster looks in better shape going into the new campaign, serious questions remain about the man on the touchline. Mastroeni has so far failed to prove he can be a competent MLS head coach, with his two-year reign blighted by tactical miscues and bizarre line-up decisions, and this season is his last chance to show he is up to the task.

Key man: Shkelzen Gashi

Gashi may not be as flashy a name as some DP signings, but he certainly has the track record to suggest he can be true star in MLS. The 27-year-old attacker arrives from FC Basel after winning back-to-back Golden Boot awards in the Swiss Super League and should provide a first-rate conduit for the likes of Doyle. The only negative is that he’ll be missing for several weeks of the summer while away with Albania at Euro 2016.

One to watch: Zach Pfeffer

Big things were expected of Pfeffer when he made his MLS debut for the Philadelphia Union in September 2011 at the age of just 16, but it wasn’t until last season that the 21-year-old playmaker started to earn some notable playing time. He showed some clear flashes of ability in his 11 starts and 10 substitute appearances, recording two goals and an assist, but the summer signing of Tranquillo Barnetta meant he saw the pitch just two times from August onwards.

Subsequently traded to Colorado during the 2016 SuperDraft, a fresh start across the country could be just what the Pennsylvania native needs to kick-start his career.

Predicted regular season finish: 10th Western Conference

While the Rapids should be more competitive this season, the Western Conference can be a very unforgiving place. Acquisitions like Gashi and Pappa will obviously help turn some of last season’s league-leading 10 draws into wins, but whether the club can be consistent enough to compete for a playoff place is debatable.

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