Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Colorado Rapids

Chris Smith
The Rapids are the top seed in the West.
The Rapids are the top seed in the West. /

After unexpectedly topping the Western Conference, it's time the Colorado Rapids were taken seriously.

With the lowest salary spend in the league and just one of their three Designated Player spots filled, there were those who predicted Colorado to struggle for Playoff qualification at all, let alone scaling a highly competitive Western Conference.

Nobody will be underestimating them now, though. Read on to find out everything you need to know about the Rapids ahead of the post-season - including tactics, key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did Colorado Rapids make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

They were by no means the best attacking force, but Colorado's goals conceded (35) is bettered only by the Seattle Sounders (33) in the Western Conference. That's exactly how they've made it through the 2021 season; being hard to break down and clinical with their chances.

After a pretty solid start, the Rapids embarked on a 12-game unbeaten run at the start of August and since then, they haven't let up in what was a very close battle at the top of the West. Just one defeat to each of their close rivals Seattle and Sporting KC helped them stay in touch, and while they won three of their last four regular-season games, those around Colorado slipped.

The 5-2 demolition job of LAFC on Decision Day was particularly impressive, simultaneously sealing top spot and a place in next season's Concacaf Champions League, and dumping the Black and Gold out of Playoff contention.

Robin Fraser: Tactics and style of play

Robin Fraser has worked wonders with the Rapids.
Robin Fraser has worked wonders with the Rapids. / Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Robin Fraser has mostly stuck with a 3-5-2 system this season. Solid, no-nonsense center-backs allow the wing-backs to drive forward and provide width. There's industry and quality through the middle, and fluidity and mobility up top.

No Colorado player scored more than eight MLS goals during the regular season. Instead of building around a talismanic striker, the Rapids soak up pressure and cut you open in transition, make the most of set pieces, or use teamwork and cohesion to create gaps for each other. They won't put a sledgehammer through your backline like the New England Revolution. Rather, they'll be in and out through the back door before you even realize there's a problem.

"I feel like we are a team that can hurt teams in transition. We have good pace and we have guys who make good decisions on the run," Fraser told 90min of the Rapids' style of play in September.

He added: "I think we can hurt teams at set attack as well and I think our positional play is interesting. When our positional play is good, and we make good decisions, then I think we can really hurt teams in possession as well. That's part of the good thing about us - at set attack we can hurt teams and we can be lethal on counter-attack. But we can still get better at both."

Who are Colorado Rapids' key players?

Jack Price: Pretty much every player on the Rapids' roster is underrated, but Jack Price most of all. The English midfielder was behind only Djordje Mihailovic (14) and Carles Gil (13) throughout MLS for primary assists during the regular season (12), with his set-piece delivery a huge avenue of attack for Colorado. Price is also a vital defensive piece in front of the Colorado backline and is often the one progressing the ball from front to back. He's an exemplary captain and should be in contention for a Best XI spot.

Michael Barrios: The decision to let Michael Barrios leave for, in essence, no cash was one of many strange and costly ones from FC Dallas last off-season. But what was Dallas' loss was absolutely Colorado's gain. The Colombian forward was the Rapids' top scorer in the regular season with eight goals and second only to Price in assists (5). His pace and trickery have been vital to facilitating Fraser's counter-attacking style and if Colorado end up in a Playoff punch-up with the game getting stretched, Barrios will be primed to strike.

Mark-Anthony Kaye: Colorado were already good, but the acquisition of Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC for $1m in July made them serious contenders. Often fielded as an industrious, deep-lying player in the Black and Gold's midfield, Fraser has turned Kaye into more of a creative piece in Denver. The Canada international has operated behind the central striker where he can slice open opposing defenses with his passing, run in behind, or use his existing defensive acumen to help in the press. His versatility alone makes him invaluable to such a small roster.

How far can Colorado Rapids go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

The Rapids are up for the challenge
The Rapids are up for the challenge / Matthew Burt

By topping the West, the Rapids have avoided the melting pot of Round One. Instead, they await either the Portland Timbers or Minnesota United in the Conference semi-finals. Colorado took four points from the Timbers and were three for three against the Loons in the regular season, and have the advantage of hosting.

Things could get more complicated in the Conference final if they come up against Seattle or SKC - who they've failed to beat this year. That missing goalscorer could haunt them. But the Rapids should be good to get at least get that far.

Prediction: Conference final