Look, I get it: There’s not a lot of oxygen left in the Mile High sports world right now. The Nuggets are having their best season in a decade; the Avalanche are sliding back into the playoff hunt; the Rockies just signed a franchise legend to one of the biggest contracts in baseball history. The Broncos are still six months away from kicking off their season, but they’re the Broncos, and everyone wants to talk about them all the time for some reason anyway.
With so much else going on, it’s easy to forget about the redheaded stepchild — the Jeff Larentowicz, if you will — of Denver sports: the Colorado Rapids, who are back in action today, March 2. The boys in burgundy will open their regular season in Commerce City this afternoon against the reigning Western Conference champion Portland Timbers.
In a town that has as much going on as Denver does, interest in the local Major League Soccer franchise can stretch the meaning of “casual fandom” to its absolute limits. Maybe you’ve made the trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park once or twice — or worse, to Mile High Stadium, back in the bad old days of penalty shoot-outs and the countdown clock. Maybe you told yourself you’d finally ditch football for soccer after last year’s World Cup and made it two weeks before you relapsed on a Thursday night Bengals-Lions pre-season game. It happens.
But with the Rapids looking like a much-improved team after a dismal 2018 campaign, this is the year to finally make it stick. So if you’re in the market for a fifth sport to follow — if you want a whole new set of things to regularly get angry and anxious and heartbroken about — here are five reasons that you should turn up or tune in to the Rapids' season opener this afternoon.
1. It's your last chance to stan a legend.
Tim Howard’s fourth season in Denver will be his last as a professional player, the longtime U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper announced in January. It’s been almost five years since Howard’s history-making performance at the 2014 World Cup, and while the veteran keeper, who turns forty next week, never quite reached those same dizzying heights again, he’s been a stalwart presence in net for the Rapids since his arrival in 2016. The Secretary of Defense still has some highlight-reel saves left in him, and this will be your last chance to see them live.
2. They’ll actually score goals this year, probably. Last year’s Rapids might have had an outside shot at the playoffs if it hadn’t been for their league-worst offense, which found the back of the net just 36 times in 34 regular-season games. Unsurprisingly, the Rapids spent the off-season adding attacking talent to the roster, including veteran forward Kei Kamara and Chilean international Diego Rubio. With two strikers with proven goalscoring records leading the line, the Rapids will surely be much more dangerous in the final third this season. It’s not like they can get any worse.
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3. You’ll get to see a local kid make good. Rapids Academy alum Cole Bassett signed his first professional contract just after his seventeenth birthday last summer, and scored once in six first-team appearances in the latter half of the season. Last month the fleet-footed midfielder joined other youth national-team prospects for a training camp in California ahead of a possible call-up for this summer’s U-20 World Cup, and for the Rapids, he’ll compete for minutes off the bench behind more senior players like Kellyn Acosta and Benny Feilhaber. With all due respect to his teammate and fellow Colorado native Dillon Serna, the Littleton-born Bassett has a shot at becoming the Rapids’ first true homegrown star.
4. The league has never been better. Miguel Almirón’s $27 million January transfer from Atlanta United to the English Premier League’s Newcastle United more than doubled the previous record fee paid for an MLS player — and, more important, it's a signal that the league has never been closer to realizing its ambitions of being one of the top club competitions in the world. Yes, for the foreseeable future, MLS is still going to be a destination league for aging stars like the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it’s still going to be in the business of exporting its most promising young players to Europe. But even as the league has expanded aggressively, growing from fifteen teams a decade ago to 24 today, it’s continued to steadily improve its talent pool, and the quality of play at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this year will be higher than ever before. The only question is whether the Rapids can keep up.
5. There’s nowhere to go but up. MLS is a fun, frustrating, frequently inexplicable league that, as its 24th season begins, is still figuring out what it wants to be and reinventing itself entirely every couple of years. Nothing in MLS makes sense, and anyone who tells you they know the formula for success in the league is a liar; best-laid plans implode spectacularly, and surefire superstars flounder while scrubs, long shots and also-rans make history. There's no predicting anything in a league like this, but the fact that the Rapids spent the last couple of seasons in the basement of the Western Conference is as good a reason as any to expect they’ll be competing for a top playoff spot this year. Why not get in on the ground floor now, and tell everyone you saw their 2019 MLS Cup Championship coming all along?
The Rapids host the Portland Timbers at 4 p.m. today, March 2, at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. The game will be broadcast on Altitude Sports.