For years, Chad Marshall has been one of the best central defenders in Major League Soccer. Despite the fact that he's never played for a club other than the Columbus Crew, Marshall's form translated in a number of United States men's national team call-ups and 11 caps for the senior side. For a long period of time, he was widely considered as the No. 3 or No. 4 defender in the program, a perpetual member of Bob Bradley's first 23, ahead of many players in Europe. Unfortunately, as good as Marshall is, the reason he's never made the jump to a big club or become first choice for the USMNT is his pace, or lack thereof. Pace is not something that the Colorado Rapids lack.
Omar Cummings is one of the fastest players in Major League Soccer, and he's got some finishing skills to go along with that pace. Sanna Nyassi only has the latter skill very occasionally, but the speed never turns off. Though Gary Smith has tried very hard to mess with his team by playing Caleb Folan and Quincy Amerikwa in place of one or both of these players, the results when Cummings and Nyassi have been a forward tandem are fantastic.
Conor Casey has been an effective player throughout his MLS career and was a big part of Colorado's MLS Cup title last season, but as Jeremiah Oshan pointed out back in September, the Rapids actually got a lot better after he got hurt. Casey's work rate, size and ability in the air make him an extremely valuable commodity, but his pace leaves something to be desired. When the Rapids have the blistering pace of both Cummings and Nyassi on the field, opposing defenses have to play a deep back line and avoid pressing high up the pitch, which usually allows central midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to completely control the game.
In many situations, Casey is very effective. When protecting a lead or playing for a draw, there's probably not a better forward option in the league for harassing deep-lying midfielders and winning 50-50 balls in the air. But, in this kind of one-off, single elimination match - especially at home - the Rapids should go for the kill. Emilio Renteria, if he plays, is a defensive liability for the Crew. Andres Mendoza doesn't come back and help in defense either. If Smith plays his two fastest players up top, it's likely that Marshall and the rest of the back line will have to play deep. Meanwhile, the attacking midfield and forward players aren't going to be harassing Larentowicz in the middle.
Even with Conor Casey injured, the Rapids have generally tried to play the same way as they do with him in the lineup. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
Inevitably, Gary Smith will avoid playing Cummings and Nyassi together, sit back, and hoof long balls to the head of whoever plays up top. At home. When Columbus's best central defender is very large and very slow. Gary Smith, ladies and gentlemen.
For more on the two teams playing in tonight's Wild Card match, check out Colorado Rapids blog Burgundy Wave and Columbus Crew blog Massive Report. For more on the rest of the MLS Cup Playoffs and the entire world of soccer, check out SB Nation Soccer.