By Patrick Shea

In a game designed to showcase talent on Friday, the Colorado Rapids used 16 trialists, veterans, and newcomers to beat UNLV 2-0 at the Peter Johann Memorial Field on the UNLV campus. Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni gave extended minutes to trialists while recognizing that UNLV players were trying to get his attention too.

“Whether it’s in another country where you’re playing a team from a lower division or you’re a pro team in the states playing against a university, their mentality towards the game is that this is an opportunity to play in front of a professional organization,” Mastroeni said. “If they play well, they might get called into a camp. So this is everything for them.”

In the scoreless first half, the Rebels had a competitive edge over the Rapids, winning duels and creating chances.

“The mentalities of the two teams are totally different,” Mastroeni continued. “These guys are trying to prove themselves. Our guys are as well, but because they’re at a lower level, they don’t feel they have to match the intensity. So there begins the first part of the psychology of playing against college teams. If you match their intensity, match that fight early in the game, then you’ll be better football players and the game will be very much in control. But if you don’t have that edge against guys who are fighting for everything, they will build momentum. Once they start building momentum, then comes belief. Once there’s belief, anything can happen. In the first half, we didn’t match the intensity. But in the second half we came out with the right mindset and the game unfolded for us.”

In addition to replacing goalkeeper John Berner with Quentin Westberg at halftime, the Rapids brought on Sam Cronin for Andrew Ribeiro, Lucas Pittinari for Sam Raben, Carlos Alvarez for John Neeskens, and Dominique Badji for Caleb Calvert.

Mastroeni directed his halftime message at everyone, “I told them to compete. This game isn’t about tactics and technique. It’s about competition. These guys wanted it more than us. So we can’t even talk about tactics and technique until you first settle the competition piece, the fight, the battle, winning your individual one-on-ones.”

The players heard him.

“I think there was a tackle in the middle of the field [Sam Cronin’s] that put the game on its head a bit. It said, ‘we’re here to fight. We’re here to win.’”

Partial player assessments

Mastroeni shared a few player evaluations, and Brian Crookham added more observations.

Oscar Montoya

Montoya played the full 90 minutes on the right flank. In the first half, he shared the ball with Paco Flores at right back behind him, but he still managed three shots. One left-footed blast was blocked and another went wide left. At the 35-minute mark, Pat Slogic delivered a deep cross to the right side of the goal, and Montoya’s diving header glanced wide of the post into the side netting.

In the 62nd minute, Montoya found himself unmarked on a corner kick. He waited on the far post, and the ball skipped off a clump of players in the box. Montoya struck the ball with a left-footed half-volley that deflected off a defender into the net.

“He’s a good player with a lot of potential,” Mastroeni said. “He’s very technical, tactically aware. Now it’s my job to get the most out of him and really push him and make him feel uncomfortable a little bit and ask him to do things that he’s not comfortable doing because I think players like him have all the ingredients you need to be a top-line player. But maybe some people don’t push him because he’s always been gifted. He’s got such nice touch. Our task is to get more out of him. Just seeing him for three or four days, he’s a player I truly think can contribute to this side and grow his game with us and get that bite and mentality. From a tactical and technical perspective, I think he’s a good player.”

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Photo by John Babiak

Montoya training in Commerce City on February 11, 2015

Crookham shared a positive review of Montoya, noting how the Denver forward evolved during the game.

“These games are very fast,” Crookham said, “and sometimes he got caught on the ball. But the measure of it is that as the game ran, he realized what it was going to take. He then was more intelligent about where he was on the field and limited his touches in deeper areas of the field. And he got himself more involved in the front side. His movement was a lot better. For guys like that, it’s very difficult to go from a men’s league game to playing with an MLS team against a college team that won their conference in the NCAA tournament. You look for players to get better every moment of the game. Over the period of time he played today, over those 90 minutes, you saw him improve. That’s a good sign.”

Dominique Badji

One of this year’s draft selections came on for the second half, Senagalese striker Dominique Badji. Returning to receive the ball or pushing forward to challenge, Badji didn’t take a play off during his 45-minute shift. In the 84th minute, Carlos Alvarez touched the ball to Montoya on the right wing and ran down the line to get the return pass. Alvarez weighted his through ball perfectly, and Badji scored in the lower left corner.

“He [Badji] had a fantastic game,” Mastroeni said. “He’s slowly getting better with every session every day in preseason. I think he attacked the game the right way. He held up a lot of nice balls, and he challenged for balls in the air. I think he was rewarded with a goal that was well-deserved from some good link play and more important, a good finish. He’s really coming into his own.”

Billy Schuler

“He has been on trial for us for a couple weeks,” Mastroeni explained, “and I think his second half of the game today was by far his best performance during his three weeks with us. He was with San Jose last year and is still trying to find a place. After a tough first half, he came out really well in the second half.”

Joe Greenspan

Greenspan was particularly heroic in the first half when the Rebels created a string of chances. He retreated to slow down a dangerous attack before blocking the shot near the goal. When John Berner got caught out of position, Greenspan headed the ball off the goal line.

“He reads the game well,” Crookham said. “He has tremendous physical attributes, and he’s not only a good passer, he’s a very positive passer into very tight spaces. He’ll break lines with his passing. He’s not just a big body who breaks up the attack. He will start the attack with quality balls forward. Remember, he played his last college game in October. He’s been training with a very good coach at Navy, but he’s only been here for one day. It’s a positive start for him.”

Pat Slogic

A Colorado Springs native who played in the Rapids academy program, Slogic defended well, delivered probing balls in the attack, and spiked a header off a John Neeskens corner kick, but the ball bounced over the bar.

“Pat is definitely not your prototype of a left back, but we needed that body there today,” Crookham said. “And I think he did quite well. He passed well, defended well, and provided a lot of cover, especially during those pressure moments in the first half. He was calm enough, not only to break it up, but to play forward and give us a break from defending.”

Sam Raben

“I had an academy player [Sam Raben] playing in the middle of the field in the first half,” Mastroeni said. Raben came off at halftime, but went back on for Francisco “Paco” Flores in the 67th minute.

“He [Raben] did a good job at right back,” Mastroeni said. “That’s his position. I was playing him out of position in the first half, in the middle in the lion’s den. That’s part of the whole development process. It was good to see him play the way he did today. He’s a good young player with a bright future.”

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