Tough struggle to make some Rapid progress

THE president of the United States of America told the group of footballers behind him that he had dressed in their honour: a grey suit to go along with the matching grey suits worn by the Colorado Rapids.

In amongst them were Dublin-born defender Danny Earls, and Republic of Ireland international striker Caleb Folan, who moved to the Rocky Mountains in February, just before the start of the Major League Soccer season.

As is the tradition for national champions in the US, the perk of victory is a visit to the White House and a reception with the commander-in-chief, distracting him from the daily grind of divisive American politics.

The Rapids, who surprised many observers of the league with their first Major League Soccer Cup final victory last November in a Toronto-hosted decider, finally got their moment with Barack Obama on Monday thanks to a happy scheduling coincidence, namely Sunday night’s visit to Columbus Crew.

Founding members of the MLS in 1996, the 15-year-old Rapids benefited from the low-key stewardship of Arsenal’s billionaire majority owner, Stan Kroenke, who took over in 2004 and brought them success and a brand new stadium within six years.

But they have had a mediocre 2011, the White House visit proving to be a tonic for a dismal 4-1 defeat the night before.

It was all smiles on Monday, however, as the President told the assembled guests he knew what it was like to be a ‘soccer dad’.

“I have watched my share of games over the years. And I’m used to seeing everybody gather around the ball, and then it kind of pops out somewhere, and everybody runs over to the ball.

“And so I want to congratulate all the players behind me for coming so far since those days, because I’m sure your parents were thinking the same thing — that these guys can’t play.”

Obama was then presented with a Colorado jersey, appropriately number 10, and made a quick-witted crack about how he and Lionel Messi have finally been recognised for being on a similar level of greatness.

But we can’t all be Messi and we can’t all be Obama.

And no matter how much the MLS relentlessly promotes itself, it will never be anything more than a substandard league. Something the President acknowledged during his speech.

“They may not be household names but the great thing about sport is that, in the end, that doesn’t really matter.

“What matters is how much a team can pull together when the chips are down.”

Then he turned to Mac Kandji whose cross led to the winning goal against Dallas in November while also causing his ACL to rupture in the process.

Behind the headlines, always a story of struggle.

It hasn’t been easy for Danny Earls either.

He was transferred to Seattle a day after the Rapids’ big breakthrough but was eventually released and managed to make his way back to Colorado just before the season started.

“Any player is going to take some sort of knock falling out of the team like I did last year, but we get paid to be professional and work every day,” he said last week. “I feel I’ve matured a lot. If I’m not in the team, I’m working like I am in the team. You have to take your chances.”

Although he started 15 games last season, he has found himself battling Anthony Wallace and Scott Palguta for the left-back role this year. He made his first start of 2011 in Colorado’s 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy 10 days ago.

“I’m working hard this year,” Earls says. “I’ve kept my head down and (manager) Gary (Smith) rewarded me because he’s seen me working hard. I thought I did okay from a personal standpoint, brought some energy to the team. Maybe my final ball could have been better, but I thought it was okay.”

Smith, formerly a tough-tackling midfielder with Fulham before his career was cut short by injury in the mid 90s, insists he’s happy with the progress of the Dubliner.

“He’s looked very bright, he’s looked hungry,” said. “He had maybe a difficult 10 minutes in the second half but, all in all, I thought he gave an awful lot and in no way was at fault for any of the goals.

“I don’t feel comfortable at the moment with one person (at left-back). And that’s taking nothing away from any of those individuals. They all give something different. Scott’s very strong, Anthony (Wallace) is very athletic. I think Danny’s distribution out of all of them might just edge it.”

That remains to be seen. For now he can enjoy the afterglow of an audience with the leader of the free world. Not a bad story for the grandchildren.

* Contact: john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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