Dick’s Sporting Goods Park — As Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni explained after his cadre of 14 players beat Switchbacks FC 1–0 in the Fourth Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Tuesday night, “these kinds of games are banana-skin games.”
Mastroeni said, “It’s a lose-lose for us. You’re meant to win it, and when you win it you’re meant to win it by a lot.”
Dillon Serna scored in the 84th minute, safely advancing the Rapids past banana-skin footing to the Round of 16. Mastroeni praised his group for getting a result despite a number of challenges. Injuries and international commitments reduced the bench to two true field players (Marlon Hairston, Luis Solignac, and Chris Froschauer with gloves). The stadium seats were equally empty except for a tiny band of Switchbacks supporters and minimalist Rapids support. Dillon Powers started in midfield wearing a helmet.
At the top of the list, Mastroeni described the biggest challenge with the game on Tuesday night, the predicament MLS teams face in this tournament.
From the Switchbacks perspective, Mastroeni told his players, “This group of guys you’re playing, they’re going to give it their best. They’re playing against an MLS opponent, and they all believe they deserve to be playing at this level — some of them are probably right — so they’re looking for an opportunity. I told the guys before the game, you’re playing against guys that have one of the strongest motivations in life, as far as professional sports, and that’s to take your place in this meeting room right here next year.”
A pattern is developing for the second year in a row. This in-state LHUSOC matchup is the only time these teams face each other. Throughout the rest of the year, they cooperate more than they compete. Both rosters are much improved since 2015, and players train and work together across organizations.
“You have two teams who are doing really well in their respective leagues,” Mastroeni said, “and there’s a lot of mutual respect amongst us. We’ll continue working together in ways that benefit both clubs. It’s good that both teams are from Colorado.”
Mastroeni recalled loaning Charles Eloundou to Switchbacks last year and said, “it’s a good relationship to have, especially being this close.”
The close relationship between the clubs also includes Real Colorado as a third party for this Rapids-Switchbacks rematch. Incoming Notre Dame freshman Nick Cullen is a Real Colorado U-18 Development Academy player who recently signed an amateur contract with Switchbacks FC. As Switchbacks head coach Steve Trittschuh explained, “We had to dress him for a couple games. I would feel comfortable putting him in the game. He’s a solid player. He’s steady. He doesn’t make many mistakes. It’s a good experience for him, and it’s something we’ll keep doing with Real [Colorado].”
The Cullen family hosted Switchbacks defender Jordan Burt last year, so Burt lived in the same house with young Nick. Burt founded a mentor-driven mental training company called Pro Performance with Switchbacks veteran midfielder Luke Vercollone and former Rapids defender James Riley. Vercollone mentored Powers, and Powers is currently mentoring Cullen.
“I know Nick really well,” Burt said. “He’s definitely developing really fast. He’s growing into his own skin and becoming more confident.”
“It’s great. We just completed our first phase,” Powers explained. “He’s going off to college soon, so we’ll be keeping in touch. He’s gotten a lot more focused on what he wants to do, what his goals are. I’m glad he got into that [Switchbacks] environment. One of my things for him was to challenge himself as much as possible, and he did that by being proactive and getting with the Switchbacks.”