The Colorado Rapids quietly have one of the best defenses in MLS history

Head coach Pablo Mastroeni said shutting down opponents is a collective effort.

Axel Sjoberg. Colorado Rapids v Philadelphia Union. May 28, 2016, Dick's Sporting Goods Park. (Jessica Taves/For Denverite)

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Axel Sjoberg is one of the leaders of the Colorado Rapids' MLS-best defense. (Jessica Taves/For Denverite)

Pablo Mastroeni sat at a podium inside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park late Saturday night wearing a smile. The Colorado Rapids head coach had plenty of reasons to be happy. Minutes earlier, his team defeated Sporting KC 1-0 to improve to 10-7-2 and remain in second place in the Western Conference.

Reserve midfielder Marlon Hairston scored the game’s lone goal in the 75th minute, but the result was also thanks to Colorado’s defense. The Rapids held a dangerous Sporting KC side scoreless for their eighth shutout of the season.

Mastroeni’s excited about that defensive play.

“I think it’s fantastic. We were just talking about it. The group …”  a beaming Mastroeni said, before pausing to collect his thoughts. “You talk about defense, a lot of people think the backline or the goalkeeper. Defense for me starts at the top.”

In 19 games this season, Colorado has surrendered 13 goals. The Rapids’ 0.68 goals against average is neck-and-neck with the MLS-best 0.67 mark Real Salt Lake recorded in 2010. If you ask Mastroeni how that’s happened, it’s clear he thinks it’s a collective effort.

In his estimation, Colorado’s stingy ways aren’t just the result of its goalkeepers (Zac MacMath and Tim Howard) or its backline (a group anchored by center backs Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts). Sure, they’ve been an enormous part of it. But so too have Colorado’s defensive midfielders Michael Azira and Sam Cronin, its trio of attacking midfielders and even striker Kevin Doyle.

All must work in concert to make the Rapids’ pressing philosophy effective. Colorado likes to trap opponents on their own side of the field if the opportunity is there and then convert turnovers into goals.

Hairston’s beauty on Saturday was a good example. The Rapids pushed into Sporting KC’s half of the field and dared them to possess the ball under pressure. Hairston intercepted a pass. Seconds later, he did this.

“It’s a mentality,” Mastroeni said. “And all year long we’ve reaped the benefits of good defending.”

Colorado’s defense will need to be on its game Saturday when first-place FC Dallas comes to town Saturday. FC Dallas leads Colorado by three points in the Western Conference and has scored an MLS-most 34 goals this season.

Sjoberg and the Colorado backline will have its hands full with FC Dallas’ Michael Barrios, Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. The good news is that he and his fellow defenders won’t have to do it alone.

“We shut down a lot of things before they get into really dangerous areas. I think that’s the key,” Sjoberg said. “And the guys in front of us work their asses off, from (striker Kevin) Doyle all the way down to Sam (Cronin) and Michael (Azira) in front of us.”

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