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A serious 'friendly'

MLS Rapids, Mexico’s Santos Laguna to tangle at UNM today

The Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer are hoping to emulate their neighboring Denver franchises by becoming a regional draw like the NFL Broncos and baseball’s Rockies.

So stepping into a new territory is a chance to showcase the team, Rapids coach Oscar Pareja said.

“One of our main goals as a club is to extend the brand to other communities, like Albuquerque,” he said. “The proximity to New Mexico helps us. If we can take our team there and maybe people see us for the first time, they will become fans.”

The Rapids, however, just may find themselves on the short end of the popularity meter in tonight’s exhibition match – an international friendly – against Club Santos Laguna.

The club has won the championship in Mexico’s top league four times, including 2012, and is rated as the country’s fifth most-popular team in a poll by Consulta Motofsky earlier this year.

“We hope that it will be crowded and supported by Mexican citizens living here in New Mexico,” Santos coach Pedro Caixinha said.

Star forward Oribe Peralta, who is a member of Mexico’s national team, said he is counting on plenty of local support in the match.

“This game is dedicated to all the Mexicans here in New Mexico who will be joining us,” he said in Spanish through a translator.

Then Peralta threw down a challenge.

“It is an honor to represent Mexico in this country,” he said. “We are excited to play, and we are going to win the game.”

That brought a smile to the faces of Rapids players Davy Armstrong and Tony Cascio.

“He came in and said he wants to win, so we’re going to do as much as we can to compete and hope we beat them,” midfielder Cascio said.

The teams enter the match with different goals.

Santos is getting ready to start its season, so the club is putting the final touches on its starting 11 and substitution rotation. The club has brought nearly its entire roster, Caixinha said.

“It’s a very important moment for us to see what we need to improve, what we are doing good,” he said. “So things like this are very important at this stage of the team preparation.”

The Rapids, who won the 2010 MLS Cup, are in the middle of their season and will bring a mix of the regular roster and reserves who are fighting for playing time, Pareja said.

For instance, veteran goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who has been the Rapids’ primary goalkeeper the past four seasons, will be playing in the match as his first competitive action since breaking his left forearm 4 minutes into the season’s third game in March.

“I’m ready to go out and play 90 minutes,” Pickens said.

He played at Missouri State and visited New Mexico for a tournament in 2004, tying the Lobos 2-all.

“I remember they had a pretty good team,” Pickens said of the Lobos. “That’s the only time I’ve been to New Mexico.”

During this trip to Albuquerque, he said he’s hoping to prove that he’s healthy and ready to regain his starting position.

“I need this in order to take a step forward and put myself into the competition,” Pickens said. “I need to get back in there and get some minutes.”

And Pareja said he has some young players he needs to see in game action.

“Because this is an international game, it’s a chance for us to pick up more experience,” he said. “We’re expecting it to be a very high-quality game.”

His opponent sees the same thing.

“I think these games are very important,” Caixinha said. “I always like international games. This is an international one, and we need to respect it.”