This is weird, right? This preview feels both late, early, and on the wrong website all at the same time. Weird.
The MLS season starts on March 4th and yet the Rapids have already played two matches in CCL. Meanwhile their first MLS game isn’t actually until March 10th, as the league gave the club a respite from their midweek game against Toronto FC. And then of course, you’re not used to seeing me, the Rapids Rabbi, writing anywhere but at Burgundy Wave. The fonts, the colors, everything is different. Dude, I am WITH you. Change is hard. And then we do these weird things for a little while and it gets a little more normal. Then suddenly, each and every day, it’s a little less foreign and a little more familiar until it’s all good. Hopefully.
I do want to say, before we do the football, I am glad you came over to 'Around MLS' to read my first article here. If you like it, keep coming back. Also, check out the other articles on this site: there are a lot of great MLS writers here, and I'm proud to have joined the ballclub.
There was A LOT of change for the Colorado Rapids in the offseason. The 2017 campaign was a near total disaster for the burgundy boys. These two facts together inform this preview significantly. First, the tremendous amount of change makes it super hard to get an accurate read on where this team will be - the Rapids started their CCL first leg match with six new players on the field. And also, there is the principle of ‘there’s nowhere to go but up’ - the teams 10th place finish in 2017, one spot BELOW Minnesota United, will almost certainly not repeat itself.
Very simply, this team will be better. It is virtually inconceivable that a team as poor as the Rapids in 2017 could be worse. They’ll be better, but by how much?
Rapids 2017 Record:
9-6-19 (WTL), 33 points, 10th out of 11 teams in Western Conference
Goals For: 31, Tied (w/ DC United) for 22nd out of 22 teams in MLS
Goals Against: 51, 14th out of 22 teams in MLS
Previewing the Defense
The exemplary defense of the Colorado Rapids in 2016, one of the best in league history and THE best home defense in MLS ever, collapsed in 2017. The really, really simple reason was that the team, in an effort to become more fluid and attacking, sold off Sam Cronin and Marc Burch, two exceptional defenders, and got in return a solid attacker in Mohammed Saeid and a lottery ticket / speedster in Joshua Gatt. The other, less simple reason was that the Rapids came out of the Mastroeni-favored 4-2-3-1 and went to a 4-4-2, which kind of played like a 4-1-3-1-1. And then Mastroeni was fired and the team rolled out a different look each week.
All three of these things: the trade, the formation change, and then the end-of-season experimentation, made the remaining Rapids players regress hard. Axel Sjoberg got hurt to start the year and never got back to his 2016 form. Jared Watts was fine, but had to panic-defend without the shielding of Sam Cronin, and sometimes that was bad. Eric Miller did the job well at right back. Mike daFonte and Mekeil Williams, at left back, did not do the job well, at all. Kortne Ford and Zac MacMath were both bright spots, although as a rookie, Ford was graded on a curve a little bit. Tim Howard was maybe league average.
The defense will be different in 2018. Three new players on the backline and a whole new formation means the team will take on a totally different look this year.
Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, Kortne Ford, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts
Tommy Smith joins the Rapids from Ipswich Town in the English Championship, where he’s been rotting on the bench for the better part of two seasons, getting only 770 minutes in that time. He was on new head coach Anthony Hudson’s New Zealand National team, though, and that means he knows the 5-3-2 system that Hudson has brought in. Clearly he and the gaffer have a good relationship, as Hudson gave Smith the captain’s armband against TFC in the second leg of the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. And he’s a big, strong, physical center back. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether he’s part of the solution or just another problem.
The Rapids also brought in Danny Wilson from Rangers in the Scottish League. He’s very much the same story as Smith: big and physical; comes from the UK; a guy that was a rotation CB, but not an everyday starter.
Again, to guess about whether he’s an upgrade along the backline would be pure speculation. At 26 years old, he should be in the prime of his career. But also, he's a guy who has played his entire career in Scotland (save one match for Liverpool). It’s hard to know if he can adjust to life in Colorado. Our highlands are a little higher than their highlands. Scotland, as far as I know, has zero fourteeners. It's also tough to tell if the quality of players he defended from Kilmarnock or Motherwell (this league has the best names) is at or near the level of MLS players he'll face.
Kortne Ford was exemplary at times for the Rapids in 2017.
If he continues to progress for the club this year at a steady rate, he will be the MLS successful player out of our academy in club history. But like any MLS rookie defender, he made some mistakes, including a really poor outing against the LA Galaxy.
Axel Sjoberg’s down 2017 has placed him firmly on the bench for the Rapids. He may be considered CB depth for the club. Or maybe he’s just waiting in the wings to reclaim his starting spot should one of the aforementioned CBs falter. He could be out of favor with the Rapids in this new 5-3-2 formation, where CBs need to have a bit of pace in order to compensate when the fullback is caught out on a counterattack. And it may also be that Padraig Smith is cleverly waiting for another MLS team to have a poor start to the season at CB, so that the Rapids can deal Axel in a sellers market. Some or all of these things can be true. Whatever the case, the big Swede needs good health and rebound year, for sure.
About Jared Watts, I could talk extensively and analyze his finer points and such. But simply put, he is what he is: a usually good defender that sometimes makes rash mistakes. He’s a good backline distributor, too, and he can strike long ball pass quite well, if the Rapids want to go that route. Watt is defensive depth, pure and simple, and that’s great for a team that needs to be better on D this year. He could fight his way back into a starting spot, but more than likely some solid play will serve as good audition material for a starting spot elsewhere in MLS. If he doesn't have a good year, then Jared Watts will be a very good pickup for someone in USL next year.
Are the CBs better, worse, or the same in 2018?
Since we brought in new players, people would expect me to say ‘better’. But the guys we brought in weren’t impressing their teams in Scotland or the English second division. But Ford will be a beast this year. Overall, I’ll say same.
Edgar Castillo, Marlon Hairston, Deklan Wynne, Kip Colvey, Dillon Serna, Eric Miller, Sam Vines
Of all the eleven positions on the field, the Rapids weakest spot in 2017 was at left back. I could bring up stats or specifics, but simply put, both of the guys that played that position in 2017 were demoted to USL in the offseason; Mekeil Williams is now with the Richmond Kickers, and Mike da Fonte is with Phoenix Rising FC. Colorado was good-not-great at right back, with Eric Miller. Miller is a solid defender, but didn’t bring a tremendous amount to the attacking side of the pitch, as he had just 7 Key Passes in 2017 (0.24 KP per 96 minutes) which ranked him 64th amongst MLS defenders.
To remedy the sinkhole at that key left back position, the Rapids went out and got experienced US and Mexican international Edgar Castillo. Castillo’s played as a wingback in Liga MX. At 31 years old, he’s getting towards his expiration date, but seems like he’s still good to go for a little while longer. Fans may have been clamoring for a striker, but for my money, getting the right LB is the most important offseason move the team could have made.
Marlon Hairston, who played a little bit at right back in 2016 and 2017 while primarily serving as a right midfielder comes on to become a wingback. Everybody I know thinks this is a perfect position for him, including me. Hairston’s fast as hell, he can serve a ball, he can cut it and pass to feet, and he showed defensive aptitude in his few games as a fullback. In a 5-3-2, he’ll get additional support, too, so if he’s not able to get back on D in a counter or he gets beat, it’s ok. Add to that his January camp audition with the USMNT and Marlon is starting to imagine that his ceiling as a winger, and particularly as a wingback, is very high. And ‘The Mayhem from Mississippi’ is still just 23 years old.
Wingbacks get tired, and so the bench here is important. Deklan Wynne, another of Hudson’s Kiwis, is pretty young at 22 years old, so you’d think he was brought in as a long-term project without much chance for minutes this year. But he’s started most of the preseason as well as both of the Rapids CCL matches, so it's beginning to look like he'll been in the regular rotation. I don’t get much of a sense of him yet. I had thought Kip Colvey, another Kiwi (although he’s a dual national, so he won’t cost the Rapids an international spot) was more likely to get the backup LB spot, since he has a little MLS experience while Wynne was with Whitecaps2 in USL last year, but I guess not. Colvey, according to his MLS bio, can play at right back too, so that's handy.
It seems the team's fourth string left wingback is Rapids Academy homegrown Dillon Serna. And for all those of us who have watched Serna's career from his first days as a pro, that feels sad. It is safe to say that with three straight years of less than 1,000 minutes a season, Serna’s career has most definitely stalled.
And Sam Vines is here, a Rapids homegrown who has been with the club since he was 13 years old. The now-18 year old left back was named to US Development Academy Best XI for the 2016-17 season. I imagine the Rapids might stick him on a game day squad in March, let him get 10 minutes in a home match in front of his friends and family, and then send him to Charlotte for the year to grow his game.
Read more about Sam Vines here.
On the right side, the aforementioned Eric Miller should be a very good backup. But it is a little odd that the team is so deep with left footed fullbacks, and yet has only two natural right backs.
Are the FBs better, worse, or the same in 2018?
Better. By a ton.
Tim Howard, Zac MacMath, Andrew Dykstra, Thomas Olsen
I find classic sports conundrums like the ‘Quarterback controversy’ hopelessly tiresome. In 2016 Denver sports media were preoccupied without cease with the Broncos quarterback question. Ostweiler! Sanchez! Siemiens! Lynch! It was very tiresome. And that’s before the season even began.
And here we are in 2018 with the Rapids, with a goalkeeper controversy. Most people think Zac MacMath showed better in his matches in 2017, when Tim Howard was out injured or off with the USMNT. I tend to agree. But I also believe Howard is better at directing backline players to mark and move in a game, and he’s great at directing the defense on set pieces and in building a wall.
Most importantly, Howard is the club’s DP and captain, and as long as he’s league-average, the team will be ok. Math says he was pretty much league-average in 2017. Those same numbers say that MacMath was better. The fancy advanced stat of Expected Goals (xG) that is referenced in that article is certainly not the whole story of goalkeeping, but neither can it be wholly discounted.
That means there is a slight bit of controversy brewing here. Everybody will watch Tim Howard with a very close eye. GM Padraig Smith, VP of Business Wayne Brant, Head Coach Anthony Hudson, and Goalkeeper Coach Chris Sharpe with have some knowing glances at one another and some interesting discussion this year. Oh, to be a fly on those walls.
Colorado drafted Thomas Olsen in the third round. He was a USMNT U-20 in 2015, and served as the backup to rising star Zach Steffen on that team, so at one time he was a major prospect. But he also wasn’t one of the 12 GKs invited to the MLS combine, so clearly for many scouts, he doesn’t rate.
It is hard to know what the Rapids have in Olsen, so they went out and got an insurance goalkeeper during the transfer window. Andrew Dykstra came to the Rapids from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for a second round pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. What does that mean? Not a ton. Other than a brief stint as DC United’s starting GK in 2010, the 36 year-old Dykstra’s been a career third string MLS keeper. I assume his signing is not meant to be an indication that Zac MacMath is getting traded, but rather that the club will either stash Olsen in Charlotte for the year or plan not to sign Olsen altogether. Either of these two guys is replacing John Berner, who hadn’t played a minute for the Rapids since 2014. I've already spent more time considering the Rapids third keeper than any sane human should.
Are the GKs better, worse, or the same in 2018?
Almost the same. I expect Tim Howard to decline maybe 5 to 10%, but he’ll still be fine, and MacMath will still get 10 to 15 starts in relief.
We'll get to midfielders and strikers in part II, which will drop early next week. But until then, welcome to 'Around MLS'.