By Rapids Rabbi
An enduring image of 2017 - an image so enduring that the Colorado Rapids opened a documentary-style film on their burning offseason motivation with it - was Dominique Badji missing a penalty kick away to Seattle on the final day of the season. The Rapids lost that game 3-0, so the goal was purely symbolic. But it would have given Badji double digit goals. Also, the moment it toinked off the post and out, it seemed to express all of the disappointment for fans that had been pent up throughout the seasons 34 games, 19 losses, 2 different coaches, and recurring disappointment.
That failed PK was certainly on the minds of Colorado Rapids fans when Jack Price stepped up to the spot in the 55th minute to take a penalty that would have drawn the Rapids even on the road against the New England Revolution. New player taking the kick. New coach. New formation. Eight new players on the pitch. New script? Nope. PK miss into a not great spot and the rebound put high over the bar. Or as my friend said it with her voice dripping with sarcasm: Rapids 2018- new look, same great taste.
That’s a narrative (a good one), and it is borne out of suffering and pessimism that comes with rooting for a soccer team that was bad in 2017, and 2015, and 2014. But, in a phrase from the epic soccer classic ‘Miracle of Castel di Sangro’, “la stagione è lunga e dura - the season is long and harsh.” It is foolhardy to write a woe-unto-me chronical on just the first game of the Major League Soccer Season for Colorado. The narrative I composed in the first two paragraphs is not necessarily the right one to frame this season. There are miles to go in this season, and there is no clear narrative yet.
There were encouraging signs. Niki Jackson, a fourth round SuperDraft afterthought, came on to score a goal in his first MLS league match. The wingbacks, Edgar Castillo and Marlon Hairston, both looked defensively solid. Johan Blomberg can place a ball. And there are other events from this game that seem like aberrations, to be sifted out and ignored going forward. Jack Price had a bad game all around. In addition to his double penalty miss, Price was not great in the attack, and had four turnovers on passes in the Rapids own half in spots that all could have been disasters. Price is a good footballer, and this is almost certainly a hiccup.
And then there are broader things to keep an eye on.
Hello there, Ugly Route 1 Football. We didn’t miss you.
If you watched most of the MLS games in matchweek 1 and 2, you saw a lot of pretty soccer. Toronto FC vs Columbus in week one was filled with spectacular technical football! NYCFC was fun to watch, as was LAFC in exploiting RSL over and over and over around the edges. The RBNY-Portland game was excellent and tightly contested until the wheels came off for the Timbers for the final nine minutes.
Colorado-New England, on the other hand, was not pretty soccer.
The two teams combined for the most long balls of any games played in week two; 81 for New England, 98 for Colorado. The LA Galaxy also had 81, and then no other team in MLS had more than 70. The Rapids had ⅓ more longballs than almost every other team in the league. Fully 25% of the Rapids passes were long balls. By comparison, 11 teams this week were at 15% long balls or less. Only Minnesota, LA Galaxy, New England, and LAFC were over that number.
The plan for Anthony Hudson’s men was clearly to defend deep in the first half, kick it long to Badji, and don’t concede the first goal on the road. If you do concede, re-evaluate and commit more men into the attack, but also keep kicking it long. You all recognize this formula. Rapids fans remember it as ‘Pablo Mastroeni, first half of 2015’. Again, it’s just one game, and it was on the road, and being defensive in order to get a road point with a Rapids team that lacks strong attacking options is understandable. But God help me if watching 75 minutes of head tennis isn’t boring as snot.
Again, it’s still early. But let’s revisit Padraig Smith’s ‘Rapids Way’ op-ed , composed way back in August, for a moment. Padraig wrote:
“It’s simple — we have to improve. And in doing so, we need to become a more attack-minded team… We will look to target players who play with boldness and urgency... with high soccer IQ and game intelligence. Explosive players with good mobility. Players whose first instinct is to drive forward, to seek out the line-breaking pass, and to take on his opposite number.”
I believe it will come. But we certainly haven’t seen the team make use of its players in a 'bold', 'urgent', 'attack-minded', 'explosive' way yet.
Rabbi’s Tactics Corner
A thing I noted in my column two weeks ago was a play I saw the Rapids use to great effect against Toronto in CCL; a play I’ll call the ‘Triangle and Go’. Colorado gets the ball along the wing and plays a series of short passes between three players. The first (and sometimes second) player make the pass, and then he releases on a break, and the third player on the pass sends a through ball to him/them. The triangle draws defenders in, and the first player on that pass is off making the run while the defenders have their attention on the ball.
The Rapids tried it a bunch against New England, and New England stopped it.
Click this link to see a gif of the triangle-and-go, and how NE stopped it
(Note: our platform at Around MLS can’t embed gifs or tweets, so this hyperlinking to a gif is the new normal. But it’ll open a new tab, so that’s cool and easy. Just try it.)
I think they knew it was coming. On this play New England stopped it, and looking at the action map for the first half, New England stopped it all game. That map shows you that the Rapids often have clumps of short-passing action on the wings, right around the start of the final third, followed by nothing.
This particularly example that I gif'ed occurred down the left flank, as Colorado tried to run their offense through Edgar Castillo (a thing they did a lot of in this game). The Revs put four midfielders onto that side in a line. That overloading allowed the defenders to break and run with the attackers (in this case, Castillo and Enzo Martinez), and to close down the pass through, too. Jack Price still makes a good play to Castillo, and Castillo nearly fights through it anyhow. But this play, a bread-and-butter staple for Colorado in creating chances against TFC, never worked on Saturday, and there weren’t a whole lot of other things they cooked up either. Price on this play didn’t see that the overload left Blomberg and Hairston open to his right, forming a better option.
Early concerns for the back three
In both legs of CCL, there were moments when the back three of Danny Wilson, Tommy Smith, and Deklan Wynne looked shaky. Again on Saturday, they had issues. In particular, they looked pretty awful on the first Revolution goal at 48’.
Click to see the Revs first goal by Diego Fagundez
In the first phase with the ball at the foot of Cristian Penilla (#70), Deklan Wynne (#27) gets turned inside out in a one-on-one and can’t make a play. It’s not great, but it’s also excusable - one-on-ones happen, and Danny Wilson (#4) slid over to close out a possible shot, forcing Penilla to unload the ball. He slides it across to the streaking Fagundez, who is totally unmarked in the box because Enzo Martinez and Tommy Smith have collapsed on Teal Bunbury. It’s Smith’s job here to direct Martinez, and it’s Smith’s job to be in a spot to eithe close down that pass or close out the man, since Martinez closes on Bunbury. Smith does neither, he’s in no-mans-land, and the Revs go up 1-0.
It’s fine to say that last year’s backline that was composed primarily of Eric Miller, Axel Sjoberg, Kortne Ford, and Mekeil Williams wasn’t good enough, and to bring in new players. It’s fine to bring in a whole new defensive system, too. But they need to be upgrades, not a swapping of one set of disappointments for another. Those new players haven’t impressed me so far, and now you’ve lost Kortne Ford for two months to a knee injury, and Ford was probably the best of the central defenders in CCL. The sample size is small, so it will take a few more games for us to truly get a sense of this back three. But right now, I have concerns as to whether Tommy Smith and Deklan Wynne have truly earned the right to start over Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts, and considering these are some of the marquee off-season signings meant to rebuild and redirect this club, it is worrisome.
Smith did have this great headed shot in the 27th, though, saved by an even better dive from Revs GK Matt Turner. Hope springs eternal.
Click here to see the Smith shot and Turner save
Action Jackson and the Tierney Dagger
Boy, the Rapids have a way with fourth round draft pick forwards. In 2015, they took Dom Badji, and he’s been a much more successful player than almost anyone in that years draft except maybe first round picks Cyle Larin, Tim Parker and Christian Roldan. This year, the Rapids whiffed on three of the four forwards they picked in the SuperDraft: Alan Winn signed with Nashville SC; Brian Iloski went to Poland and joined Legia Warsaw; and Frantzdy Pierrot went to Europe and has gone missing in action altogether. So they get this kid out of little-known Grand Canyon University, Niki Jackson, in the fourth round. He’s big and fast and he’s scored a lot of goals, but it’s hard to tell if beasting the Western Athletic Conference can translate to a professional career.
And then he goes into his first MLS regular season game and scores a goal.
Click to see Niki Jackson open his MLS account
Everything about this goal is pretty great. Jack Price mega-sombreros Wilfred Zahibo with a lovely bit of skill. Dom Badji gets his head to it while coming back deep and facing back to goal, a thing the Rapids did quite a lot of in this game as well as in the TFC games. And Johan Blomberg serves in a fantastic short diagonal for Jackson to finish.
Considering the Price PK biff only minutes earlier, at this point, it felt like the Rapids had rescued a point despite some miscues. And then, the Tierney dagger.
Click to see Chris Tierney’s free kick winner
The wall jumps. Badji makes contact. It just takes an unlucky deflection. But because the Rapids had missed that PK and weren’t strong enough defensively, it’s a game winner instead of a 2-2 equalizer. Colorado shouldn’t have been in this situation - this game could have been 2-0 or 2-1 to Colorado. Also, there’s a bit of karmic retribution here. The foul was drawn when the sobrero-wearing Zahibo, who got into a very dangerous spot and was yanked down by rookie goal scorer Niki Jackson. Damn you, karma.
Please stop with the Jack McBean
Here’s Jack McBeans action map in this game:
McBean is purportedly a striker in this game, and yet he has zero shots, zero take-ons, and next-to-zero passes in the final third (he has that one backwards pass on the left). He’s playing like a creative midfielder, popping up in random spots to connect the offense, but not in a good way. Anybody who’s watched Jack McBean over the last two seasons can tell you he’s not a creative midfielder by any stretch of the imagination. He’s an in the box poacher and beefy-head-it-in guy.
You do not put it at his feet and have him dribble into the final third, or have him stand off and serve the final pass. His 9 for 18 passing in this match confirms these facts. I’m fine with using McBean as a late sub, or even as an occasional hold-up-the-backline decoy type guy. But if Anthony Hudson deploys him again like this - to do the same job in the same space as Diego Valeri or Sebastian Giovinco - so help me God I will lose my mind. Put anybody else on there - Jackson or Dillon Serna or Enzo Martinez or even Axel Sjoberg, playing the part of Peter Crouch. No more with the ‘Jack McBean - Creative Attacking Midfielder’.
Backpass is the Rapids Rabbi’s weekly column reviewing the Colorado Rapids latest game in depth. It will regularly drop on Tuesdays. The Rapids are off this coming weekend, so check in again for the next Backpass on Tuesday, March 27.