This is Part II. For Part I, where we previewed the goalkeepers, center backs, and full backs, click here.
Micheal Azira, Jack Price, Johan Blomberg, Nana Boateng, Shkëlzen Gashi, Enzo Martinez, Stefan Aigner, Sam Hamilton, Ricardo Perez
The center of the Rapids midfield in 2017 underwent a lot of change throughout the year. To start the season, the Rapids lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin as the defensive midfielders and Dillon Powers as the number 10. By midseason, the team was playing a 4-4-2 with Mohammed Saeid and Nana Boateng in the middle. And in August the lineup consisted of Micheal Azira, Nana Boateng, and Luis Gil in a 4-3-3. That's a lot of looks for one team and, since the team didn't make the playoffs and finished 10th, I think it safe to say that it never worked.
As noted in part I, the Rapids offense scored the fewest goals in 2017 of any MLS team, and was 14th of 22 teams in defense. Central midfield was a big, big part of both of those problems. The advanced statistic expected goals measures how many goals an average team finishing average chances would score. The Rapids had 35.38 xG as a team, making them dead last in MLS in team xG by 3 full goals. Fellow cellar dwellers DC United had a better xG at 41.78, but had only 27 actual goals. DC's finishing was just awful, but even their fairly dry and bland offense produced more legitimate goal-scoring chances than the Rapids offense did.
Colorado created fewer chances than any other team in the league, and chance creation is generally the job of the midfielders, so I think one could comfortably say that the Rapids 2017 midfield wasn't good enough. The 2017 midfield also was ineffective at protecting the backline: without Sam Cronin, Micheal Azira just wasn't the same at locking down the defense.
To read more from Rapids Rabbi about Micheal Azira, click here.
Nana Boateng never really clicked in either offense or defense. Dillon Powers was ok but not great, but then he was traded. Mohammed Saeid was mostly a passing threat, but he wasn’t a scorer and his defensive was average-not-great. I’m not even going to mention Luis Gil. There was nothing special about the Rapids midfield. An optimist would say it was, at best, a little below average. A pessimist would insert tirefire.gif right here.
Of all the parts of the team that needed a fix, it was the midfield that was most in need of a dramatic rebuild to begin the 2018 campaign. So the Rapids brought in three new midfielders, in hopes of getting better results this year than the putrid 9-6-19 (WTL) record from the previous year.
For starters, the defensive midfield job has been handed over to Wolverhampton Wanderers veteran Jack Price. Price, from the chances we’ve had to see him in pre-season and CCL, combines aggressive tackling, a go-go motor than doesn’t quit, and smooth ground passing. He seems like a good fit for the new offense.
Another new player in burgundy this year is Enzo Martinez. Drafted by RSL in 2012, Martinez was loaned out to the NASL’s Carolina Railhawks and released by Salt Lake at season’s end. He plied his trade in NASL and USL before really coming into his own in 2016 and 2017. Enzo caught the attention of the Rapids front office by finishing in the top three of USL MVP voting in both years. He was invited to Rapids training at the start of February, and was signed to an MLS contract the day before the Rapids faced Toronto FC in the first leg of the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. Martinez started the match and at times looked like the Rapids best player. He’s ferocious in the tackle but likes to get forward in attack, too, and might best be described as a creative box-to-box mid. Whether he slots in as the team’s regular starting midfielder every game or is thought of as part of a rotating cast, he brings a lot to this team that they didn’t have before.
To read more by Rapids Rabbi about Enzo Martinez, click here.
The last addition is 30 year-old Johan Blomberg, who joined the team way back in November of 2017 from AIK in Sweden, where he started 28 games and scored 3 goals in their 2017. He got the nod in the Rapids second leg match against Toronto in CCL. It’s hard to forecast what his role with be, but he was acquired with TAM and occupies an international slot, so Rapids GM Padraig Smith’s magic wizarding slide rule of fate believes he’s legit. I myself will reserve judgement till I see him log a few more minutes on the pitch.
Colorado brings back Nana Boateng, a TAM-level midfielder who suffered a fractured vertebra early in 2017 and, after healing for a few months, didn't truly get back in the groove. He’s a big, physical player with a nice passing touch, and hopefully a full year of health will allow him to really breakout in MLS this year. Another player looking for a rebound year is Shkëlzen Gashi. Gashi’s 2016-2017 winter instagram was filled with pics of him yachting in Dubai. He came into training camp out of shape, got hurt, recovered, got hurt again, and played poorly. His offseason 2017-2018 instagram pics were all #HittingTheGym and so forth, but he’s been out with a calf injury to start the year. We’ll see if the Albanian international and Rapids DP got the memo about fitness, or whether it was only his public relations and marketing team that understood what Padraig Smith was saying.
Gashi, as well as Stefan Aigner, don’t exactly fit as central midfielders in a 5-3-2 formation. Those middle three need to cover a lot of ground, link up play, and defend, and both Aigner and Gashi prefer to get forward and take shot. They’re both probably better as underneath strikers, but they are going to have to adapt to the new formation, just as new head coach Anthony Hudson needs to adapt to his attackers best abilities. Aigner, in just 5 starts, had 2 goals and an assist (a great assist, mind you). As soon as they figure out where he fits in this formation and offense, he should produce for Colorado. He was more of a wide midfielder for his German team, 1860 Munich, and here in Colorado he’ll likely be playing more centrally.
Micheal Azira will likely be used this year as likely a late-game lock-it-down-on-defense sub for the Rapids. Ricky Perez and Sam Hamilton are essentially depth for the team, although I think Perez, the only pure number 10 on this team, has some potential to push his way into a regular sub role if Hudson really wants to let the dogs off the leash and attack. And both may spend time out on loan again if they gather too much dust with the reserve squad.
Better? Worse? Same?
Without a doubt: better. But the team didn’t get the number 10 creator that every fan was chomping at the bit for. The team hasn’t scored 40 or more goals since 2014, and I’m not sure they’ve positioned themselves to change that trend in 2018.
Dominique Badji, Joe Mason, Jack McBean, Caleb Calvert, Niki Jackson
I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words about the Rapids in the offseason- dissecting this and pontificating upon that. It all doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans. The real deal is this: the Rapids will go as Dom Badji goes. If he can progress a bit more, finish chances at a good clip, and put the team on his shoulders, the team will be good enough to slip into the playoffs. If he topped out at 9 goals in 2017 and pulls a Gyasi Zardes-level regression this year, this team will be DC-United-in-2013 levels of bad. Badji needs link up partners and service and the right tactics to spring him into space, and on top of all that, he needs to be a little better at finishing. He’s already pretty good. If he can make the small leap from good to great - if he can make the leap from 9 goals in a season to 12 or 14 goals - it might be enough to carry this team into the playoffs.
His striker sidekick in this merry escapade is a big part of that equation. As mentioned, it could be Shkëlzen Gashi or Stefan Aigner, floating wide or playing underneath. But more than likely in the near term it is the Rapids newest addition to the roster, Joe Mason, a TAM signing for the Rapidson loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. I don’t know what to make of Mason - after scoring 9 goals in the 2015-16 season for Cardiff and Wolverhampton, he spent 2016-17 coming off the bench, scoring 3 goals, and in 2017-18 Wolves sent him out on loan to Burton where he’s played a scant 287 minutes. The last Rapids player we acquired who was the property of Wolves and was found rusting on their bench was Kevin Doyle, and he underperformed expectation in his 3 years in Colorado. My level of expectation for Mason is going to be what Doyle ultimately turned out to be in Commerce City: serviceable, but not great.
I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if I’m wrong.
Jack McBean, in limited use or as a break-glass-in-emergency striker is probably ok. He’s a first-touch strike kind of poacher; his speed and technical skills are only so-so. Since being signed as a homegrown by the LA Galaxy in 2011, McBean has played 7 professional seasons, but has only 4 goals and 1466 minutes in that time. If Colorado need to turn to him regularly for help, that’s not likely to work out. Caleb Calvert seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 22 years old. I expect he’ll spend the full year on loan with the Charlotte Independence. Niki Jackson is fast and physical, but as a fourth round SuperDraft pick, it’s unlikely he’s ready for the fast-paced decision making that happens in MLS. He did come on in CCL leg two against Toronto, so maybe the FO thinks he's ready to get senior team minutes this year. All three of these players might be useful next year, but right now, none of them will be the solution to the Rapids scoring woes by any stretch of the imagination.
Better? Worse? Same?
Same or worse. Which, I mean, wow. We lost Kevin Doyle, a fairly mediocre striker, and yet (in my humble opinion) we still couldn't find an upgrade for him and his modest production of 16 goals in 71 games. The team was linked in the offseason with Claudiu Keseru, Roy Krishna, Billy Sharp, Ola Kamara, and more, and didn’t get any of them. They drafted four strikers this year, and three: Alan Winn, Brian Iloski, and Frandtzy Pierrot; went abroad or to USL. It’s hard to tell who misses more: the Rapids in trying to get a striker, or the Rapids strikers themselves.
Anthony Hudson takes the reigns of the Rapids from Pablo Mastroeni and interim coach Steve Cooke, and brings international experience and a very clear vision of a system and formation that he wants to play. The knock on Hudson of course, is that his international experience is with FIFA minnows New Zealand and Bahrain. New Zealand in Hudson’s tenure mostly beat low-ranked Oceania teams like Fiji and Vanuatu and lost to larger teams like Belarus, Northern Ireland and Mexico. Hudson’s best results in his three years with the All-Whites were a 1-1 draw against the US in 2016, and a 0-0 draw against Peru in 2018.
Padraig Smith and Hudson have spoken about ‘the Rapids Way’ evolving from being a dour and defensive seven-behind-the-ball system to something more active and aggressive. And so far, the Rapids 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2, depending on how you want to call it) is a bit more active in sending runners into the final third. The team is at least no longer strapped down to one lone striker on an island and two defense-first midfielders anchored to the teams defensive half, as it was under Mastroeni. Hudson is already under a bit of criticism for framing the two CCL matches the Rapids had as ‘essentially pre-season’ games, and there are different opinions on whether that was simply pragmatic as a coach or disrespectful to the fans (including me) who froze their butts off in the stands to watch the coldest match between MLS teams in history.
All in all, I’m encouraged by Hudson. The Rapids were bad at left back in 2017, and had an excellent wingback being played mostly as a midfielder in Marlon Hairston. So they brought in an excellent left back in Edgar Castillo and also selected a coach that plays a system which might maximize Hairston’s talents. I’m slightly concerned with his moves to bring on players from his New Zealand team - Kip Colvey, Deklan Wynne, and Tommy Smith - but if they turn out to help the team, then I suppose it’s a good move. Plus I understand that every coach needs ‘his guys’. The only real concern I have is how the offseason moves may impact players already on the roster that could now be blocked. Axel Sjoberg, Micheal Azira, and Dillon Serna are all good soccer players who seem to be out-of-favor with the new head coach. Hopefully they’ve been given a chance to earn a spot back by Hudson, because in my opinion, all could be useful to the Rapids.
Better? Worse? Same?
Better. I believe a manager gets two years to get a team moving in the right direction. Hudson just needs to improve on last year’s bad season and he’s got my approval. It shouldn’t be that hard a bar to clear, but on the other hand, it’s hard to tell whether he has the right players at his disposal to significantly improve on last year’s disappointing results.
The Rapids will finish 8th in the West. If Badji has a breakout year, if everything clicks just right on defense, and if the team gets a mid-summer reinforcement in the attack, I could see them slipping into the last spot in the playoffs. If defense doesn't click and doesn't show improvement after the additions of Jack Price, Tommy Smith, and Danny Wilson, this team could sink as low as 11th. Because no matter how bad we are, I can safely predict that it looks like Minnesota United will be worse.