by Rapids Rabbi
Colorado’s sixth loss in a row continues a wave of panic that began spreading through the fan base after maybe our fourth loss. Because Colorado had terrible seasons in 2015 and 2017 which started out just as poorly as this season, fans are asking questions. First, they are asking why we are losing. Second, they are asking whether this season is salvageable at all.
Let me take the second part first. In short, yes, this season can be saved. Here is sports/politics site fivethirtyeight.com ’s predictive of where Colorado’s chances of making the MLS playoffs stand as of today.
An 8% chance is bad, but not hopeless. There’s still time to turn things around, and just getting three or four wins in the next six to eight games would put us back in the conversation. Our next matches are against: VAN, HOU, CHI, MNU, VAN, SEA, MTL, and HOU. Five of those are at home. Those teams together have a collective record of 32-45-21, and only Houston has a winning record. This is a stretch against bad soccer teams that we can beat.
That is, if we can stop being a bad soccer team ourselves.
We are losing because we’re being stupidThe Rapids lost this last match because they were doing two kinds of stupid things. First, their passing against Portland was terrible. And not like ‘we couldn’t find the final ball’ terrible - I mean ‘we provided perfect assists to the guys wearing green’ terrible. Inaccurate passing in the final third is frustrating, but you do that and still eke out a 1-0 or a 0-0 result with it. Just ask Pablo Mastroeni.
No, the Rapids made terrible passes and terrible plays in vulnerable spots time and time again in this match.
Here’s a lowlight reel of mistakes, passing and otherwise, that the Rapids committed. (You’ll need to click the link to view the gif, then hit the ‘back’ button on your browser. It’s annoying, but worth it.)
1) Here’s Nana Boateng making an errant pass that ends up with Sebastian Blanco picking it off right in zone 14. In the 4th minute.
2) Here’s Edgar Castillo hitting a weak pass back to Tommy Smith, who, under pressure from Diego Valeri, makes terrible decisions and nearly gives up a goal only to be bailed out by Tim Howard. In the 6th minute.
3) Here’s Armenteros’ first goal for Portland where his flick-and-round-the-cow move on Danny Wilson makes the Scotsman look like a damn traffic cone. No, something more permanently rooted to the ground, like a K rail. The Big Blue Bear and Blue-cifer were both like ‘Damn Tommy, you gotta move more than that, bro.’
(I’m actually more sympathetic than that - every defender gets posterized by an immaculate play now and again. Remember what Lionel Messi did to Jerome Boateng? Yeah, Boateng still starts for the German National Team who many people say are quite good. These things happen.)
4) Here’s Nana Boateng making a perfect pass - to the other team, again - that results in Diego Valeri and Samuel Armenteros getting goal number two for the Woodchucks. We’re still in the first half, people.
5) Here’s the final straw: Nana slides in for a ball and makes a really bad decision in the 56th minute, giving it away on attack to the Timbers. I can’t understand why he’d make a slide like that - he makes a better breakaway pass to the Timbers than a Timbers player, facing the other way, could have made.
Also, as I note in the tweet, Deklan Wynne makes a mistake in open field defending as he drifts to the ball and leaves his man, Diego Valeri. When Valeri gets the pass, Wynne is totally helpless. It’s not the major error here. You can’t rely on two emergency defenders ( Wynne and Nicholson ) to save this situation in an open field 80 yard 2v2 horse race. But we have had Rapids players that made perfect life-or-death emergency plays like this before. I can remember a Jared Watts game-saving slide tackle or two from 2016; Axel Sjoberg stripping the ball from Giovinco with that giant outstretched flexi-leg of his; and Bobby Burling and Kortne Ford saving balls off the line to save games. That’s what exceptional defenders do.
What I’m saying is that this team is prone to stupid mistakes. And bad stupid mistakes, which happen in bad places. This is why many fans think the squad selection is so screwy - we’ve watched Nana Boateng either underwhelm or full-blown combust for a full year now and so we wonder why the coaching staff keeps rolling him out (at midfield, as a d-mid, and now at right back) time and time again. We see Danny Wilson and Deklan Wynne get torn apart and wonder why Axel Sjoberg doesn’t get the start instead.
But I’ll say it differently. Let’s leave aside the question of squad selection. The guys on the field have got to stop screwing up. They need to play with the ‘high soccer IQ’ we’ve been told the Front Office went in search of in the off-season. Boateng and Smith and Castillo are better soccer players than this, and they need to come out and play poised, intelligent, unshakable football. Even if we didn't change the lineup at all, all eleven guys on the field are capable of better football than this. The first step on the road to recovery is error-free soccer. It’s easy to say, but hard to do.
Is Anthony Hudson getting it?The second thing that needs improvement is the game plan. For weeks, we’ve watched how Coach Hudson likes to bring Tommy Smith up in the attack when the team is behind. On this play (it’s also #4 from above, but go ahead, click it again), right before the gif starts, Smith came up high, passed off, and came back. Then in the gif you see Deklan Wynne come high into the attack. Which is fine, except that Boateng and Castillo are also pressed in the attack, and Boateng gives the ball away, and now you’ve got only Danny Wilson and Tommy Smith back to defend a 2v2 in space, and it results in a goal. This is one of many instances in this game when a center back ventured well forward of the back line. It's also happened in many other games.
We were told that Hudson will bring attacking soccer to Colorado, and that has been true. In this game, some of the attacking soccer involved pressing 8 men into attacking, including a center back, when the score was level or we were down by just a goal. I know some people might hate this opinion, but I think that’s too aggressive; it leaves you very, very exposed at the back. Against Portland, it leaves you exposed at the back against three players (Blanco, Valeri, Armenteros) who had a combined 10 goals coming into the match. By the end of this match, those three had a combined 13 goals.
I asked Anthony Hudson Saturday night after the game about whether his planning needed serious adjustment going forward, in light of the team’s current six game skid. I tweeted a short version of his reply. Here’s Hudson’s full answer to that question:
“To answer your question, no. I think what we have been considering over time is just little tweaks to how we do things, but not major changes. Excluding last week, which, I have to say, it was probably overly brave of us to go and do what we did in New York with the squad we had and the amount of injuries we had, and I take full responsibility of that. I’m thinking about this during the game and as I’m watching the game, what has undone us tonight has not been the way we set up. It’s been, clearly, we’ve had some mistakes in there that have cost us. And crazy mistakes as well and… crazy mistake, and it’s just fallen to their player, and they break, so it’s certainly not the way we’re set up.”
Hudson clearly understands that he bears responsibility for how the game plan does not set the team up for success. He sees that the way they set up to play in New York was not a good idea. And, of course, 30 minutes after the game, I didn’t expect him to suddenly declare that he was abandoning the 3-5-2.
However, the week-to-week game plan is not working. The coach must adjust the tactics. There was one point in this game where Tommy Smith dribbled all the way to corner of Portland’s 18 yard box and was 1v1 on a defender and tried to play himself in on a Cruyff turn before dumping it off and running back to cover. He looked kinda silly. There’s a reason you attack with midfielders and forwards and not center backs - they’re better attackers. I think MLS teams are watching the Rapids and telling their forward four players “wait till they get impatient and bring up a center back. Then slip two or three attackers between their lines, and with just one accurate 30 yard pass, they’re toast.” MLS teams have seen our schtick, and they’re using it against us.
Another way to say it is this: it might look like our center backs are bad. And it is true that they haven’t been great. But their coach ain't doing them no favors by crafting a game plan that results in them being left exposed in open field 2v2 situations on several occasions in this game.
I think the 3-5-2 is a sound formation. I think we can win in this formation. I think we can win with this roster. I think the coach needs to find a better way to use some of the pieces we have on the board. I think we need more than little tweaks. Maybe without all the head-splitting errors I mentioned we can get a 1-0, 1-1, or 2-1 result in this one. But one of those errors is how the coach sets us up.
Is Enzo underperforming in the midfield?Folks are wondering whether the Rapids are getting enough out of Enzo Martinez, the player brought up from Charlotte Independence and now tasked with playing as a box-to-box everything for Colorado.
Enzo has yet to record a goal or assist, but he’s been extremely involved in every game he has played. In this match, he had a key pass in the 9th minute to Dom Badji in a great spot, but Dom hit a weak dribbler right to Jeff Attinella. In the 31st, Enzo had a nice final pass into Dom again at the right side of the box, but it was just a little short of where it needed to be and was tackled away. Other than that, he was tidy with the ball and solid in circulating the action in the middle part of the field, with 29 for 37 passing and no major errors. In defense, he had 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance, 3 recoveries. That’s more total actions than Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, Jack Price, Sam Nicholson or Nana Boateng (to be fair, Wilson was lifted at the half.)
Also, if you look at the plays I gif’ed above, #3 and #4, the first Rapids player to race back into the play on defense… is Enzo Martinez. He covers a ton of ground. He generally keeps things neat and tidy. He is capable of moments of brilliance - he rescued a ball off the touch line with a slick Cruyff-move in this game - and he does something like that about once a game.
Martinez certainly looks like he’s pressing a little: it feels like he has another gear that he hasn’t risked jumping into because he wants to keep it safe and clean. Sometimes he looks like he’s making his decision a split second too slow, and the great opening juuuuuust passes him by. On one play, he kind of ran the ball into two defenders rather than make the slip drop pass backheel to Edgar Castillo or trying a dangerous-and-dirty pass to Gashi. It was the safe thing. I can see he has spectacular in him; he doesn’t want to chance it, though.
I know you might think I’ve fallen for the ‘underdog-makes-good’ story, or that I’m lined up with all the other fans that love Enzo’s strong connection with fans. It’s possible. But I try to be objective. Martinez covers a ton of ground, he’s good on the ball, good in the pass, good in defense. Right now, the Rapids have a crap-ton of things that need fixing. Enzo Martinez is not one of them.
Reporters Notebook: Cutting room floor stuffHere's some extra stuff from the behind the scenes that I’ll feed you guys. First is an officiating kerfuffle, second is the raw post-game presser quotations from Anthony Hudson. If you’re the kind of person that likes deleted scenes and movie outtake reels on a DVD/Blue Ray; if you like the notes at the bottom of a David Foster Wallace essay; if you always show up for the opening acts of bands you never heard of at concerts, keep reading. If not, pretend this never happened and that ‘Backpass’ ended one paragraph ago.
At the end of the game, the Rapids got a PK in extra time. Right before the PK, the player that had committed the foul on Dominique Badji in the box, Portland defender Julio Cascante, stayed down a long, long time. Yet right after the PK referee Sorin Stoica blew the whistle. Rapids players were incensed.
I thought the Rapids had more time, too, so I did something that, as far as I know, has never been done by a reporter at DSGP - I submitted a question to the PRO referees.
(The process of submitting the question was kind of complicated itself, but I won’t bore you. Suffice it to say that it was not a simple thing.)
PRO emailed me back with the following response, which I relay to you, dear readers:
"Many thanks for the question. I have looked again at the period of play in question. The referee originally adds a minimum of 6 minutes at the end of the second half (signaled by the 4th official). At 95:47 he blows the whistle to award a penalty kick to Colorado and injury to Cascante (13 seconds before the minimum additional time has been completed). The game is restarted after the lengthy but unfortunate injury on 98:37 (2 minutes 50 seconds later). The penalty kick is scored and the referee blows for full time on 98:47 (10 seconds after the game has restarted), which was 2:47 over the minimum allocated time for stoppages at the end of the game.
There was a minimum 13 seconds left before the injury at the end of allocated additional time, not before the end of regulation time, and the referee played 2 of those with the penalty kick when play was restarted. 11 seconds to restart play with a kick off was admittedly not played, and we will ensure the referee is made aware of this."
Thanks to Rapids Director of Communications Ryan Madden for facilitating the question. He was most helpful.
Raw quote-opiaIf you want to read everything Anthony Hudson said in the post-game, I’ve transcribed it all below. I want to add that he was visibly irritated and frustrated. Nobody is more upset that the Rapids are losing, I think, than the Rapids staff. He also didn’t throw his players under the bus, and he didn’t blame the referees, which is commendable.
About the team’s resolve during this stretch:
“It’s difficult in our run to talk about lots and lots of positives. (The team) kept going, kept working, and we’re better than the results are showing recently. We’re a better team than that. It’s a disappointing night.”
Regarding the substitutions at halftime; Sjoberg for Wilson, Boli for Gashi
“Look, it’s simple. Tactical reasons. I personally don’t believe there was much between the two teams tonight, other than we’ve made a couple of mistakes that have cost us. And then late in the game we’re going for it, we’re pushing bodies forward and it’s opened up. So the changes were changes I needed to make.”
“It’s very difficult for me to say this. But we’re not a team of this record. We’re really not. But, there’s no disguising it. It’s not a good run. We’re definitely not pleased about it. We’re not proud about it. But everybody in the locker room; myself, staff; we believe in what we’re doing. We’re going to keep fighting. There’s no chance of that not happening. We’ll keep backing the players and backing what we’re doing.”
On referee’s decisions in this match
“To be honest, and I’m not trying to not answer your question, I’m just bored of talking about referees. And to be fair, a coach in this position shouldn’t be talking about referee decisions. What we need to do is focus on ourselves, get back here Monday morning, and really work. This week the players responded so well. It’s gonna turn for us. And I think we can see, bar last week (against NYCFC), we’re in every game. We need confidence, it’ll be good to get some of our injured players back, that’ll add more competition, more off the bench, more confidence, and we got to keep working.”
On whether Hudson thinks the team is on the verge of a winning streak:
“I really do. I think that going into tonight we’ve had such a good week, we’re confident, the players felt confident, and think, what happens is, when you’re in a run like this, something happens like happens tonight your confidence gets hit, you want to be more positive, but you get a little bit more negative, a little bit more safe, and we just have to work. The only way you get your confidence back is work harder, stick together, be more focused on your job, be more clear about the game on next Friday. Keep believing. We have to show character. All the sort-of cliches. But that’s really what we have to do. We have to really step up and not be afraid of the situation. We’re not proud of it. One thing’s for sure we’re going to be doing all of those things driving the team forward, and I believe in this team, I really do.”