By Rapids Rabbi
All supporters wrestle with a difficult tension to their sporting identities. On the one hand, we grow sentimental attachments to players. We have met them, or took a selfie with them, or bought an overpriced jersey from the team store with their name on the back, proclaiming that player to be ‘our favorite’. We were there for their first goal, or their first game-saving tackle. We remember them. We love them.
On the other hand, we hate losing. Find me a sports fan who gladly endures season after season of losing for decades on end, and I’ll kindly ask that the fan submit to a battery of psychological exams. Nobody likes losing. Getting close but not bringing home the cup? Fine. But fans will not tolerate being the league whipping-boy year after year. Life’s too short. There are better ways to spend a Saturday than to see your beloved team get schwacked four to nil, week after week. There are other teams to support. There are other sports. You could go for a nice hike instead.
Since the end of the 2017 season, the Colorado Rapids have parted ways with Mike da Fonte, Mekeil Williams, John Berner, Alan Gordon, Bobby Burling, Dennis Castillo, Jared Watts, and, as of today, Eric Miller.*
In their place, the Rapids have brought in Jack McBean, Kip Colvey, Deklan Wynne, Edgar Castillo, Jack Price, Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, Yannick Boli, and Sam Nicholson.
At the same time that we are forced to reckon with the departure of a player, we also welcome a new player. We are simultaneously asked to evaluate whether the old player was ‘good’ and whether this new player makes us ‘better’, despite knowing that we are still emotionally trying to square the decision. It is heart and head, coming and going, loss and gain, hope and disappointment, all at once. It’s a lot to take.
Pundits will write articles with titles like ‘Deadline Day Winners and Losers’, speculating on what was a good deal and what wasn’t. That’s fine. The reality is: we don’t know yet. Sam Nicholson might be the next big thing. Or Eric Miller might have been the neat red bow that would have tied everything up. Right now, the data is incomplete. We have 27 games this year to see; and both of these young men have years more of football still in them. And the other reality is: we aren’t ready to deal with it yet. Some of us are still lamenting the departures of Sam Cronin, or Drew Moor, or even Conor Casey. We aren’t pundits. We don’t exist in some neutral ether where the only thing that matters is the league table. We have feelings. And right now, most of us probably feel anxious and confused. That’s ok. Sit with it for a while. Then think about maybe paying for an overpriced jersey with the name of brand-new player on the back.**
Orlando Part I: Shaky Buildup
One of things that Anthony Hudson highlighted when I spoke to him a few weeks ago was the Rapids buildup play. He wanted to work on it. He wanted this team to possess the ball and create chances with a carefully constructed offensive effort, and not just rely on turnovers, counter-attacks, or individual brilliance to get the job done. So far, it’s not quite there yet, and I think the 2-1 loss against Orlando was a good example of that.
Click here to get the details of Colorado’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of OCSC
The Rapids were in control through the first half, but in the second half, Orlando tightened up to deny Jack Price the chance to move the ball up to the next ‘line’ in midfield - Nana Boateng and Enzo Martinez - or to deny those two the ball as soon as they received it. As a result, the ball was played either long or through the wings, and not a lot happened in the final third. Here’s a map of the Rapids play from minute 46 to minute 79. (no longer posted)
But that’s just a snapshot, and specifically, a snapshot of the Rapids after their opponent made a mid-game adjustment to frustrate them. What about over the whole season to date?
The numbers below are the Rapids expected goals through the first seven games as compared to the other teams in the league. Expected goals is the number of goals that would likely occur based on the key passes generated and where the shots that generated them occurred. I’m interested in looking at how many ‘good’ chances the Rapids have created to this point.
(See chart posted below.)
Out of 23 teams in MLS, the Rapids rank 21st in expected goals right now, generating 8.4 expected goals over their 7 games. They’ve scored 10 goals, meaning they’re outperforming expectation just slightly - that long shot from Jack Price against Toronto and Dom Badji’s third goal against Philadelphia were both difficult shots with low probabilities, among others.
That's bad, and it won't cut it if the team wants to win in the long term.
It’s hard to say exactly why, specifically, the Rapids aren’t generating enough chances, and it’s probably a combination of a lot of things. The wings aren’t creating enough offense; the midfielders aren’t connecting and moving the ball well enough; the team has been letting the other team attack too much once they get a lead; the second striker hasn’t been enough of a threat - these are all my anecdotal observations. But the numbers say it loud and clear: the team needs to create more chances, and better chances.
Another metric that demonstrates the Rapids struggles to create shots with their buildup play is expected goals chain, or xGC. Expected goal chain is, to quote americansocceranalysis.com, “For all players part of any sequence involving a pass, foul, and/or defensive action that ended in a shot, the sum of expected goals from that shot.” In other words, it is a metric that takes into account the contribution of every player involved in that shot. If Dom Badji takes a chance inside the six yard box with an expected goals number of 0.58, and that shot started seven passes earlier, every player along the chain gets 0.58 added to their xGC. The xGC number is cumulative, so it is higher for players with more minutes. The other number, xGC/96, takes xGC and then divides it by the average length of an MLS game, 96 minutes.
(See chart posted below.)
What you need to know about this chart above is this: the best two Rapids on it are Dominique Badji with 3.65 xGC and Jack Price with 3.59 xGC, and they rank 67th and 71st, respectively in the league. By comparison, the top player, Miguel Almiron, has an xGC of 10.43. LAFC has four players in the top 30; NYCFC has two; Philadelphia has one. Seattle and Montreal have been terrible so far this season; Seattle has two players better than every player on the Rapids; Montreal has one.
Moreover, after Jack Price, the falloff in rank for Rapids players is pretty steep. The next player ranked in xGC is Enzo Martinez with 2.02 xGC. That ranks 153rd. A lot of other Rapids starters are ranked well below similar players at similar positions.
In other words, too few Rapids players are creating on the offensive end or contributing with significant and dangerous passes. Too few are making runs. Too few are finding the gaps and spaces off the ball that lead to goals.
What xGC can tell us is what parts of the Rapids buildup that are producing successful passes, and which are not. Beside Badji and Price, a couple of players who are recently rotated in have high xGC/96 numbers: Shkelzen Gashi has a 0.99 xGC in 103 minutes of play, and Dillon Serna has 0.63 xGC/96 in 152 minutes of play.***
Without droning on and on about numbers and minutiae, I’ll boil it down for you. Everybody on the Rapids is making passes and taking shots of little consequence, or making errant passes, except for Badji, Price, Gashi and Serna. Everybody else has to do better - better breaks over the top, better off-the-ball movement, better passing, better attacking. Or else the kind of loss we saw in Orlando will become more of a regularity.
Orlando Part II: Boateng vs Serna
Anthony Hudson started Nana Boateng at right back to start this game. He had 13/22 passing, or 59% accuracy. On the other wing, Edgar Castillo was 19/23 in the first half, or 83% accuracy. Boateng was not great. So it's not a big surprise that Boateng was moved to the midfield early in the second half and Dillon Serna was brought on to play right back. He was involved in the offense as they struggled to find the game, but in the final 10 minutes, Serna took over completely. Here’s the Rapids passing chart for the final 10 minutes:
Serna (#17) had three key chances (the yellow lines), and three shots. His final shot was one that looked ticketed for the back of the net until Mohamed El-Munir swooped in at the last second to make a ridiculous block.
We have all seen what Dillon Serna is capable of at his best. Belters. Bombs. Sick cut moves. Spin dribbles. Divine crosses. And except for taking one-too-many touches with that ball, and the obvious bump in the box that led to the PK, what we saw on Saturday against Orlando in the final ten minutes was pretty much top-grade Dillon Serna. Meanwhile, we saw that maybe Nana Boateng isn’t meant to play right back.
I really hope the Rapids coaching staff saw the same things that I did.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
*Also Kevin Doyle retired, but that was his choice.
** In my life, I have acquired only two jerseys with an athlete’s name across the back. My first was ‘McSorley’. At a time in Los Angeles when every kid got a ‘Gretzky’ jersey, I chose to buy the jersey of the goon that punched dudes to make sure nobody messed with Gretzky. I was a teenager that liked Heavy Metal and had anger issues, so that makes a lot of sense. The second was ‘Koufax.’ Because ethnic pride.
*** The Rapid with the highest xGC/96 is Micheal Azira, with a 1.43, but due to a tiny sample size of having played only 32 minutes this season and based on what we know about Micheal Azira’s passing, we’ll leave this fact aside for now.