I mean, come on. Really? What kind of cosmically cruel soccer tomfoolery was that?
Coloradans, coming on the heels of a year of penance and suffering for the faithful, enter 2018 full of hope and newness. And how is our loyalty repaid? With a stoppage time loss in New England, followed up by a shoulda-been, coulda-been home win that was stolen, yet again, in stoppage time. The soccer community typically refers to such disasters as the fickle nature of ‘the soccer gods’. As a staunch monotheist (I think my credentials here are pretty safe), I am more inclined to think that we have somehow displeased the Universe in some way. Perhaps a club official moved an owls nest from the rafters in the offseason. Perhaps the sudden addition of beards to the club (Enzo Martinez, Jack Price, Eric Miller is growing one) has inequitably distributed the energies across the club and created some kind of disturbance in the force*.
This is the point at which you might want to start screaming at your laptop or tablet: “We collapsed! We suck! That’s it! There is no disturbed indian burial ground or series of misaligned chakras causing us to fall apart after the 80th minute! This is crap soccer!” Yes. Yes. This, too.
Still. I will always be here as the voice of both the logic and the spiritual mystery of football. It is true that the team tactics went sour and the defense broke down. But also, it emotionally hurts to lose or to get drawn in extra time like this. It hurts in your very soul. I wrote the recap for this game, sitting virtually alone in the press box, combing over plays and stats, slapping the table and quietly muttering expletives that holy men of God should not be muttering. It is ok to break down the game in your mind like a rationalist and to ascribe rational explanations for a 2-2 draw. But if you love soccer - if it is truly embedded deep in your kishkas - you should also be prepared to experience the highs and lows of the game with your very soul.
They say 2-0 is the most dangerous lead. They say 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer. In this match, ‘they’ would be right, but only because the Rapids gave Sporting Kansas City every opportunity to get back in this game in the second half.
For a full recap of the game, click here.
The Rapids got their lead by making the most of their chances. Their first two good opportunities were both converted. The first was a great cross from Edgar Castillo to Dominique Badji, and on the second, Tommy Smith struck an insane 60 yard pass that Joe Mason settled and put away. With still 80 minutes left in the match, the home team was in charge with a 2-0 lead.
The team played conservatively: the backline punted everything long, the team ceded possession to SKC, and prepared to defend with a 5 man back line fronted by the three midfields, plus a roaming striker doing a little harassment. SKC drew the match up 2-2, so obviously the tactic deserves to be reexamined.
First, here’s the Rapids possession stats for the game.
After building a 2-0 lead, the Rapids clearly decided to let Peter Vermes' men have the ball all to themselves. Colorado did this by playing cautiously and clearing everything into the final third rather than trying to play out of trouble or build from the back. The Rapids also were out-possessed because they elected to play long balls, and play on the fast counter-attack, instead of hanging on to the ball and slowly working it around and up the pitch. Letting the other guy have the ball is not an inherently bad tactic. It just requires that, in return, your team must defend ferociously.
The Rapids didn’t defend ferociously.
That’s a product of yet another lackluster performance by the back three, who I have already taken to task in the last Backpass. But let’s look a little closer.
Here’s a look at one… two… three… four… five different instances in which the defense did not do its job to contain and prevent Sporting from taking dangerous shots.
(This writing platform doesn’t allow embedded gifs or tweets, so in order to see video of those plays, click the link, view the gif, then click the 'back' button on your browser in order to come back to the article. It’s kind of annoying. The management regrets the inconvenience.)
Collectively, there are two basic problems in all five plays. The first problem has to do with the shape and positioning of this 3-and-5 defense (3 midfielders, 5 defenders). Until this year, the Rapids defended deep in two banks of four, which is a nearly universal defensive array in MLS. A five-man backline typically puts three (sometimes four) players in front of it. Those three midfielders are responsible for protecting ‘zone 14’, the spot above the 18 yard box that creates a tremendous number of dangerous chances. The problem is, of course, the three are giving up dangerous space out to the sides that used to be defended by wingers - three defenders can't cover as much space as four, so they pinch in a bit more. In a 3-and-5, one of the five defender may need to step out to the ball there and come off of the line, with the expectation that someone else will rotate over into the space he just vacated. Especially on SKC’s second goal, that really didn’t happen. Overall on these five plays, the defense wasn’t in a five man line. The line constantly has gaps opening up. KC just ran at those gaps, passed into those gaps, and got chances from those gaps.
The second thing is an even more basic problem. Defenders must either put pressure on the ball, or cut off the passing lanes. So many times in the examples gif’ed, there was a defender exposed, not doing either of those things.
For example, in this play, (number four from above) the Rapids are in a 3v3 along the wing, but Marlon Hairston (#94), Deklan Wynne (#27), and Danny Wilson (#4) are afraid to attack the passing lanes, while also giving SKC time on the ball and space to make passes because they aren't attacking the ball. It looks like they’re afraid to get in close on the attackers Felipe Gutierrez and Khiry Shelton for fear they’ll get dribbled. Thankfully, the cross on this play to the back post is lousy, and Edgar Castillo and Tommy Smith are also back there marking their guys well. But overall, the defense just looks suspect here.
In this play, (number three from above) Danny Wilson (#4) is in transition, but he doesn’t attack the ball or close down the lane and stop the back-splitting pass. He's just floating between the lines, in space. This could have been disaster if the pass hadn’t been overhit so hard.
And, of course, the denouement of bad defensive plays on the night was that second goal (number five from above). You should click on this play and rewatch it, but not as many times as I rewatched it. Here’s a list of all the things going wrong on this play:
1) Nana Boateng (#21) over-pursues Felipe Gutierrez and gets left for dead.
2) Marlon Hairston (#94) closes down space wide, but needed to close down the ball and stop the entry pass from Gutierrez. Or drop deeper and more inside - he’s instead chosen to shade outside and give up the inside.
3) Watch Jack Price on this whole play. He marks Diego Rubio initially, then loses him. Twice, by my count. Rubio scores the goal.
4) Danny Wilson (#4) steps up to Gerso (#12) when he gets the entry pass. Then he does nothing as Gerso passes right around him to Khiry Shelton (#14) - doesn’t drop into the passing lane, doesn’t make a play for the ball.
5) Tommy Smith (#5) plays Khiry Shelton onside (meaning, he dropped too deep with his man, giving SKC a more dangerous shot closer to goal and putting Shelton in the play instead of having him potentially offside.) Had he stayed level with the ball, Gerso would have never had that pass to make in the first place. Smith jumps up and down afterwards in frustration.
I’ve rewatched this gif like 50 times now. I gotta stop. My head is gonna explode.
The defense in this game constantly looked like it didn’t know what it was supposed to do. The wing backs looked good: Castillo and Hairston stepped in front of balls constantly and were constant buzzing pests. If we could clone them and put them at the backline and at defensive midfield, we’d have been alright. For me, I could be ok with the tactic of bunker-and-absorb after getting the 2-0 lead. I’m not ok with the way this team is defending. I hope Anthony Hudson isn’t either.
Enzo poised for a breakoutOther than Tim Howard, who had nine saves in this match and was really a difference maker to earn a point, the best player on the pitch for Colorado was Enzo Martinez. He had this great opportunity on the dribble where he just melts Ilie Sanchez into a puddle, and then fires a shot from long range in the first half that just barely misses. And then in the second half, he absolutely murdered MLS 2017 Defender of the Year Ike Opara on this dribble, getting deep inside the box in the process, only to indecisively turn it over.
He doesn’t have any goals or assists yet, but I think it’s coming. His work rate is phenomenal, his intuition looks good, and his off the ball movement after he passes is always crisp and dangerous. Put him on your fantasy team because eventually, he’s going to blow up.
Sub the wings, CoachMy assumption was that if you are going to play with wingbacks running the length of the field nonstop at 5,280 feet of altitude, you were going to need to relieve them. No other player on the field is going to rack up as much mileage as the wingbacks; so unless you want to surrender a competitive advantage to your opponents by gassing your own boys, it might do to plan on subbing them off.
In this match, Anthony Hudson brought on Nana Boateng in the 61st for Johan Blomberg; Niki Jackson in the 64th for Joe Mason; and Jack McBean in the 84th for Dominique Badji. Mason was apparently not match-fit to go a full 90, according to Coach Hudson’s comments in the post-game conference, and Badji had to come off with a late knock. I don’t quite get starting a striker you know can’t go 90 minutes, and I don’t get not bringing on another fullback, and I don’t get putting on Boateng, who is still a bit of a mystery as to what he is, instead of Micheal Azira, who is a defensive menace par-excellance, when you’re trying to hold a 2-1 lead.
New Stuff at Dick's!To a sellout crowd of 17,424 fans, the Rapids added a bunch of new things I mentioned on the ‘Holding the High Line’ podcast, which you should be subscribed to. Go on. I’ll wait. They also added one surprise.
The team had pies over at the new GB’s stand at the South end. You tell me if they were good. They also had flags in each section. I liked that look! And there was DJ Jenny Jones, who I enjoyed a lot more than our old pre-game warm up, chock full of ads and bad country songs. Although I did think the remix of ‘Enter Sandman’ right before kickoff was an odd choice. The original version of that song came out 27 years ago. That song is so old, even Tim Howard considers it ‘oldies radio.’ And I’m a Metallica fan. If we’re gonna go classic, let's get Jenny a vinyl of the Misfits.
But the real surprise were the electronic sideline boards! I’ve been bitching about out analog and quaint hoardings for years now, so it’s great that the Rapids have joined the 21st century with the fancy new digital signage down on the pitch. I so relieved. I was beginning to worry about whether Stan Kroenke was financially doing alright - now he can really start raking in the advertising dollars.
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* You probably think I’m joking. A little, yeah. But also, as a both an arch-rationalist and a spiritual practitioner, sometimes this kind of new age malarky should be given some credence. Don’t dismiss anything. You just don’t know, man.