By Rapids Rabbi
A day after Colorado’s defeat to Sporting Kansas City, reports were circulating that Barcelona’s midfield maestro Andres Iniesta was no longer expected to sign in China. Some MLS types began speculating about Iniesta coming to America instead, and of course I made a twitter joke about him coming to the Rapids. Because that’s what I do. I try to stay on-brand.
Simultaneously, several people quipped that Iniesta might not get selected for the Rapids 18, or that he wouldn’t ‘fit our system.’ That’s a harsh burn on our coach, Anthony Hudson. But it also shows how quickly the fans have become frustrated with the new Rapids manager.
There was great excitement when Hudson arrived and instituted a new formation and system, an attacking 3-5-2. Excitement turned to trepidation when the offseason also brought wholesale changes to the roster which were kind of questionable. While most of MLS was headed to Central and South America to find talent like Alberth Elis, Miguel Almiron, Ezekiel Barco, Nicolas Lodeiro, Roman Torres, and Francisco Calvo, Colorado chose to go a different route. Rapids GM Padraig Smithpicked up players from the New Zealand National team (Kip Colvey, Deklan Wynne, Tommy Smith), the English second division (Jack Price, Tommy Smith [again], Joe Mason) and the Scottish Premiership (Danny Wilson and now Sam Nicholson). Then he added to that a Star Wars cantina of other interesting player backgrounds that included a USL lifer, a middle-aged Scandinavian of little renown, a backup striker released from the worst team in MLS in 2018, and a French striker who has torn up the Chinese and Russian second divisions. All that was fine. Odd, but if it works, fine.
Hudson then proceeded to unwrap all his shiny new toys and put them on the field, and he took all the Rapids clunky old toys and put them in the closet. Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts and Dillon Serna and Stefan Aigner and Eric Miller were on the bench or the reserves, while burgundy vets Tim Howard, Marlon Hairston, Dominique Badji and Kortne Ford were retained as starters. And considering the Rapids horrid 2017 season, these were not bad choices. Change in the face of failure is wise and prudent. Bringing on new players is a necessary part of innovating.
Except now we’re 8 games through the MLS season, or almost a quarter of the way, and the team is average 1.0 ppg, which is almost identical to how we did in 2017. And some of those players that Hudson has handed starting jobs have been underwhelming. Danny Wilson, Tommy Smith and Deklan Wynne have been ok-not-great on the backline. They’ve conceded 11 goals in 8 games, which is actually pretty decent; above average in MLS. However, their expected goals against (xGA) stands at 14.1, meaning the Rapids have been the lucky beneficiaries of some really poor finishing by opponents. American Soccer Analysis has them at 20th out of 23 MLS teams for expected goal differential, xGD, a true measure of how good a team is doing at creating and defending chances.
That’s mathematical. Anecdotally, we’ve already seen moments of Deklan Wynne being outplayed at center back. The Rapids played Axel Sjoberg in 2 matches this year, and he looked good in both, but as soon as other options were healthy, Sjoberg went back to the bench. Coach Hudson did not elect to give Eric Miller or Jared Watts chances at center back at all, and instead, they were sold off, and now until Kortne Ford returns from injury, the Kiwi-Scottish-Championship combination is probably what we’ve got. Not how I’d line up, but ok, not terrible.
All this is prelude and backstory to this week’s match at Sporting Kansas City. The Starting XI Colorado put on the field included four serious head scratchers:
1) Kip Colvey started over Dillon Serna, who looked like the best player on the field for while last week.
2) Jack McBean started over Joe Mason and Yannick Boli at striker.
3) Sam Nicholson, who had been acquired only days early from Minnesota, started in midfield.
4) Stefan Aigner was not included in the 18 man roster for the fourth straight game despite Colorado missing midfielders Nana Boateng, Shkelzen Gashi and Johan Blomberg to injury.
As the game went along, almost all of these moves looked like poor decisions.
Colvey was mostly ineffectual all game (he had one key pass), and then dribbled out of bounds and lost control of a simple pass before getting subbed off in the 79th minute. SKC’s TV commentators compared him to a pub league player for those gaffes.
To this point in the season, McBean has the worst expected passing for any MLS player with more than 200 minutes. You could excuse that (Dom Dwyer is also on the bottom of this list) if McBean was a good shooter with a lot of goals. He isn't. McBean has 7 shots, zero goals for 2018. Against SKC, he was 6 for 11 in passes with a key pass and a shot, and was subbed off at the half. I can think of no greater indication of a player playing poorly than being subbed off at the half in a like-for-like move. Why he was chosen to start over high priced transfer Yannick Boli or talented loanee Joe Mason is a mystery to me. More of a mystery than the mystery of love, or quantum mechanics, or where that second sock in the dryer went.
Sam Nicholson was fine, connecting for 2 key passes. In the second half Colorado struggled to connect in the attack and he was subbed off for Yannick Boli. Boli didn’t do much of note.
Colorado’s passing in the attacking half was below 70% as the team was strung out across the field and lacked the ability to connect passes, dribble at defenders, or build an attack. Stefan Aigner might not be Iniesta, but he’s certainly a better pass connector than Jack McBean or Kip Colvey. Add to this the fact that the Rapids chose to recall Sam Hamilton from loan at Colorado Springs rather than put Aigner on the bench, and you’ve got a lot of questions about this lineup.
All this is a long way of saying that the Rapids did not have their best eleven on the field, and they were completely outclassed from whistle to whistle by an SKC team that they drew at home just six weeks ago. Enzo Martinez and Dominique Badji and Jack Price all looked good , but were surrounded with players that couldn’t get into dangerous spaces, make clever passes, or create much. On the counter, the Rapids were completely exposed, and as a result were outshot 23 to 10. It could have been much worse: the expected goals for KC was 2.85, while for the Rapids it was only 0.61. And even THAT number is misleading: Badji's breakaway miss in the 80th minute had an xG of .25 all by itself.* Without that big chance from a Matt Beasler giveaway and two flubbed tackles, the Rapids chances in total had an xG of a paltry 0.36, which I probably don't need to tell you is completely terrible.
I’m burying the lede here, because I’m finally telling you the thing that you already know, but thirteen paragraphs into this column:
Anthony Hudson deserves to be called out for starting players that have yet to prove to anybody that they deserve to start, while sitting players with demonstrable success in Major League Soccer. Stefan Aigner was a good MLS player at the back end of 2017. Axel Sjoberg was a runner-up for defender of the year in 2016. Dillon Serna had 3 goals, 4 assists his rookie year and played with the USMNT U-23 team. And yet coach Hudson chose to start Kip Colvey and Deklan Wynne and (expletive deleted expletive deleted expletive deleted) Jack McBean in this one.
I like Coach Hudson’s new tactical approach. I like the way he prepares teams each week. I’ve seen the team show promise with their buildup play. I can’t understand Coach Hudson’s squad selections. He isn’t putting his best eleven on the field, and I don’t know why. Maybe he rewards players who look great at training. Maybe he has advanced metrics from the front office that demonstrate something about the players that have been selected.** Maybe he’s still got beef with Stefan Aigner.
Whatever it is, the composition of the team is off. The players on the field have a plan. A lot of them have the talent to play at this level. Some of them, however, do not. Minnesota learned that last year with Vadim Demidov and Bashkim Kadrii, just like other teams trying out new players have learned. It’s time to stop putting a 38 horsepower engine into your Camaro and expecting to win Daytona just because ‘you’ve got a plan’. Put in the big engine, coach. Anthony Hudson needs to put their best XI on the field before the season starts to get away from the Rapids for good.
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* Thanks to MLSsoccer.com's Ben Baer for that tidbit.
** I was told anecdotally by a source that according to tests Kip Colvey is one of the fastest players in MLS. You know who else is fast? Usain Bolt. Manchester United hasn’t signed him for some reason, though.