Season Preview: Colorado Rapids / by Andrew Olsen

If you are a fan of up-and-coming soccer talent, the 2013 Colorado Rapids were a squad who, seemingly out of nowhere, became a must-watch team. While the trend is for MLS teams to rely more heavily upon experienced and highly paid players to bolster their roster, Colorado, perhaps out of necessity, became a team driven by young, inexpensive talent. They used all available means to assemble their roster: trades (Edson Buddle and Nathan Sturgis), the SuperDraft (Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers), the NASL and USL (Chris Klute and Clint Irwin, respectively), and international signings (Vicente Sanchez and Gabriel Torres). By the time the 2013 season concluded, Oscar Pareja had lead the Rapids to 51 points and the 5th seed in the Western Conference, a sizeable upgrade over their 37 points accumulated in 2012.

2013 Finish: 14-11-9, 51 points; 45 GF, 38 GA. Fifth place in Western Conference. Lost in Wildcard round.

Colorado Rapids 2013 Formation - 2014-02-24

 

Transactions

Players In

Players Out

Name Pos   Name Pos  
Marc Burch D/M Re-Entry Stage 1 Diego Calderon D Loan expired
Marvin Chavez  M Trade from San Jose Jaime Castrillon M Option declined
Marlon Hairston M SuperDraft Steward Ceus GK Option declined
Grant Van De Casteele D SuperDraft Atiba Harris F Traded to San Jose
Joe Nasco GK Free Jamie Smith M Retired
Jared Watts M SuperDraft Tony Cascio M Loaned to Houston
John Berner GK SuperDraft Hendry Thomas M Trade to FC Dallas
      Kory Kindle D Retired

Roster churn: Colorado returns 76.5% of its 2013 minutes, 9th most in the league.

Colorado Rapids' 2014 Roster

My Kingdom for a Coach

Let’s start at the top.

Oscar Pareja has moved on to become the head coach of FC Dallas, returning to helm the club where he spent eight seasons as a player. Last year, Pareja assembled a young Rapids team that managed to sneak into the playoffs of the highly competitive Western Conference. Pareja was lauded for his ability to identify and acquire young talent. Though that should come as no surprise, considering that he served as the Director of Player Development for the FC Dallas Youth system from 2007 through 2011, fostering the growth of 11 players who have subsequently signed with the senior team.

When the Rapids were plagued by injury early in the season, Pareja was able to slot Sturgis, Klute, and O’Neill into the lineup, and the team continued to get results. Pareja, as coaches often do, made some questionable decisions over the course of the season. He showed unwavering faith in Atiba Harris all season long despite subpar performances, and took some heat for decisions he made in Colorado’s playoff loss to Seattle. Still, starting a rusty German Mera at centerback is not the same thing as, say, deploying Shalrie Joseph at forward. Pareja made some a personnel choice that did not pay off, but his overall tenure as Rapids head coach was a positive experience, one that has left the Rapids in much better position than when he arrived.

So where do they go from here? Well, we don’t know. With only a few weeks to go before the season, the Rapids have yet to name a head coach. But let’s assume that they will hire Pablo Mastroeni (hey, someone has to make a decision here), following the league-wide trend of elevating young ex-players into the head coaching ranks. Sometimes these new hires pay off (Peter Vermes, Mike Petke, 2012 Ben Olsen), but just as often they yield disappointing results (Curt Onalfo, Jesse Marsch, 2013 Ben Olsen). With no prior coaching experience, it is difficult to predict how Mastroeni will fare as coach of the Rapids. Though Mastro will take over a promising young squad, growing pains should be expected as he develops his own coaching personality.

The Departures

COLINFOThis offseason, Colorado parted ways with only seven players (one of whom, Jamie Smith, will remain with the franchise as an academy coach). The two regular starters who will not be returning this season are Atiba Harris, who played in 29 games last season, logging a stout 2,012 minutes attacking down the right flank, and Hendry Thomas, who started 28 games in defensive midfield for the Rapids. The Rapids balked at Thomas’s request for a DP-level salary, and shipped him off to Dallas in exchange for some allocation money.

The other five players combined to tally just 1,463 total minutes. Tony Cascio, who led that quintet with 530 minutes, will spend the 2014 season on loan in Houston as part of the first intra-league loan in Major League Soccer history.* The three other departing field players—Diego Calderon, Jamie Castrillon, and Smith—were plagued by injuries throughout 2013, and were never able to gain a steady foothold in the starting lineup. The final departed player, goalkeeper Steward Ceus, got his 2013 season off to a promising start… for about 10 minutes. In the 11th minute of the season opener, David Ferreira sent a long pass toward the Rapids penalty area. Ceus raced out of his penalty area to clear the ball, only to watch helplessly as the ball—and his chances of keeping the starting GK job—soared beyond him. Clint Irwin would start game two, and Ceus would not see another minute for Colorado in the 2014 season.

*No, Matias Laba is not on intra-league loan to Vancouver. He was traded for pipe dreams and promises.

Clint Irwin: Act II

Nothing has changed in goal for Colorado this season. Clint Irwin will enter the season as the starting goalkeeper, with Matt Pickens—currently on trial in Norway—tentatively set to serve as his backup. The Rapids have signed Joe Nasco---who last season helmed the nets for Atlanta---and rookie John Berner, in case Pickens does depart. Irwin finished 12th in the league in save percentage last season, stopping 69% of shots on target. Though you should take this purely as a descriptive statistic, as it appears that save percentage tells you very little about the quality of a professional goalkeeper. Irwin also failed to crack the top ten in crosses claimed last season, and ranked only 9th in punches, though strong flank play from the Rapids could mean that Irwin had fewer balls from wide areas to deal with.

One aspect of play where statistics say that Irwin did excel was in his distribution: Irwin completed 73% of his passes—6th best in the league—despite his average distribution being 48 meters long. For comparison, average length of distribution of keepers in the top 10 accurate passers is only 38.8 meters. His distribution numbers are likely skewed by the fact that Irwin could hammer a 70-yard ball down the right side of the field and know that Atiba Harris (statistically the best aeriel duelist in the league) would get on the end of it (I guess we can look at Jon Busch’s numbers this year and see). Generally though, Irwin’s decision making and positioning, things not yet easily quantifiable, were solid all season; he looked and played like an MLS-caliber goalkeeper, which is impressive enough for a 24-year-old.

Moor: verb (used with object) … 2. to fix firmly; secure

For the sake of this preview, we will assume Mastroeni will not alter Pareja’s preferred formation of 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. Chris Klute and Drew Moor are locks to retain their spots on the back line. Klute will maraud down the wing and make life difficult for opposing midfielders. Last season he led the league in assists among defenders with 7, and was second (behind only Andrew Farrell) in successful take-ons with 39. Moor provides a solid veteran presence at the back, and provides excellent distribution to a team which often lacks patience in the defensive third. Preseason games would indicate that Shane O’Neill will make way at the other center back spot for either Marvell Wynne or Wake Forest rookie Jared Watts.

Despite a strong rookie season for O’Neill, his biggest shortcoming was his ability to assert his physicality in the air. Whereas Moor finished the season with 3.7 aerial duels won per game (8th in MLS, 5th among centerbacks), O’Neill had only 1.4 aerials won per game (79th in MLS, 34th among centerbacks). Moor won 68% of his aerial duels; O’Neill, 52%. But if you’re the kind of person who prefers their evidence anecdotal, here’s him being completely schooled by Chris Wondolowski (not the most physical specimen himself) on a corner kick. O’Neill should remain a starter, but he will shift to the right side of the field, either in defense or midfield.

Who? What? Where?

The midfield is a much bigger quandary. Hendry Thomas is gone, Nathan Sturgis has spent a considerable amount of time this preseason at right back, and Dillon Powers’ health is in question: not only was he only just cleared to return to game action on February 20 after recovering from a concussion last season, but he is battling tendinitis in his knee. The talent level drops precipitously as you move down the depth chart.

First-round draft pick Marlon Hairston could be the man to replace Thomas. But Thomas is a Premier League and World Cup veteran, who averaged 3.3 tackles per game last season, 7th in MLS, and Hairston is a 19-year-old who, in spite of his physical gifts, was labeled by one college coach as a “lazy” defender, not the ringing endorsement you want for a player who will be shielding your back line. Nick LaBrocca is another option to replace Thomas, but the 29-year-old Rutgers grad lacks the size and athleticism that either Thomas or Hairston can bring. LaBrocca also has the potential to step in for an injured Powers, but with a glut of forwards on the team, Gabriel Torres might find himself deputizing for Powers in the event that he misses time, playing a more direct role in the offense (and leaving Edson Buddle as the center forward).

The Designated Player and Deshorn

If and when Powers returns to full health, Torres will spearhead the attack for Colorado. The first designated player in Rapids history, Torres was signed in August of last season, and immediately demonstrated his value. He notched 3 goals and 1 assist on 15 shots in 507 minutes. The shot total is low for a DP level striker, but so is the sample size. Still, flashes of brilliance like this make it difficult for Rapids fans to keep their expectations tempered.

Deshorn Brown will start to the left of the center forward, in a more advanced role than the typical wide player in a 4-2-3-1. This is because Brown’s speed and size far outshine his technical skills. Last season, Brown notched 10 goals, solid enough on its own, but it should be noted that of the 18 players who scored 10 goals or more last season, Brown had the lowest scoring chance percentage, converting a mere 10.3% of his shots. Though that seems like bad news on the surface (and it may be that Brown isn’t a crack finisher), it comes with a big silver lining.Finishing rates are less predictive of yearly success than Expected Goals, which are determined by number and location of shots taken.

On the right, the Rapids have a choice between Marvin Chavez and Vicente Sanchez, two left-footed players who bring different assets to the table. Chavez is a versatile player who has the speed to stretch the defensive line (as he did with his time in Dallas) and an accurate cross that allows him to play as a more conventional midfielder (as he did in his 12-assist season with San Jose in 2012). Sanchez, who spent most of his career in Mexico, is a more technically savvy (and to be fair to Chavez, slower) player, who in his limited time with Colorado last season provided some of the cerebral play that was often missing from the lineup.

The Prediction

Last year, Colorado’s depth enabled them to overcome a spate of injuries and make the playoffs, bringing a new generation of players to the league’s attention. This year, without any wholesale roster changes, those same players will bear the weight of expectations of a franchise. New coach or not, progress will be expected from this young team, and it will be interesting to see how they will fare in the 2014 season.

Crowdsourcing Results

The readers of American Soccer Analysis don’t seem to think that Colorado will make any progress this season. The plurality (20.2%) of our 406 voters think that the Rapids will drop to 6th place in the Western Conference, with the vast majority (78.1%) anticipating them to finish in the 5th-to-8th-place range.