Finding goals for the rapids: is it time for a formation switch in colorado? / by Tom Worville

By Tom Worville (@worville)

(Note that in this article, "Possession Adjusted" is where you take the stat in question, divide by the team's possession, and multiply by 50% to put all teams' stats on a per-possession basis.)

Colorado Rapids are an intriguing side. They are the only team not to concede in MLS so far this season, but also the only team not to score, either. Having held Philadelphia, New York City and Houston Dynamo to 0-0 draws so far, the only thing they have going for them so far this season is consistency in results.

They’re not going to get easier opponents in the coming weeks either - New England, two games against Dallas, Seattle and LA Galaxy are all to come. These free scoring sides are likely to test the Rapids defence, so to have a chance at securing any points they’re going to need to start scoring. In this analysis I’m going to look into the Rapids blunt attack and what they could change to start scoring.

Teams that usually find themselves having scored no goals either have their bad luck to thank or are generating a low number of shots. For Colorado this is a mix of both. The Rapids currently have the 4th lowest shots per game numbers in the league, taking 9.7 shots per game. 17th out of 20 teams is bad, but if even the 20th team has managed to score then it’s not just your poor finishing which can be to blame.

One could argue that despite the team generating a low number of shots, these could be of poor quality. The Rapids sit 15th in the league in team shot accuracy though - once again not the worst and teams with less accurate shooters have managed to score more. From their Expected Goals numbers taken from American Soccer Analysis, the team has an Expected Goal count of 0.8 per game (2.4 Expected Goals overall). This indicates a lack of real quality chances - and their goal total of 0 is not entirely unexpected. They have also faced two of the better keepers so far this season in Tyler Deric and Josh Saunders, both of which are over-performing vs their Expected Goals against.

Deric and Saunders Expected Goals

Looking at the Rapids’ roster, their strike-force consists of Designated Player Gabriel Torres, Superdraft pickup Dominique Badji and veteran Vicente Sanchez. Between them they’ve only managed eight shots in three games: six for Torres and one apiece for Sanchez and Baji. This low shot creation from the strikers can’t be solely blamed on them - the Rapids sit at 6th lowest in the league for chance creation.

What’s worse is that Deshorn Brown, the team's top scorer the past two seasons with 23 goals, has moved to Norwegian side Vålerenga. With Brown gone, the squad is left with only Sanchez and Torres with any experience up front, although they have only scored 13 between them in the past two seasons. This is worrying as they are the only experienced strikers on the roster, which is unlikely to be strengthened until the arrival of Kevin Doyle in the summer. Any injury or suspension of Torres or Sanchez leave the team with fewer options in an already unthreatening attack.

I am very much a firm believer that clubs should play the cards that they are dealt and play to their strengths. If the Rapids don’t adapt their style they are going to have a long wait until Doyle arrives - and even then things may not change. For a start I think it is worth them reconsidering their formation.

From the excellent FootballLineups.com I can see that the Colorado Rapids have played a 4-2-3-1 every game this season. This formation isolates the striker and means that play heavily relies on the three attacking players behind him. Teams who play this system usually play it with a more physical striker - capable of holding up the play long enough to involve the attacking players who play behind him. Notable examples include Olivier Giroud for Arsenal and Romelu Lukaku for Everton. For Colorado, all three of their striking options don’t really fit the bill in terms of size or strength.

This system could work with Doyle - who possesses more of the characteristics of your traditional hold up man who would suit this formation. Until then I recommend a change of system.

An area of the game that Colorado could try to exploit is to cross more, as the team currently sits 18th for crosses per game. The introduction of Young DP Juan Ramirez looks a good signing from the limited minutes I've seen him play. The Argentine possesses good pace and plays like an old-school winger: drawing fouls and completing take-ons. If he could add crossing to his game, he could be a great outlet for chance creation for the team. The team looks relatively set with their back four and two holding midfielders in Sam Cronin and Lucas Pittinari. This leaves three vacant spots on the team sheet - as I make Ramirez a must-start, too.

Another player on the team who I feel is un-droppable is Dillon Powers. Powers has gathered quite a lot of interest from teams outside of MLS and with him recently getting his Italian passport I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Serie A before long. For now though he’s on the Rapid’s roster. Powers operates most efficiently in an attacking midfield role, being the central link between the strikers and the deeper midfielders. His chance creation (highest in the team last year) and long shooting abilities make him a must-have in this side.

I would allocate the final two spots on the team sheet to Dillon Serna and Torres and thus play a 4-3-3 formation, with Powers being ahead of the other two central midfielders and Serna and Ramirez being either side of Torres. Despite Torres’ low scoring record, his pass accuracy has been better than that of Sanchez’s over the last two seasons. Serna certainly has the legs over the aging Sanchez, despite not creating more chances than him per 90 last season. The option of Sanchez from the bench is another dynamic that could be used to change matches.

Suggested Colorado Rapids formation

Playing a formation like this would help Colorado play to their strengths in terms of preference to play long balls and utilize their attacking players effectively. The central player in the front three is also able to drop deeper and play the false nine - relieving him of the target man-like qualities the team needs to play 4-2-3-1. The wide players have more space to run into to make the long balls a more viable option.

The reason why the formation needs to be changed can be taken from looking at the possession figures in more detail. The Rapids sit joint 19th with San Jose on 47% possession per game. Looking at the way the team passes, they sit 15th in the league in terms of short passes per game (possession adjusted) and the 1st for long balls per game (possession adjusted). The team also has the highest average pass length in the league of 22 meters. As stated previously, this isn't a side where long balls will work in the current system, and the Rapids have a big preference for long balls.

These passing figures alongside the fact that the team has the lowest passing accuracy of all the teams in the league of just 72% (putting into context: over 1 in 4 balls passed is misplaced) show that Colorado’s ball retention is not the best. It is worth noting that due to the number of long passes the team plays, their pass accuracy is likely to be skewed down anyway (long passes = more inaccurate).

By comparing the number of chances created to short passes made we can get a feel for a side's efficiency in possession. For example, the Seattle Sounders make an average of 65 passes (possession adjusted) before they create a chance. On the other hand, Sporting Kansas City makes a minute 26 passes (possession adjusted) before they create a chance - a snip in comparison. Colorado sits 13th for this efficiency measure, making 44 passes per chance created (possession adjusted). This shows that when they are able to string passes together they are better at creating chances. The formation change to 4-3-3 and utilising Powers as a pivot between defence and attack can help capitalize on this.

Alternatively, looking at long balls per chance created we can get a similar sense of efficiency with a teams long ball usage. Colorado sit joint 19th in the league here, making 11 long balls before creating a chance. I wouldn't be so critical of the usage of the long balls if they actually helped the side create chances. This shows that they are more of a hindrance. For comparison the San Jose Earthquakes, who make a similar number of chances per game (7.75 vs 7.33) make only nine long balls per chance created. Not a huge difference, but then again San Jose have scored six goals in the league so far this season, the joint highest in the league.

Now by comparing short and long passes per shots we can see how many passes a team needs to make before a shot is taken. Colorado sit 19th in long passes per shot, but 13th for short passes per shot. This difference highlights the sides greater efficiency in terms of short passes rather than long passes - and once again the need to try to capitalize on their short passing strengths more. Within the squad they have some good passers - Cronin, Marcelo Sarvas and Powers are three examples with 75%+ passing accuracy.

Finally by looking at how much time a team spends in each third of the pitch, we can get a greater sense of how efficient they are with the ball. Colorado’s split between Own Third/Middle/Opposition Third is 29%/45%/26%. By multiplying the number of short passes by the time spent in each area we get a rough idea of the number of passes made in that part of the field. That will help get a further sense of efficiency on the ball.

Colorado make the 10th lowest number of passes in the Opposition Third with 84 per game. This makes them the joint 5th most efficient side in MLS in terms of passes per chance created - needing only 11 passes in the opposition third to create a chance. For comparison, the lowest is Sporting Kansas City again, which only makes seven passes. Seattle makes 19 passes in the opposition third per chance created - making them the slowest team to build up chances in the league.
There is evidently strength in Colorado’s short passing play - which far exceeds any joy that they are getting from long balls at the minute. Were they to adapt a new formation that takes advantage of this passing strength the side might get closer to scoring more goals. By incorporating a more fluid transition from defense to attack and utilizing crosses more, the club may get some returns in terms of chance creation and shots taken and hopefully somewhere down the line - some goals.