By Benjamin Bellman (@beninquiring)
Apart from the mid-season miracle of Nicholas Lodeiro’s arrival in Seattle, the Colorado Rapids were surely the biggest turnaround in MLS in 2016. Pablo Mastroeni’s first two years as head coach saw the Rapids finishing in 9th and 10th in the Western Conference. But after a flurry of offseason moves, Colorado finished 2nd in the West and league tables, competing with FC Dallas for the Supporter’s Shield until the very last week. New Designated Players Shkelzen Gashi and Tim Howard, and bonus pick up Jermaine Jones, helped cement a team culture and identity consistent with Mastroeni’s reputation of sacrifice and grit, and the Rapids didn't lose at home in 2016 until the Western Conference Championship.
While the Rapids were far more successful than last year, their tactics didn't change dramatically. The 2016 Rapids rank among the best defenses in league history, giving up 32 goals against, fewer than one goal per game. (And consider that five happened all in one game!) A mix of old and new-comers solidified Mastroeni’s vision. Axel Sjoberg earn his place as a finalist for Defender of the Year. Michael Azira, a Sounders cast-off, made a perfect match to Sam Cronin as a pair of dominant defensive midfields also dangerous in springing counter attacks. Offensively, the Rapids capitalized on opponents’ mistakes, quick breaks, and flashes of brilliance from across the roster. Gashi also scored an outrageous number of outrageous goals. Still, the Rapids only produced 39 goals from 37.47 xG (20th in MLS), tying the Dynamo for second-fewest. Yet no team let in fewer goals than the Rapids, who allowed fewer than one per game (32 goals against on 41.91 xGA, 4th in MLS). This team is defined by its defense, and after this offseason it’s clear that won’t change in 2017.
For the first time in Mastroeni’s time as head coach, roster turnover was kept to a minimum, particularly the main defensive contributors. Cronin, Azira, Sjoberg, Bobby Burling, Jared Watts, Marc Burch, Eric Miller, Mekeil Williams, and young fullback prospect Dennis Castillo will all stick around for 2017. This is particularly impressive feat given the expansion draft with two incoming teams. Colorado traded with both Minnesota and Atlanta before that draft, and the rumor is that both those trades included handshake deals to leave the Rapids’ roster alone. This meant sending defender Joseph Greenspan to Minnesota, but he’s been replaced by Kortne Ford, a highly praised homegrown defender that helped lead the Denver Pioneers to the NCAA Final Four.
There was some turnover on the offensive side in an effort to jumpstart the lagging attack. Assist leader Sebastien Le Toux, who arrived from Philly via trade midway through 2016, is now out of contract along with fellow MLS veteran Marco Pappa. The Rapids also traded Jermaine Jones’s rights to the Galaxy, and released reclamation projects Conor Doyle and Zach Pfeffer, and a long-injured Sean St. Ledger. A number of new faces have joined as reinforcements, including another new homegrown player, Creighton University’s Ricardo Perez. Two new attackers have also been signed, midfielder Bismark “Nana” Adjei-Boateng from Manchester City and MLS veteran and villain striker Alan Gordon, as well as four 2017 SuperDraft picks (Sam Hamilton, Liam Callahan, Jaime Siaj, Peguy Ngatcha) who are trying to win their way onto the roster. Finally, former Rapid Tony Cascio has also been playing with team in Tuscon as a trialist, and might be a late addition to the squad. There has also been some office turnover, with long-time technical director Paul Bravo departing with assistant coach John Spencer, while Conor Casey, former Rapids number nine and Mastroeni teammate, joins the coaching staff.
The Rapids probably have the best goalkeeper combo in the league. U.S. legend Tim Howard was one of the best keepers in 2016, ranking third in outperforming his expected goals allowed (GA-xGA). While he has a big price tag, Howard’s shot stopping ability proved crucial at many points for the Rapids, making the defense even stingier. Howard has started the preseason in recovery from an injury from national duty, and Zac MacMath has been an experienced backup, and will lead the defense with confidence. Both Howard and MacMath have a record of success playing with the defensive core. Finally, John Berner is a familiar face in the third string spot.
This defense really did not change, so expect to see more of what made Colorado successful. Sjoberg is the anchor of this group in center defense, and if he improves as much as he did between ’15 and ’16, he could be the best defender in the league. The Rapids traded with Columbus to grab Sjoberg in first round in 2015, and he’s been a mainstay at centerback since. Burling started the year very well, but injured his knee in June, leaving an opening for Watts to cement himself as the starter. There were similar switches around at fullback. Mekeil Williams, Burch, and Miller ranged from 1,500 to 2,500 minutes, showing that this team can succeed with a number of different players on the field. Based on last year and preseason, I expect Sjoberg, Watts, Miller, and Burch to be the main starters in 2017, but the more offensive minded Williams and Castillo should get their share of looks as the Rapids try to turn the corner in their attack. Given the Rapids’ defensive depth, Ford won’t see too much of the field in 2017, but I’d be surprised if Mastroeni doesn’t give him a few chances to show what he can do, perhaps in the Open Cup.
In 2016, the Rapids midfield’s first priority wasn't creating scoring chances, but blanketing the opponent. Mastroeni regularly used a 4-2-3-1 formation, generally playing Azira and Cronin as dual defensive midfielders; Gashi on the left wing; Marlon Hairston or Le Toux on the right wing; and Jones or Dillon Powers as the attacking center midfielder. All of these players were committed to proper defensive positioning and pressure in the middle of the field. While there were no statistical stand outs on the team, the Rapids disrupted their opponents, creating many turnovers and scoring chances without extended build up. Gashi led the team in 2016 with nine goals, and added four assists, while Hairston led assists with six. With a number of contributors to minutes and assists in 2016, this midfield has an identity and are likely to succeed with a number of possible lineups.
In the Rapids’ most recent preseason games, the formation has morphed slightly in a 4-3-3:
To the right is the lineup from the 2-0 loss to Houston in the Desert Diamond Cup final, which played the majority of the game. With Gashi still nursing an injury that nagged at him in 2016, expect this squad to start on March 4th against New England. Dominque Badji and Hairston will be playing more advanced and central on the outside than last year, with Cronin, Azira, and Powers maintaining a strong central presence. Nana Boateng has been playing preseason in a holding role, and will provide relief for the stalwarts Cronin and Azira (3,070 and 2,645 minutes in 2016 respectively) and make an impact in scoring.
Colorado’s strikers also featured in other roles in 2016, highlighting the flexibility needed to play in Mastroeni’s system. Kevin Doyle was playing as a 10 behind Badji as striker by the end of the regular season. Badji also played minutes on the wing, something that should serve him well in the new hybrid winger/forward role. Doyle should mostly play in the middle of the field, with Gashi, Badji, and Hairston providing speed and creativity from outside the box. Caleb Calvert also impressed in preseason, scoring two against New England, and has probably earned some chances off the bench to get goals late.
For better or worse, the first half of the season will mean everything for the Rapids in 2017. The traditional July 4th game in Commerce City will be the twelfth home game of their season, leaving only five home games for the remaining four-ish months of the season. With so much of their home field advantage overlapping the formation period of other MLS teams in transition, that’s leaves a real opportunity for Colorado to take hold on the Supporters’ Shield race. But the end of the year could prove a grueling test, and leave Colorado vulnerable to slipping down the table, losing a playoff edge, or falling below the red line entirely.
Tactically, the 2017 Rapids will look to build on 2016, but keep their core identity and strategy. The priority will be to retain possession, recover the ball quickly, and keep opposing scoring chances to a minimum. The midfield will press and pressure to force errors and capitalize on them. The top three forwards will probably have more freedom to move across the field and exploit space. The roster hasn’t changed enough to expect a drastic increase in attacking output, but this team is capable of making another Supporters Shield run and can challenge the best in the league