By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
Looking back on a season and attempting to define it with terms as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or even “failure” is tricky business considering the fine lines between the terms, the few number of points that separate one definition from another and the amount of luck that influences results.
To a certain extent, all these terms apply to the Colorado Rapids' 2014 season.
Rapids ended last season with 32 points, good for 8th place in the Western Conference (second to last) and even finished behind defunct perennial catastrophe Chivas USA. Still, I’m not convinced last year was a “failure”. Obviously, ending a season by losing 12 of your last 14 games is a miserable end. The problem with this narrative that is that prior to their slide the Rapids were in the thick of a playoff spot and even a dark horse to steal RSL's token third seed.
Colorado's last win of the season came on July 25th and put them at 30 points in 20 matches, good for 1.5 points a game. Had the Rapids kept up with that pace through the remainder of the season, it's likely that they would have had at least the 5th seed in the MLS playoffs. Indeed, they also had an outside shot at that third place seed with four of their 12 loses coming at the hands of rivals Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, two clubs that finished ahead of them in the playoff race.
Second-year coach and organization icon Pablo Mastroeni's first year was a bit of a rough go for a lot of reasons. The expectations that were placed on Mastroeni from the start was likely a bit unfair to him. After a season of being team captain under Óscar Pareja, many believed he would be a like-for-like replacement.
But when we remember the years of time Mastroeni spent around the likes of Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and of course Gary Smith, a different style comes to mind. These influences and his defensive mindset pulled the throttle back on a young run-and-gun club and instilled a more disciplined team that went from 10th in fouls committed to a team that committed the fewest in all of MLS.
Mastroeni also ran into a complex set of problems the regression of Clint Irwin, the second year slump of Chris Klute, a litany of injuries, and poor finishing that plagued their strikers, leading to the club scoring only 12 goals in their last 14 matches. These combined issues are all reasons for why the Rapids trotted out six different formations over 34 MLS matches.
Primarily deploying a two striker system in 22 out of 34 matches there was also some room for some flexibility and rumor has it Mastroeni is playing with a few new ideas. I think the gist of any positional arrangement implemented will bring the club to being true a possession-centric club with emphasis on defense and limiting oppontents' shots.
Going into the 2014 season there was no doubt Clint Irwin was the man between the posts for Colorado. Unfortunately, Irwin was injured early and then never really seemed to recover his form after that time off. Unfortunately, Colorado didn't have much in the way of a back-up plan and Joe Nasco was forced into the line of duty. Things were never were the same after that.
This season Colorado takes advantage of the Philadelphia Union's problem of too many starting keepers and adds Zach MacMath to the equation. Our numbers haven't loved MacMath, but he's considered him average, which is still relatively good. Looking at the 423 shots at MacMath, he's allowed 136 goals, almost three more than our expected goal metrics believe he ought to have (133.28, total expected goals against).
Over four seasons allowing three additional goals isn't necessarily a lot or considered bad. As an example, last year our metrics believed that Clint Irwin allowed almost 11 more goals than he should have. However, that's not to say he's a bad keeper. Player metrics swing pretty wildly from year-to-year and while we can see the influence they have on the team for good or bad one season, it's not necessarily a barometer for talent. MacMath is a perfect example of needing more data to round out an impression of who he is and still, with four years of data, he is still evolving and getting better. It seems likely that Irwing and MacMath will compete for the starting job all year, and maybe that competition drives them each to get better. Maybe.
Press pause on my centerback thoughts and let's get to something that's near and dear to my heart, the trade of Chris Klute. He didn't have a great season in 2014, but he was still compensated far less (only $80k) than what many of his peers (roughly $140-180K) were at the same position. The club says they earned a nice chunk of allocation money from the deal so maybe it was good business, but quality MLS fullbacks are hard to come by. To properly evaluate the move we're going to need more than a single year.
The fullback situation short of Klute is one that has a lot of good answers for the Rapids; Michael Harrington comes from Portland, the booming left boot of Marc Burch is still present and Marlon Hairston has had some fun moments early in preseason. Outside of those, questions abound.
Shane O'Neil could end up as the solution in a fullback but most seem to see him as a central defender. A move isn't preposterous, but then who takes his place in central defense? Do they throw first round draftee Axel Sjöberg? There are many question marks remaining.
The only thing that isn't in question on this back defensive line is Drew Moor. Moor could probably sit down with Chad Marshall, have some beers and talk about being consistently snubbed by USMNT coaches. It also might help Matt Hedges to have a collective pool of support to tap into over the years.
Moor was considered one top centerbacks in MLS by both Squawka and WhoScored metrics last season. Even understanding that they both have their own little quirks and subtle nuances, it still provides some context to how good the numbers think he is, putting him in the same company as Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez and Marshall. The only thing about Moor is that he'll miss some of the start of the season due to recovering from an ACL. It's not known when he'll return, but until he does it's going to complicate an already volatile situation.
The biggest challenge Colorado right now is undoubtedly it's defensive situation; the fact that a tactically conservative coach has so many question marks on his backline is worrisome. If my writing doesn't convey the disarrayed state this defense is in, maybe this will; James Riley, who supposedly retired this off-season, showed up on the bench in a pre-season match last weekend.
The Rapids have done a good job at revamping their central midfield. After mutually parting ways with Jose Mari and his elegant deep play making abilities, then declining the option on Nick LaBrocca, the team needed to add talent and did so wonderfully by acquiring Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin through a couple of trades.
Sarvas was a midfield staple for so many of those LA Galaxy Championships and despite his age looks to be the prize piece of the Rapids midfield this season for Mastroeni. But he won't be alone, as the Rapids swung another trade a few days later to nab Sam Cronin in what I presume is to pair the two together. Both Cronin and Sarvas are big at duels won and while they don't probably play traditional roles as “destroyer” or “creator” they both play solid box-to-box roles that should be upgrades at the position.
Looking out wide, one of my favorite things is when clubs take advantage of Youth Designated Player. Colorado added 21-year old left midfielder Juan Ramirez from Argentinos Juniors. Only the second ever Designated Player in club history, the question is how much playing time will be afforded to him.
The club still has Vincente Sanchez, who was featured out wide in all but four of his 12 appearances and is adored by our expected goal metrics for his near four shots per 90 he creates and where on the field they come from.
Additionally, the club has budding star Dillon Serna who, despite only turning 21 next month, has shown to be a fun wide player with his tricks, moves, and goals. The Rapids then also grabbed 23-year old midfielder Lucas Pittinari, also from Argentina. Oh, there is also Gabby Torres.
Break out 2013 Gold Cup star Gabriel Torres is still looking to find that form that once suggested that he'd be special, and this is a bit of a do or die season for him in Colorado. His performances last year make him out to be something of an average goal creator, but average doesn't seem to be what anyone in Colorado is looking for at the moment.
Once we all accepted the idea that Dillon Powers would eventually be Diego Valeri or Javier Morales, a near-elite attacking midfielder. Now that is nowhere particularly close to being true. It's partly the “he's got the body of a soccer player” reputation that goes on with him.
Yes, Power's is technically superior soccer player. Yes, he's got a supreme amount of physical gifts that are needed to succeed at the international level. But statistically he doesn't have it. He's combined for a total of 25 goals in roughly 4800 minutes. Our model has him at 17. Diego Valeri has 34 in roughly the same amount of time.
Some say he's a creator and he's not going to score a lot of goals. His shot to key pass ratio is .472 validating the thought he's going to take that pass more frequently than he's going to shoot the ball. But his shot leverage (the average location where he takes a shot) is just a touch above 10%, meaning that when he does shoot it's not really good anyways.
I'm not sinning against the US/MLS prospects gods or whatever. Powers has a lot of potential and all the right things are there, but they aren't clicking yet and they may not ever. That's okay. He's still a usable player for what the Rapids need. I wouldn't throw a tantrum if he's moved back into a deep central midfield position, where statistically he wins the ball at a very good rate.
For all the question marks that are in the defense for Colorado, there is almost a reverse question mark thing going on here. There are probably eight suitable starting candidates in the midfield with at very most five positions to fill.
It's a good problem to have, but you have to question why they are still adding to the depth and not really addressing the true issue of the roster.
Deshorn Brown or GTFO.
I'm serious. The amount of people that are talking about him slumping or not passing enough makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Using a filter of a minimum of 2,500 minutes, Brown comes in 12th for players—let me reiterate that again—PLAYERS (meaning midfielder or strikers) in total expected goals per 90 minutes (p90). He's 14th overall in creating shots p90. He's basically Edson Buddle, only 24 and actually really good.
Brown gets the brunt of it from fans and pundits alike because he hasn't been good at finishing and, in fairness, you've got to score goals for them to count and influence games—I'm not such a nerd that the concept escapes me. But last year was such a weird and improbable season that I can't help but bet on him to return and return strong.
There are other available choices available up top but really I would hope that with adding Pádraig Smith they'd be smart enough just to stick with the young Jamaican at striker. Potentially, and possibly likely, Brown could teamed with either Sanchez or Torres. 20 year-old, Charles Eloundou is also a possible pairing option for Brown. He has showed promise on the training ground and played well enough over 400 minutes that supporters are interested in seeing him get minutes.
The Rapids seem like they're on the way to getting fixed. But it won't happen without some bumps along the way. I think this season they'll score goals, but their defense isn't encouraging and their midfield is rather scatter-brained.
If Deshorn Brown has as big of a season as I think he is capable of, it may be difficult to hold onto him beyond the January 2016 transfer window. I can think of at least one or two English Championship clubs that might be interested in his talents, and I'm not sold that Colorado values all that he brings to the table.
Last season, Colorado had some up and down results. Their overall season stats aren't good and it's a legitimate question as to whether they end up finishing in last place this season. They're a team that still seems to be seeking their identity from a tactical and personnel perspective. There is a lot of talent, but without it being molded and then pointed in the right direction I'm afraid that they'll become aimless and have another season where they underachieve.
The height of their potential is probably the 4th seed in the Western Conference, but everything would have to break right for that to occur. I'm much more cynical about their organizational direction at the moment and I tend to believe that between tinkering and pressure at the early stages of the season could leave things in a house of cards situation. I'm apt to believe they are closer to a last place club than a playoff team.