By Benjamin Bellman (@beninquiring)
Well, that didn't go the way I thought it would. After the Rapids were one week away from winning the Supporter’s Shield in 2016, 2017 saw them finish third from bottom in MLS with 33 points, and brought the end of Pablo Mastroeni’s tenure as head coach. Anthony Hudson, previously the manager of the New Zealand men’s national team, will now lead the club at the beginning of a new era in many ways, as Colorado’s front office has also seen major turnover. Club president Tim Hinchey and technical director Paul Bravo both left in the last year or two, and Pádraig Smith, who first arrived in 2015, now runs the show as “Executive Vice President and General Manager.”
2017 In Review
The third game of 2017 foreshadowed the colossal disappointment of the rest of the season. Minnesota United, after losing their first two matches by a combined score of 11-2, managed their first ever MLS point, down a man in Commerce City, drawing 2-2. Then, the Loons further swindled the Rapids by trading for defensive stalwarts Marc Burch and team captain Sam Cronin. Colorado received Josh Gatt and Mohammed Saied, but in hindsight, this was the moment their season ended. After letting in fewer than a goal a game in 2016, the Rapids let in 51 goals in 2017, and posted a fourth-worst xGA of 52.94. Injuries took their toll. Axel Sjöberg, a finalist for defender of the year in 2016, struggled to stay on the field (1,637 minutes, down from 2,772). Sheklzen Gashi, who made some real magic happen out of slim pickings in 2016, could only muster two goals and 1,034 minutes as one of the Rapids’ Designated Players.
In all, the Rapids regressed to a miserable mean, and fast. Colorado’s 2016 success entailed over-performing their total expected goal difference by 11.44 goals, the largest of any team apart from their playoff victims, the LA Galaxy. Let this preview be a mea culpa for letting my bias cloud my expectations and ignoring the importance of that shocking stat. That was bad analysis, and to use Mastroeni’s unfortunate words, the human spirit can only overcome probabilistic reality for so long. But Colorado’s problems in 2017 went well beyond their luck running out. The team was much worse, and measurably so. Their expected goal difference last year was -17.56, a full 13 goals below 2016’s -4.44. Their already anemic offense declined further, cashing in a mere 31 goals, better only than D.C. United’s 27 goals.
I’m actually a little surprised at how few players Smith and Hudson have jettisoned when considering how bad the Rapids were in 2017, but it some ways it makes sense. If you watched Mastroeni’s teams over the past four years, you knew there were never any real offensive tactics, which makes it easy to underrate some of the talent hiding on Colorado’s roster. The only real loss here is Saeid, who played with real heart and skill during some dark times, but was granted a release for personal reasons and is now signed with Lyngby Boldklub in Denmark. The mid-season trade that sent Dillon Powers to Orlando for Luis Gil closed the book on Oscar Pareja’s long past influence on the team, and now both players are gone. And while desperation signing Mike da Fonte is technically still under contract, it is clear he will never see the field in burgundy again.
As of writing, the Rapids FO is signaling that a striker signing is incoming, which is a desperate need. Also, note the lack of young South American signings; new additions Edgar Castillo, Johan Blomberg, Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, and Jack Price all come from Europe or Mexico. Colorado is playing a very different game from the rest of the league, which is probably fine with Rapids fans, as their past attempts to bring in Latin American talent (Martin Rivero, Gaby Torres, Juan Ramirez) all ended in failure.
While the Union are always the butt of this joke, the Rapids probably have the best goalkeeper duo in the league. Tim Howard is Tim Howard, no matter how old, and Zac MacMath, who started a number of years in Philadelphia, is a well-compensated backup and probably the shoo-in for starter when Howard’s contract expires after this year. Recent trade acquisition Andrew Dykstra should round out the third keeper spot, and will likely be loaned to USL.
Despite sound bites about attacking soccer, the Rapids defense so far is the focal point for Hudson’s new vision for the team, and where he decided to make his first signature moves on the roster. Under Hudson, New Zealand ran a 5-3-2 formation with three center backs and two attacking wingbacks, and it’s no secret that the Rapids will pursue some variant of this strategy. Despite some trade rumors surrounding Sjoberg, he’s likely to anchor the back three with new arrivals Tommy Smith and Danny Wilson. Both Smith and Wilson are New Zealand internationals, and should be able to help solidify the Rapids defense early in the year.
Monterrey loanee Edgar Castillo, a past U.S. international, will likely be the starting left wingback, while common sense puts Marlon Hairston at right wingback. Hairston has played both fullback and outside midfield for Colorado in the past, and while he’s shown flashes of offensive brilliance, wingback seems like an excellent place for him on the field. Hairston’s at his best when he unleashes his speed and incisive passes but can struggle to muscle his way through when space is hard to come by. Castillo and Hairston will provide defensive support on the wings, and help the Rapids to alternately overload each side of the field, exposing gaps when there’s an extra man to deal with.
Apart from the presumed starters, keep an eye on homegrown player (and guy from my hometown!) Kortne Ford, who played an impressive 1,727 minutes in his first professional season last year. He made some mistakes, but also showed real promise as a long-term player in MLS. Eric Miller and Jared Watts also return from last year to provide depth with two other new Kiwi defenders, Deklan Wynne and third round SuperDraft pick Kip Colvey.
The Rapids’ biggest signing of the off-season (so far?) is probably Jack Price from Wolverhamton Wolves in the English Championship, a defensive midfielder who came up through their academy into the first team. He is likely to be a regular in the central midfield, playing behind new Swedish signing Johan Blomberg and Stefan Aigner, a German with Bundesliga experience who played 488 minutes for the Rapids after joining in summer of 2017. However, while Price is entering his prime years at age 25, Blomberg and Aigner are both 30, and are probably not permanent solutions whether they intend to stay in Denver a while or not. A lot rides on this core gelling over the next month, especially if the Rapids want to have any hope of moving past dominant Toronto in CONCACAF Champions League in late February.
All the returning Rapids midfielders will have to out-do these new arrivals to get precious time in the midfield, and likely fill in at wingback as well. Defensive mids Michael Azira and “Nana” Adjei-Boateng look to improve on their lackluster 2017 performances, while 2016’s starting winger Shkelzen Gashi promised Pádraig Smith that he will overcome his fitness and injury issues of last year and contribute once again. Homegrown mainstay and still-young Dillon Serna hopes to finally have his breakout year; I hope that Hudson’s system lets him play more centrally and combine with the wingbacks. Serna plays an exciting, technical game with fairly frequent dribbles, and often got isolated on the wings in Mastroeni’s defense-minded 4-2-3-1. Homegrown player Ricardo Perez and local 2017 draft pick Sam Hamilton will have a lot to prove, especially if the Rapids are looking to make new signings in the summer.
Dominique Badji was the leading scorer in 2017 with nine goals (9.36 xG), and with his pace and instinct, deserves to be one of the initial starters in the basically assured front two. LA-area homegrowns Jack McBean (Galaxy) and Caleb Calvert (Chivas RIP) will need to prove themselves to Hudson to earn time, as Gashi led the Swiss league in goals for two years as a second forward, and Aigner has forward experience as well. Striker is a real area of need for Colorado, and if reports are true, a couple different bids have come up empty. If the team really does miss out on this transfer window, it could be a struggle to get early results, and this would be a priority signing come summer.
While the disheartening Mastroeni era is in the past, it would be silly to expect a complete turnaround at this stage. The Rapids are a long shot to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, no matter how uneven the West was in 2017. LAFC’s debut means that only 50% of teams in the West will qualify, and it introduces a new ambitious opponent.
However, what the Rapids faithful (and haters) can expect is a coherent identity and different culture from years past, which is something fans have been wanting for a long time. Hudson’s favorite 5-3-2/3-5-2 may click sooner rather than later, or it may take some gelling and a few more signings, but Hudson was hired because he fits a specific vision. This new roster has been built with purpose. When Oscar Pareja decided he wanted to take his rightful place as Schellas Hyndman’s heir in Dallas, the Rapids’ FO made the convenient hire with Mastroeni out of necessity, and for the next four years, lacked any clear vision apart from playing two defensive mids. This feels different than any offseason we've had in a while. The acquisitions of Jermaine Jones, Gashi, and Howard in 2016 looked splashy, but these recent moves show planning and direction. We can only wait and see if it pays off this time.