By Benjamin Bellman (@beninquring)
Folks, this is what a re-build looks like. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park might as well have had a “Pardon Our Dust” sign posted at the ticket office every home match, and the only good thing about the Colorado Rapids’ 2018 season is that it’s over. Still, 2018 was not wasted by the club, with players joining and leaving the roster all year. In many ways, this was the “game” that fans, including myself, have really been paying attention to. Head coach Anthony Hudson and GM Padraig Smith certainly had their work cut out for them a year ago, and it’s clear that this was always going to be a multi-year process, especially given the two bloated Designated Player contracts expiring at the end of 2019.
The Rapids are poised for an interesting 2019 season as the roadies for Tim Howard’s Magical Retirement Tour. They won’t (and shouldn’t!) be on anyone’s playoff prediction lists, but they’ll be a sleeper pick by a couple experts (pump Bobby Warshaw’s takes directly into my veins). Now that seven teams from each conference get a playoff game, Colorado should strive to be in the hunt all year, and given the crapshoot that is MLS, there’s no reason to say they can’t make it. But playoffs or not, Rapids fans would be truly pleased with some wins, some goals, and some talented young players to carry the team into a new decade.
2018 In Review
After Pablo Mastroeni was fired near the end of the 2017 season, Colorado joined a long line of teams that needed a new manager. As October dragged into November, the Rapids still hadn’t hired anyone, but it became clear that they had already picked their man: Anthony Hudson, coach for the New Zealand national team. Once the All Whites failed to qualify for the World Cup after falling to Peru in a home-away series, he was inked by the Rapids, and started to instill his collective vision with GM Padraig Smith into the roster. As many writers have noted, as MLS collectively zigged towards South American players, the Rapids zagged to the British Isles, along with a small contingent of Kiwi players Hudson was already familiar with. Hudson also ruffled some feathers when he described the upcoming Concacaf Champions League series with defending MLS champions (and eventual CCL finalists) Toronto FC as part of the Rapids’ preseason. Hopefully we can all agree that this “controversy” was completely stupid, and Colorado never had a chance of succeeding in CCL. They were always preseason games, whether you wanted it or not.
Though the wins were tough to come by, Hudson’s first priority was instilling a new culture in the team. Stefan Aigner, a major TAM acquisition in the 2017 summer transfer window, was immediately frozen out from the squad because he was unwilling to play the new role Hudson wanted from him. Joe Mason, a loan signing from then-Championship side Wolverhampton, was sent back to England early just a few months after arriving in Colorado. Eric Miller, a decent fullback for the Rapids in 2016 and 2017, was traded to Minnesota United early in the year despite a lack of depth at right back. Expensive signing Yannick Boli, who never impressed in the games he did play, often sat on the bench behind Jack McBean, whose unselfish attitude and fierce play earned him minutes despite poor attacking output.
Apart from the struggle to win or even score a goal, two other developments softened the blow for Rapids fans as management started very early preparations for 2019. First, in July, the Rapids traded Dominique Badji, the team’s only reliable goal scorer for a couple of seasons, to FC Dallas in part of a deal to acquire U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Kellyn Acosta. While Badji’s goals were certainly missed, bringing in Acosta improved the Rapids’ ball circulation immensely, finally bringing some presence to the midfield spine. The second big event was the signing of homegrown teenager Cole Bassett in August, a midfielder who worked his way into substitute appearances, and finally earned a string of starts at the end of the season. He showed excellent composure when on the ball in risky spots, impressing fans, players, and coaches alike, and his success in 2018 hints at promising things to come from the Rapids Academy.
GK – Zac MacMath (158 min)
GK – Andrew Dykstra (0 min)
D – Edgar Castillo (2,440 min)
D – Kip Colvey (208 min)
D – Mike da Fonte (0 min)
D/M – Marlon Hairston (1,107 min)
M – Sam Hamilton (0 min)
M – Enzo Martinez (1,406 min)
M – Ricardo Perez (0 min)
F/M – Giles Barnes (543 min)
F – Jack McBean (1,060 min)
F – Caleb Calvert (35 min)
F – Yannick Boli (768 min)
This list is actually slightly longer than last year’s, which is probably what fans were hoping to see. Eight contract options were declined: Calvert, McBean, Hamilton, Barnes, Perez, Martinez, da Fonte, and Colvey. Dykstra’s and Boli’s contracts expired and were not re-signed. Marlon Hairston, an original Mastroeni draft pick and fan favorite, was traded to the Houston Dynamo after suffering an early injury and failing to find his place in Hudson’s system. He should provide an excellent depth option at both winger and fullback, and I think he’ll find some success there. After languishing behind Tim Howard for two and a half years, Zac MacMath was finally traded away, and should become the starting keeper for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The only loss here that really makes the team worse is Edgar Castillo, who I think was easily the best player the Rapids had in 2018. He was originally acquired on loan from Monterrey for the season, but the agreed upon purchase option was too expensive for the team to exercise it. Some fans have been upset about this, but I agree with the club’s decision. He is a very good defender and a fantastic attacking option as a wingback, but Castillo is now 32, and is not a signing for the future. You just can’t build a team around a left back that old. He was loaned on a very significant salary discount, and while his skill won’t decline immediately, it’s hard to justify a huge expense on another aging player when that exact problem has crippled the club for two years. In addition, the Rapids were able to leverage his rights to the New England Revolution for Kelyn Rowe, who was immediately flipped to Sporting Kansas City for Diego Rubio. That is a great return on a player who was never likely to rejoin the team based on Monterrey’s transfer demands.
GK – Clint Irwin (trade from Toronto FC)
GK – Andre Rawls (Re-Entry Draft)
D – Keegan Rosenberry (trade from Philadelphia Union)
D – Sam Raben (Homegrown)
M – Nicolas Mezquida (trade from Vancouver Whitecaps)
M – Benny Feilhaber (free agent)
F – Kei Kamara (trade from FC Cincinnati)
F – Andre Shinyashiki (SuperDraft)
F – Diego Rubio (trade from Sporting KC)
F – Matt Hundley (Homegrown)
When including the mid-season additions of Acosta and Bassett, this offseason has brought a complete re-working of the Rapids midfield and attack, with new starters being acquired all over the pitch. First, Nicolas Mezquida arrived via the MacMath trade, who is widely expected to get chances to cement himself as a starter in attacking midfield. Then, FC Cincinnati picked Kei Kamara in the expansion draft, immediately trading him to the Rapids for an international roster spot. Very soon after, Clint Irwin, Rubio, and Keegan Rosenberry were acquired in their respective trades. Apart from Irwin, those four players should be immediate starter candidates, with Rosenberry solving a right back problem that plagued the Rapids all 2018. Feilhaber’s deal brought the number of starting-quality acquisitions up to five, with Andre Shinyashiki, Matt Hundley, and Sam Raben all showing upside as depth players with low cap hits. This is a generally promising batch of new batch of players, and it will be exciting to see how they mesh with the mostly intact defense.
For better or worse, Tim Howard will spend basically every game between the sticks for the Rapids in 2019, and given his illustrious career and impending retirement, I think Rapids fans will be mostly happy about it this time around. Despite being the highest paid player on the team, he was an average keeper statistically in 2018, letting in just one more goal than the baseline ASA model would predict based on shot data (0.71 GA–xG). A past fan-favorite in Colorado, Irwin returns from Toronto FC to pick up the back-up keeper’s mantle. But while longtime fans remember his terrific play after Matt Pickens’s injury in 2013 to win the job outright, he’s not here to challenge Howard. Irwin has faced his own recent injuries, and lost the starting Toronto job to Alex Bono. He let in 4-5 more goals in than would be expected based on the shots he faced in 671 minutes last year, which is a small sample size, but still not a promising statistic. Andre Rawls should become the third keeper on the depth chart, and will probably spend the majority of 2019 playing in Colorado Springs.
The Rapids’ defense in 2018 was not terribly effective, letting in 61 goals (tied with LA Galaxy for seventh-worst) and allowing opponents to generate 57.4 expected goals. Fans might be initially upset that, apart from losing Castillo and gaining Rosenberry, not much about the defensive line has changed. However, I think this isn’t a terrible decision, given that the Rapids’ defense were not in a good position to perform at their best (and how bad the offense was). Hudson played the first half of 2018 with five players in the back line, a new look for all of the Rapids hold-overs from 2017, and many of the incoming players as well. Injuries also took their toll, with key homegrown player Kortne Ford playing a lot of right back instead of his natural center back position when wasn’t injured himself in the first part of the year.
Hudson’s nominal switch to the 4-4-2 helped make things easier for the defenders, even though center back Danny Wilson got a few starts in defensive midfield. This will be the formation the Rapids stick with in 2019, and adding Rosenberry will help keep everyone in their proper positions on the field. The big question, of course, is at left back, where Castillo’s departure has left the biggest hole on the roster. As of writing, Colorado has two left backs signed to the team: Sam Vines and Deklan Wynne. Wynne played just over 2000 minutes in 2018 while the 19-year-old homegrown Vines played 45 minutes, but I expect this to be a legitimate competition in preseason and the first few games. It’s also very possible that the front office is looking to sign another left back in the coming weeks or in the summer. The Rapids currently have a glut of center backs, with Wilson, Ford, Tommy Smith, and Axel Sjoberg all getting starts there (and sometimes elsewhere) last year, not to mention new homegrown signing Sam Raben. It’s possible that one will be a trade target for another MLS team in dire need, but I suspect that Ford and Smith will be getting the majority of CB starts in 2019.
Hudson has actually been talking a decent amount about how he wants his midfield to play, and the tactical flexibility it is designed to enable. I recommend his 10-minute combine interview with ExtraTime Radio, released on February 4th. In that interview, he describes his diamond four as “more of a one and a three,” which is a shout out to his initial 5-3-2 formation last year, and works somewhat like Gregg Berhalter’s CDM role for Wil Trapp in Columbus. In this tactical look, the CDM often drops into the back line, while the CBs split wide, and the full backs press forward. Jack Price is basically a lock as the starter at CDM, which should help move Colorado’s possession forward out of their half when on the attack. Price doesn’t quite compare with the best defensive midfielders statistically, but he did make 2.07 interceptions per game in 2018, a good deal higher than MLS darlings and U.S. internationals Michael Bradley (1.36) and Trapp (1.41). If Price can turn his penchant for yellow cards into a few more successful tackles, his stock could rise very quickly.
While the front midfield three generally operates as two eights playing somewhat centrally, and a 10 pushing higher up the pitch, Hudson has mentioned that the eights will sometimes drift wide as wingers, while the 10 will be asked to slide back to add to numbers to the midfield spine. There was lots of rotation at these positions in 2018, as players came in and out of the roster, and Hudson tried to adapt the players he inherited to the style he tried to implement. I expect this experimentation to continue, especially with eights swapping in and out, and being played on both sides of the diamond. More often than not, these two starters will be Kellyn Acosta and Benny Feilhaber, but Sam Nicholson, Johan Blomberg, Nana Boateng, and teenage homegrown revelation Cole Basset will get minutes there as well. Newcomer Nicolas Mezquida is poised to start at attacking center midfielder, but I suspect Dillon Serna will make plenty of substitute appearances there, as well as elsewhere in the diamond. It feels like this group of midfielders was chosen specifically for their positional flexibility, so don’t be surprised to see plenty of rotation in starters and where players are lined up on gameday.
The forward situation has been nothing short of a disaster for years in Commerce City, and 2018 was rock bottom. The Rapids scored only 34 goals, amounting to one per game, and seven goals short of the second-worst total in MLS that year. The underlying numbers were just as bad, with Colorado generating only 37.5 expected goals, again the worst in the league. Before he was traded for Kellyn Acosta, Dominique Badji was again the only bright spot for the Rapids, scoring seven goals in 16 games, enough to still be the team’s top scorer by the end of October.
From the start of 2018 to now, there’s been almost a complete turnover at the forward position. Only two players remain: Shkelzen Gashi, signed as a DP from Basel in 2016 who made some real magic happen out of nothing that year, and has done absolutely nothing since; and Niki Jackson, a 2018 fourth-round pick who actually scored the first Rapids goal of 2018 at Gillette Stadium (literally 50 yards in front of me! It was a pretty incredible goal, look it up). The Rapids even left Gashi unprotected during FC Cincinnati’s expansion draft, so it’s pretty clear he’s not expected to make much of a contribution in his final contract year.
While Jackson will hopefully continue to develop and score some goals off the bench, newcomers Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio will be in the starting line up most games. According to Hudson, Kamara was acquired for his proven goal scoring ability in MLS as well as his locker room presence, while Rubio’s all-around game is supposed to help link the attacking players together and put pressure on opposing defenses. Also expect Andre Shinyashiki, the top scorer in men’s college soccer last year, to get minutes along with Jackson, and hopefully both will find success under Kamara’s mentorship, much like Alphonso Davies last year (I’m not expecting either to be sold to Europe ever, but it’s clear Davies and Kamara had a strong emotional bond in Vancouver). New teenage homegrown signing Matt Hundley probably won’t get a single MLS minute this year, but I’m hoping he’ll get a good amount of USL playing time with the Switchbacks in Colorado Springs.
Expectations for 2019
It’s hard to say what my expectations for the Colorado Rapids are in 2019. I suspect they’ll be middle of the pack, pushing for a playoff spot all the way into October, and they may even sneak into that new seventh-place playoff spot, but that’s an outside shot though. Given their continued high-end salary constrains from Howard and Gashi, I think the Rapids and their fans would be very happy with 40-50 points in 2019, around where Vancouver, LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake finished in 2018. At the very least, the team MUST change the absolutely abysmal goal differential from last year (-27). Anything worse than -5 or -10 will be a big problem, suggesting that the team didn’t improve for a second year in a row.
I also don’t expect Hudson or Smith to be on the hot seat quite yet this year, so long as there is some measurable improvement. Hudson’s original contract was for three years, the Rapids roster was really, really bad at the end of 2017, and there wasn’t much wiggle room for 2018. The Rapids made some poor signings, especially on offense, but these were low-commitment contracts, with the Rapids not exactly being an attractive destination for star players as of yet. There’s been almost the exact same amount roster turnover as last offseason, so obviously the team is not sticking with a failed plan. Smith and the front office have taken a different approach, with the Rapids completely eschewing transfers from outside the league. But the club is still not taking on much long term risk: they’ve absorbed current contracts through trades, and signed low-risk homegrowns, at least one college rookie, and a salary-restricted MLS free agent contract. While the core for the future is taking shape, the team will be able to shed a lot of the players that may not fit the vision beyond this season, and setting the team up for a 2020 playoff run is probably the primary goal for Hudson and Smith.