Fresh off a last-minute 2-1 victory over the L.A. Galaxy, the Colorado Rapids find themselves in unfamiliar territory ahead of what striker Jack McBean called a “must-win game” against the San Jose Earthquakes.
For the first time all season, the Rapids have demonstrated progress. Ever since Anthony Hudson oversaw a formation shift to the 4-4-2-Diamond, Colorado has shown glimpses – if brief – of Pádraig Smith’s “attacking soccer” vision for the Burgundy Boys.
The glimpses first came in Salt Lake, where the Rapids exhibited strength and resilience in responding to an early setback by earning a much-deserved draw. While Colorado ultimately failed to garner a result the following week in the District of Columbia, new signing Kellyn Acosta provided a needed spark to what was previously an overrun and uncreative midfield. Then, against the Galaxy, all the pieces came together: the Rapids dominated possession, looked dangerous on the attack, and created consistent chances. The match was perhaps Colorado’s most complete showing of the year.
“Our performances have been building up quite nicely over the past couple of weeks,” New Zealand international Tommy Smith explained, “It was nice to see it culminate in a win and a very good, dominating performance.”
Yet, despite promising play in those three matches, concerns still remain regarding Colorado’s cohesiveness and mentality. “We’re building more and more confidence,” Hudson commented, “the focus is now to make sure we push it up a gear.”
What is Working
The tactical shift to the diamond has revitalized the Rapids’ creativity, freedom, and ability in the midfield. Particularly, the trio of Jack Price, Kellyn Acosta, and Johan Blomberg have been able to build on each other’s strengths in the new formation. In the defensive midfield, Price is able to set the game’s pace by serving as an anchor through which his teammates can recycle possession. The Englishman demonstrated this strength as a fulcrum against L.A., where he had 90 touches, completed 79 passes, and only lost possession once.
Centrally, Blomberg and Acosta have acted as Price’s outlets. Blomberg completed four tackles and made one interception without fouling a single time Saturday, allowing Acosta to get forward and act as a box-to-box playmaker. In addition to his game-tying goal, Acosta completed three key passes, three dribbles, and above all else – constantly looked dangerous in the final third. Furthermore, Bismark “Nana” Adjei-Boateng ignited the Rapids’ midfield when he replaced Blomberg in the second half, recording a key pass, an interception, a block, and two dribbles. Generally speaking, Colorado’s central midfield core has settled into their respective roles and is working together as a unit, paying statistical dividends across the pitch.
Defensively, Hudson has struggled to determine who to select as his first choice right back, giving time to Blomberg, Nicholson, Hairston, Boateng, Wynne, and Serna in the position before the All-Star Break. Since the switch to the diamond, Kortne Ford found himself to be the latest experiment in role. However, an injury suffered by Axel Sjöberg against L.A. forced Ford to move back to his natural position in central defense and Marlon Hairston staked his claim. Hairston took the change in stride and added a sense of dynamism to the right side of the field. While Ford never looked uncertain at right back, Hairston offered a lot more offensive firepower similar to Edgar Castillo’s overlapping runs and creativity on the opposite side of the pitch. Hairston made three tackles, successfully completed 84% of his passes, had two near-misses at goal, and only lost possession once. With the jury still out on Sjöberg’s knee, it is more than likely that Hudson will continue allowing Hairston to make his case for starting right back.
What isn’t Working
Despite improvements triggered by new acquisitions and tactical shifts, unforced errors in the defensive third continue to plague the Rapids. Against D.C. United, the Rapids gifted the Black-and-Red an early lead due to poor marking and reactions (Mark Goodman wrote an excellent, in-depth analysis of these errors for Around MLS last week). Colorado’s defense dug themselves into a similar hole against the Galaxy, where a miscommunication between Kortne Ford and Tommy Smith allowed Romain Alessandrini to pounce on a unclaimed ball in the box to give L.A. the lead. Perhaps these errors can be attributed to a team still ironing out the kinks in a new tactical setup, but if Colorado desires to be competitive in MLS, the squad must minimize these game-changing mistakes.
In the attack, the Rapids attack still lacks a killer instinct in front of goal. While Sam Nicholson landed on the scoresheet with his game-winning goal against L.A., the versatile attacker had five of his six shots blocked by Galaxy defenders throughout the match. Additionally, despite providing much to Colorado’s buildup play in the form of three key passes Saturday night, Jack McBean also failed to take a single shot before making way for Niki Jackson. Simply put, the Rapids midfield knows how to create chances, but Colorado cannot consistently finish them.
San Jose is Hudson’s Litmus Test
Throughout the season, Anthony Hudson has consistently expressed that Colorado is a better team than their record indicates. This weekend’s “massive” home match against the San Jose Earthquakes offers Hudson a substantial opportunity to test that theory.
Colorado is coming into the weekend with a relatively-healthy roster, a clicking midfield, and a revitalized attitude. Whereas the Earthquakes are the sole team in MLS with a worse points-per-game record than the Rapids, have recorded only one victory in their last fourteen attempts across all competitions, and are in the midst of a locker room crisis.
When you factor in the home-field altitude advantage, Kellyn Acosta’s form, and mind-boggling tactical decisions from San Jose’s management, the expectation should be no less than a win for Colorado. While the Earthquakes secured a much-needed morale boost in their 3-1 road victory against F.C. Dallas over the weekend, history is very much on the Rapids side: San Jose has not managed to string together two consecutive victories in over a year and Colorado has not lost to the Earthquakes at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park since 2013.
“We’ve seen a lot of them like we have most teams,” Hudson expressed in training ahead of the match, “we’ve done our scouting on them.”
Under Manager Mikael Stahre, San Jose has typically lined up in an 4-4-2 with instructions to play long balls up the middle out of their own half in hopes that Georgian International Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili or Danny Hoesen can make something happen in the final third. San Jose has scored more goals than the Rapids have during the 2018 campaign using this approach and a strategy that stifles Vako’s creativity should be the key that secures a Rapids victory.
“We can’t get complacent,” Hudson continued, “we’re going to approach this game like we did last week and make sure that we are fully prepared.”
While Colorado’s hopes for a playoff berth might have already passed, consecutive wins would indicate that the Rapids are heading in a positive direction after a rocky start. Hudson described his squad as “confident” ahead of Saturday’s match, but it remains to be seen whether that confidence can propel Colorado to all three points this weekend.