The Colorado Rapids first team reported for preseason training Monday morning, forty days ahead of their regular season opener against the Portland Timbers. The second year of the Anthony Hudson project in Colorado has officially begun, and Rapids supporters find themselves relatively optimistic.
A busy Primary Transfer Window has brought MLS veterans, rising stars, and academy standouts to the Rocky Mountains. However, with two nasty years in the rear view mirror, Colorado still has quite a bit of work to accomplish in order to reach their goal of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2019.
Colorado’s preseason schedule will first take the squad to Bradenton, Florida for a week of training and a match against MLS expansion side F.C. Cincinnati. The team will then travel to Chula Vista, California for matches against Ventura County Fusion, the University of San Diego, and Toronto F.C., before closing out the month of February with a pair of away friendlies against Las Vegas Lights F.C. and the L.A. Galaxy.
With quite a few fresh faces in the squad, preseason serves as a chance for the Rapids’ coaching staff to evaluate and observe the new talent directly. Practically speaking, viewers should expect significant rotation, a large amount of minutes given to new players, and experimental lineup choices. Without further ado, here are three things to keep your eye on ahead of the 2019 season.
Colorado shored up their midfield depth with the acquisition of Benny Feilhaber, giving the club a whole host of options for tweaking the 4-4-2 Diamond. With experience as a shuttler, as well as a dedicated central playmaker, the veteran could slot into any one of the three central midfield roles in front of Jack Price.
The question, however, is whether or not Feilhaber still has the legs to play as a dedicated No. 10.
In 2018, Anthony Hudson tended to value agile and explosive players at the tip of the midfield diamond: Dillon Serna, Enzo Martinez, and Kellyn Acosta were the most-used options, with Jack Price and Shkëlzen Gashi occasionally trading shifts in the position. At thirty-four, it is certainly possible that Feilhaber no longer has the physical prowess needed to dictate play in the final third.
The Rapids’ preseason matches will offer Hudson an opportunity to evaluate Feilhaber’s talents in multiple midfield roles and the U.S. International’s performances will most certainly impact where he lines up on opening day.
Colorado’s left side in 2018 was a lock week-in and week-out. If Edgar Castillo was available, he was starting. If the Mexican-American was out due to injury or suspension, Deklan Wynne typically stepped in. However – with Castillo no longer part of the Burgundy Boys – four players seem primed to gun for the starting role.
The first is Colorado Springs native and Rapids Academy graduate, Sam Vines. The nineteen-year-old defender was signed in advance of the 2018 season and spent most of the year on loan to the USL’s Charlotte Independence, where he made twenty-nine league appearances as the club’s primary left back. Vines, who has represented the U.S. Men’s National Team at five different youth levels, has been heralded for his defensive intelligence and workrate on the left side of the pitch – traits seen firsthand by Colorado during the defender’s two substitute appearances for the Rapids in 2018. With a year of consistent, first team play with Charlotte under his belt, Vines appears finally ready to make the jump to MLS.
A second option Colorado could deploy on the left side of the defensive line is New Zealand International Deklan Wynne, who made twenty-five appearance for the Rapids in 2018. However, most of the defender’s time during the past season was found out of his natural position: Wynne played at center-back in the 3-5-2 utilized before the second leg of the Rocky Mountain Cup and was rotated in and out at right back during the latter half of the season. While Wynne never particularly excelled in his brief outings on the left side, the defender is only twenty-three years old and could show some talent when given the chance to earn consistent playing time in his natural position.
While it seems likely that one of Vines or Wynne will occupy the left back role in 2019, there are two dark horse options available for the Rapids if both fail to provide the necessary ability. New academy signing Sam Raben has openly stated his willingness to play any position on the back line and Marcello Borges – one of Colorado’s second round draft selections – played at both fullback positions for the University of Michigan.
Regardless of who ultimately earns Hudson’s favor for the first team role, one thing is for certain: Colorado’s left back will be young (Wynne is the oldest option at twenty-three) and relatively inexperienced. It is fully possible that the Rapids rotate a collection of the players listed above until one makes a statement at the position. Nevertheless, preseason will be ground zero for this competition at left back, so watch carefully.
The final thing to watch for during Colorado’s preseason friendlies is the performances of recent depth acquisitions: not only the aforementioned Borges and Raben, but Matt Hundley, Jacob Hauser-Ramsey, and Robbie Mertz as well.
Borges, Hauser-Ramsey, and Mertz are still yet to accept terms with the Rapids. The group of unsigned draftees has joined the club on trial, meaning that Colorado’s preseason is their chance to earn a contract. How the ex-college players perform will fully determine their future with the Rapids.
There is also the quandary of who goes out on loan to new USL affiliate, Colorado Springs Switchbacks F.C. As part of the affiliation agreement with the Switchbacks, the Rapids must send at least four players on loan throughout the course of 2019. While it is expected that recently acquired third-string goalkeeper Andre Rawls will be one of those four, the remaining three positions are completely up for grabs. The performances of Colorado’s depth options during preseason will likely determine who stays with the club for the season and who goes out on loan.
Image Credit: Colorado Rapids