The long preseason grind for the Colorado Rapids has reached its inevitable conclusion: the start of the regular season. The objective for the organization? To return to the promised land of MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016.
After a flurry of offseason activity, a noticeable level of hype is slowly starting to build around the Rocky Mountain side. Some of the league’s own media outlets are actually acknowledging Colorado’s existence for once and preseason results have led to a measured sense of optimism emanating from the coaching staff.
The Rapids’ roster has gone through its fair share of reconstruction over the past two years, leaving Colorado with only four players who were part of the team’s mythical Supporter’s Shield run in 2016 and quite a few unknowns to boot. Suffice to say, there are a lot of new faces in Burgundy for 2019 – here is how they stack up against one another in every position of Anthony Hudson’s 4-4-2-Diamond.
After a season in which every Colorado forward under-delivered in every possible definition of the term, the Rapids emerged from the MLS offseason with a surprisingly-talented and deep group of players to lead the front line. Barring a change in tactic or additional signings, expect a selection of two of these squad members to start up front in every game this season.
1. Diego Rubio: The Chilean International acquired as part of a three-way trade with Sporting Kansas City and the New England Revolution is the best of Colorado’s forwards. Rubio, 25, scored 0.92 goals/90 with Sporting in 2018 – a rate only bested by Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez. The technically gifted striker is in his prime, putting up impressive numbers, and is committed to Colorado for the long haul. The one unknown: how will Rubio transition to being a consistent starter? In Kansas City, he was typically utilized in a super-sub role. In Colorado, Rubio is the leading member of an attack starved for goals. If the forward can handle the pressure, he will be a beloved member of the Rapids for the best years of his career.
2. Kei Kamara: When has Kei Kamara failed to score goals? Since returning to MLS in 2015, Kamara consistently found the back of the net for Columbus, New England, and Vancouver. The downside with Kamara – and the reason he dips below Rubio in these rankings – is his age. There is always the nagging concern that a thirty-four year old striker might not have the ability to produce at the same rate as the year before. Only time will tell whether or not the Sierra Leonean can keep up his impressive numbers.
3. Andre Shinyashiki: Rarely is there a reason to spend a chunk of allocation money to move up a few spots in the SuperDraft. Colorado deemed Shinyashiki the exception. A MAC Hermann Trophy finalist during his time at the University of Denver, the Brazilian native recorded sixty-six goal contributions in eighty-three appearances with the Pioneers. If Anthony Hudson’s preseason strategy is any indication, Shinyashiki will likely be the first option off the bench in games where a goal is needed.
4. Niki Jackson: While Colorado’s only SuperDraft acquisition from 2018 grabbed three goals in his rookie year, Jackson’s most memorable moment was the red card he incurred during the Rocky Mountain Cup finale. Jackson’s primary competition in 2019 will surely be his SuperDraftee counterpart. While Shinyashiki has the more impressive pedigree in scoring terms, Jackson has the edge in MLS experience. It might just come down to who impresses Hudson more in training leading up to each game.
5. Sam Nicholson: No one really quite understands Sam Nicholson’s role in Hudson’s diamond formation. Since the tactical switch from three-at-the-back, the Scottish prospect has played brief spurts at right wingback and striker. Despite making nineteen appearances, Nicholson failed to really impress beyond his blistering speed. While he managed to notch two goals through last year’s dismal affair, it is fair to say that Colorado would have to be in a dire injury or suspension crisis for Nicholson to get the start up front.
6. Matt Hundley: The academy darling from Littleton is probably Colorado’s biggest unknown at striker. Considering the level and amount of talent that the Rapids now have in the attack, Hundley will likely spend much of the season on loan with Colorado Springs to acquire his initial first team minutes in professional soccer. There are not any real expectations for Hundley in 2019, which is a good thing: the Colorado native can just focus on improving his game.
The Rapids still don’t have a natural number ten on their roster – a major hole that will likely serve as the team’s primary weakness throughout 2019. While offseason additions have provided Colorado with exponentially better options in the role than they had in 2018 (few will forget the club’s lowest moment at the position), the new personnel are essentially short-term solutions until General Manager Pádraig Smith follows through on his commitment to sign a designated player for the position.
1. Benny Feilhaber: The Veteran US International is the best option for the Rapids at the top of the diamond because he is the most experienced and heralded playmaker on Colorado’s roster. Though the vast majority of his minutes were spent occupying a central role behind or without a traditional number ten, Feilhaber still has a considerable record of playing as his team’s primary creative force. He’s been described as a “midfield metronome” throughout the myriad of systems he’s been deployed in during his impressive career and the Rapids front office appears convinced of Feilhaber’s value in the heart of the team. Smith described Feilhaber as “an experienced player” that can “dictate the flow of the game” when the signing was announced and Hudson has preferred to play the ironman in the role during select preseason games.
2. Nicolas Mezquida: Should Feilhaber fail to deliver at the top of the diamond, the most immediate replacement should be the Uruguayan playmaker acquired in the offseason in exchange for Zac Macmath. While Mezquida prefers the freedom offered by the central midfield positions in Hudson’s formation, it is reasonable to suspect he will find time at the top of the diamond throughout the season. The problem, is that Mezquida has really never had a statistically impressive season in MLS. He recorded 101 appearances with the Vancouver Whitecaps since 2014, but only notched twelve goals and four assists – a figure that fails to impress as far as playmaking is concerned. The upside for Mezquida is that his prime years have just begun. Perhaps there’s still a chance for the Uruguayan to cement himself as an essential piece in Colorado’s midfield.
3. Kellyn Acosta: This is where the huge drop-off begins as far as Colorado and central attacking playmakers are concerned. Reasonably speaking, Kellyn Acosta should be permitted to continue to develop and play in his preferred, box-to-box role. His style of play is best suited free of the restrictions imposed on the team’s primary creative outlet (sensing a theme, here?). Yet, don’t be surprised if Acosta lines up at the top of diamond should depth become a midseason concern for the Rapids. Hudson has done it before and probably will do it again.
4. Shkëlzen Gashi: Colorado’s Albanian Designated Player only appears once on these power rankings – at fourth in a role far more central than one he preferred during his days in Europe. Gashi’s laissez-faire-esque approach to playmaking never really seemed to fit in a system requiring consistent pressure and Hudson rewarded him with scarce opportunities in 2018. If Gashi does manage to convince Hudson to let him see the field in 2019, it will certainly be here and the circumstances will likely be poor. [UPDATE: Gashi has since been waived from Colorado’s roster]
5. Matt Hundley: As previously stated, there are little to no expectations for this nascent academy graduate’s first season. While Hundley has more match experience as an out-and-out striker, the Colorado native has acknowledged that his talents suit attacking midfield roles as well. That said, barring a statistically unprecedented rookie year, Hundley is likely only due for substitute minutes – if any at all – at the top of the diamond.
The reason that so many of Colorado’s best playmaking options are traditional box-to-box midfielders is because that is the club’s strongest and most competitive position by far. While the Rapids will certainly encounter their fair share of problems this season, any that arise probably won’t be in this role. Like striker, fans can expect a combination of two of the following players to always suit up for Colorado in the middle of the park.
1. Kellyn Acosta: The Dallas academy graduate and U.S. Men’s National Team prospect headlines Colorado’s strong contingent of midfield shuttlers. After joining the Rapids during the 2018 Secondary Transfer Window, Acosta quickly cemented himself as an irreplaceable member of the first team. The most compelling question about Acosta is whether or not he can perform well enough to earn the elusive European move he desires. Until then, Acosta is Colorado’s marquee midfielder – under contract with the club potentially through 2023.
2. Benny Feilhaber: While most anticipate that the majority of Feilhaber’s minutes will be earned at the top of the diamond, his skillset is tailor-made for roles deeper in midfield. Should the veteran perform less-than-admirably as a creative attacking midfielder during the season’s initial stages, it seems likely that he would fall back into his more natural position.
T-3. Nicolas Mezquida: If Feilhaber is running the show from the ten, Mezquida will likely vie for a spot as a shuttler – the role he himself prefers in Hudson’s tactic. Dropping the Uruguayan deeper into the midfield certainly makes sense – Mezquida’s aforementioned production with the Whitecaps was never impressive enough to justify granting him the sizable responsibilities required of the team’s primary creative force. The playmaker seems more likely to compete directly with Cole Bassett and Johan Blomberg for playing time as a central shuttler.
T-3. Cole Bassett: Bassett joined the Rapids in the midst of a season already considered over and done. Yet, you would have hardly guessed that was the case based on the midfielder’s individual performances. In his first two substitute appearances, Bassett never missed a pass. In Colorado’s season finale against F.C. Dallas, he scored the tying goal despite playing as cover for Jack Price – a significantly deeper role than the one he occupied in all of his previous appearances for the Rapids. Despite still being to young to vote in the United States, Bassett seems primed and ready to seize a starting role. Considering how often Colorado’s management lauds the academy graduate’s commitment to improve, it’s pretty difficult to stave off the hype.
5. Johan Blomberg: Did you forget about this Swedish midfielder on Colorado’s roster? Don’t blame yourself. Blomberg joined the Rapids before the start of last season and failed to accomplish anything worth writing home about in 2018. That said, the thirty-one year old was not necessarily bad, he just rarely produced anything noteworthy. Blomberg recorded three assists whilst putting up fairly average passing stats (78.4%) across 1,658 minutes of play. Simply put, Blomberg will likely serve as a rotational player for much of 2019 – there are just much better options available for Colorado at this point. The Rapids would be wise to thoughtfully reconsider the implications of continuing to use an international spot for someone who will likely start less than half of the regular season this year.
6. Bismark Adjei-Boateng: Nana Boateng joined Colorado from Manchester City in 2017 and has simultaneously remained one of the club’s most fascinating and inconsistent players. One week, he will dominate every facet of the midfield. Another week, he will do something incomprehensibly silly. There is just no way to know which Boateng will show up on any given weekend (more likely than not it will be the latter), which is why he finds himself at the bottom of Colorado’s midfield depth chart.
Deep-Lying Playmaker/Defensive Midfielder
Hudson’s tactical outlook requires a non-traditional defensive midfielder to pull the strings from the deepest part of the midfield. While that choice bucks the recent trend of relying on a prototypical ball-winning midfielder, the rationale comes down to style of play. The Rapids want to play possession soccer and want to play it well – that often requires sacrificing defensive workrate in exchange for a stronger passing presence in midfield. Whether that is a smart strategy or not is up for debate, but the expectation is that the Rapids will stick to it.
1. Jack Price: The ex-Wolverhampton midfielder is Colorado’s top choice at the base of the diamond. Price started in thirty-one of Colorado’s thirty-four regular season games in 2018 and no true additions were made to the position in the offseason. That means that Price would have to experience a significant and unexpected drop in form (or sustain an injury) to lose his spot. Through thick and thin, the Englishman will likely continue to be Colorado’s primary midfield anchor because he offers exactly what Hudson desires out of the number six: calm and accurate passing under pressure. That said, Price would still do well to increase the rate at which he incorporates tackling in his game.
2. Cole Bassett: While none of the options to back up Jack Price are ideal, the Rapids definitely have more flexibility at the six this season than the year before. The addition of Bassett at the tail end of 2018 primarily showcased the youngster’s abilities as a shuttler, but Colorado’s management has unequivocally praised Bassett’s brief appearances as a deep-lying playmaker. The homegrown has demonstrated that he is fully comfortable in his ability to dictate play behind the attack. It seems reasonable to prefer Bassett as Price’s cover over other playmakers because starting Acosta or Feilhaber as a lone defensive midfielder is likely strain on creative efforts in other parts of the pitch. Shifting Bassett to the base of the diamond makes pragmatic sense and keeps Colorado’s best midfielders in more influential areas of the field.
3. Benny Feilhaber: The nice thing about Feilhaber is that he offers so much flexibility in terms of where he can actually line-up in the diamond. The bad thing about Feilhaber? He can only play one role at a time. Putting the veteran in the deepest midfield role would likely diminish how much he could influence any given match. While it certainly would not be suicidal to start Feilhaber as a deep-lying midfielder pulling the strings, it is probably a wasteful decision considering what the midfielder could offer further up the pitch.
4. Kellyn Acosta: Acosta is no stranger to deeper midfield roles. Though not his natural position, the homegrown spent quite a lot of his time with F.C. Dallas directly in front of the back line, behind or without a traditional number eight. However, part of Acosta’s rationale behind seeking an exit from Dallas was to move to a club where he could play in his preferred position. It is difficult to imagine many scenarios where the U.S. International would find extended time as Colorado’s sole defensive midfielder.
Honorable Mentions: Nana Boateng might have the ability to orchestrate the midfield from the six, but there is hardly any evidence to support such a conclusion. Some might throw Danny Wilson’s name in contention for the role, as the center back received multiple chances at the position in 2018. However, the arrival of Acosta, Feilhaber, and other midfielders has likely put this experiment to bed.
Left back was Colorado’s best position in 2018 thanks to the dynamic creativity offered by Edgar Castillo. With the Mexican-American no longer a part of the side, it is unclear who will rise up and stake a claim for the role. The average age of players available for selection in this position is 22.5, meaning that the Rapids are probably due for some inexperienced-induced hiccups throughout the year – regardless of who ultimately starts.
1. Sam Vines: Predicting the Rapids’ best options at left back is probably a futile effort due to the aforementioned uncertainties surrounding the position, but there is reason to believe that homegrown defender Sam Vines has the best chance of seizing the role for his own. After receiving consistent first team experience with the Charlotte Independence in 2018, Vines has his first opportunity to truly push for the starting role with Colorado. Unlike the others on this list, Vines has only ever played Left Back professionally. The position is his bread and butter, it stands to reason that he will make a convincing case.
2. Dillon Serna: Like Nicholson and Gashi, the Colorado homegrown has failed to make a statement case for himself at any position in Hudson’s diamond formation. This is certainly through no fault of his own – it is the unfortunate peril of being a natural winger trapped in a wingerless system. This season, it is appearing ever more likely that the versatile midfielder will dip back into the left wingback role he last held with the U.S. Youth National Teams (Serna was tasked with replacing Sam Vines in scrimmages after the latter suffered a minor injury in Colorado’s first preseason match). If the Brighton local can force his way into Hudson’s matchday lineups, it is probably going to be at one of the fullback positions.
3. Deklan Wynne: The New Zealand International defender found time in three different defensive roles in 2018. Early in the season, under Hudson’s three-at-the-back, Wynne played sporadically as a wide central defender before making a few select appearances in both fullback roles after the
switch to the 4-4-2-Diamond. As was the case with a few of Colorado’s returning players, Wynne generally performed less-than-average when called upon. However, the defender is still young and has ample opportunity to improve. It is fair to say that Wynne will be in the conversation as a rotational piece throughout the season.
4. Sam Nicholson: Nicholson lasted around half an hour at left back Colorado’s second preseason scrimmage against Las Vegas before being substituted early. Considering how many attackers are ahead of him up front, it is quite possible that the Scottish forward’s best chance at recording regular appearances is enduring the arduous fullback conversion process.
The need for Colorado to sign a natural first choice right back for the defensive line was made crystal clear after no less than seven players got a chance at the position in 2018. One transfer window later and it appears the Rapids have their man. Yet, while the club’s first option in the position is clear as day, the lack of depth does present some concerns for the side.
1. Keegan Rosenberry: As the only natural right back on Colorado’s roster, expect Rosenberry to have an Edgar Castillo-like grasp on the position in 2019. The defender built a strong history of performance as a right-sided defender during his time with the Philadelphia Union and the spot will assuredly be his to lose during the course of his recently extended contract.
2. Kortne Ford: Should Rosenberry fall to injury, Colorado has few viable right back options. With Marlon Hairston traded to the Houston Dynamo, the Rapids are left with a patchwork of defenders and midfielders who were only occasionally utilized in the position in 2018. The best of the rest? It’s a difficult choice, but the answer is probably homegrown defender Kortne Ford. While Ford is certainly more valuable to Colorado as a central defender, he is probably the least-worst ‘makeshift’ right back among currently rostered players. He registered the second-most appearances at the position (behind Hairston) last season and has enough speed to avoid being caught out too often. The problem with pushing Ford out wide is that he doesn’t really offer much going forward. Ford’s skillset is best suited centrally on the backline.
3. Deklan Wynne: Wynne falls beneath Ford at the backup for this position, simply due to the fact that Hudson preferred Ford to Wynne throughout 2018. As previously discussed, the New Zealand international will likely only serve as a rotation option in 2019.
4. Sam Nicholson: Nicholson had a handful of appearances in 2018 at right wingback, but Hudson typically opted for a mix of Ford and Hairston as the season progressed. Like Wynne, Nicholson falls under the “available for selection but only rarely” in both fullback positions.
Honorable Mentions: Johan Blomberg and Nana Boateng each had their chance to seize the right back position during 2018. However, neither player demonstrated the agility and creativity required of wingbacks in Hudson’s system. Dillon Serna got a fair chance as well, but did not perform well enough to justify consistent starting minutes. His efforts seem better suited on the left side.
Left Central Defender
Central defenders are always somewhat tricky to deal with in lists like these. Hudson has more recently shown a predisposition to pair a left-footed defender (typically Smith) with a right-footed one (Sjoberg or Ford) in a four-at-the-back formation. Yet, due to injuries or suspensions, it is not always practical or realistic to remain steadfast in this approach. That said, Rapids fans should still generally expect defensive partnerships that pair one of the players below with a right-footed counterpart listed in the next section.
1. Tommy Smith: Smith was acquired from Ipswich Town in January 2018 and was bestowed with Colorado’s “Defender of the Year,” award at the close of the regular season (likely because he won the club’s golden boot and was the most consistent fixture of the backline). The New Zealander started thirty-three matches for the Rapids last season and there is no indication that Hudson will suddenly stop starting his favorite defender.
T-2. Danny Wilson: In 2018, Danny Wilson was quite possibly the worst defender in MLS. Among all central defenders with at least fifteen appearances, Wilson registered the lowest average WhoScored rating in the entire league. The only reason ties for second among the left-footers is because his counterpart is also in the Top 10 (at that point the rating is too close to say anything definitively). Nevertheless, Wilson performed very poorly for Colorado last season. He lacked the mobility necessary to track the fleet-footed attackers in MLS and couldn’t make up for it with a strong physical presence. Should Colorado stave off the injury bug, Wilson might only make a handful of appearances in 2019. If not, well…
T-2. Deklan Wynne: Wynne is a jack-of-all-trades defender as far as Hudson is concerned. As previously covered, the defender is more experienced in a wingback role, but Hudson has been known to call upon Wynne in central defense on occasion.
Right Central Defender
1. Axel Sjöberg: On his best day, Sjöberg can compete among elite defenders in MLS. A finalist for the MLS Defender of the Year award in 2016, the towering Swede offers an strong, physical presence unmatched by Colorado’s other defenders. However, Sjöberg has slightly declined in performance during his late 20s – perhaps due to the numerous injuries he has had to deal with over the past two seasons. The big question for Sjöberg is whether or not he can stay healthy through 2019. If he can, Colorado’s defense could see measurable improvement from last season.
2. Kortne Ford: The Rapids homegrown defender split most of his minutes last year between the center and right back roles of the defensive line. However, the addition of Rosenberry to the back line will likely allow Ford to return to his regular rotation in central defense. Like Sjöberg, the Greeley native also dealt with his fair share of injuries throughout 2018 (and he is already listed out for Colorado’s opener). Ford has displayed glimpses of first rate MLS defending during his two years with the Rapids, but the homegrown needs to become more consistent if he is to lock down a regular starting role.
3. Kofi Opare: The newest member of Colorado’s squad officially signed with the club the day after preseason matches concluded. Opare has spent the bulk of his professional career with D.C. United, where he played a rotational role in central defense across five seasons on squads ranging from historically bad to surprisingly good. After 2018 concluded, the Black-and-Red declined Opare’s contract option and the defender joined the Rapids. While certainly a better backup choice than his left-footed counterparts, it might still be difficult for Opare to break into the first team. Opare will likely spend most of 2019 competing with Kortne Ford as the first replacement central defender.
4. Sam Raben: Like with Hundley, there is no need to pile the pressure on Raben just yet. The Rapids have already confirmed that the defender will be on loan with Colorado Springs to start the season.
Those who follow the team closely will likely already have an inkling as to how Colorado’s goalkeeper depth will shake out during the regular season. But for the uninitiated, here are Colorado’s options in net:
1. Tim Howard: The Secretary of Defense is in his victory lap. While his retirement is around the corner, there is no indication that Colorado’s Captain will phone in his final season (Upon announcing his decision, Howard declared, “This is far from a farewell tour, that’s never been my intention.”). While his reaction saves are not nearly what they were in his glory days, Howard still serves a vital leadership role in the locker room and in organizing the defense. He will inevitably remain the weekly starter for the Rapids.
2. Clint Irwin: The Rapids re-acquired Clint Irwin from Toronto F.C. following days after trading Zac Macmath to the Whitecaps for Mezquida. Irwin made eighty-nine appearances in his first stint with the Rapids before the club dealt him to Toronto F.C., where he got bit with an injury bug that limited his total appearances with the Reds to thirty-two in three seasons. Irwin, 29, is back in Colorado with plenty of decent years left. He will serve as an understudy to Howard, find time in the U.S. Open Cup, and vie for a starting role in 2020.
3. Andre Rawls: By all accounts, Howard and Irwin’s illustrious résumés in net place them as firm favorites for minutes ahead of backup goalkeeper Andre Rawls. Like Andrew Dykstra before him, Rawls’ duty is to simply exist should Colorado run into an extraordinary selection crisis in the position. Expect Rawls to be loaned to the Switchbacks or another second division team with a need for an extra goalkeeper.
Image Credit: Colorado Rapids