Colorado Rapids, In-Depth

A Winless March

Trends in Major League Soccer are typically difficult to identify. The league’s salary cap structure, as well as the playoff format, is designed to ensure a level of parity and competitiveness to prevent the same parties from consistently hoisting MLS Cup over and over again. Take a look southwest towards Carson and you will find a Galaxy team, once the league’s darling, still struggling to rise from its stage of mediocrity – Ibrahimovic notwithstanding. Turn north and be reminded of Toronto F.C., a side which ascended from the pit of despair to host MLS Cup twice, before returning to the postseason-less wasteland a year later.

While the rest of the league experiences their relative ups and downs, it is appearing ever more likely that the Colorado Rapids – three seasons away from that mythical Supporter’s Shield run – will continue languishing in the race for the Wooden Spoon.

In the “State of the Club” meeting hosted by the Front Office days before the team would lose to Dallas on the road, General Manager Pádraig Smith described 2016 as a blip – a healthy culmination of luck and form in Colorado’s favor. There is no doubt that it was. The Rapids had overachieved with penchant for defensive rigidity and a refusal to be vanquished at home. Colorado could not build anything sustainable with their success then, any more than they could after Oscar Pareja led the side to the playoffs in 2013 before jetting back to Dallas. The truth of the matter is that Colorado has been in a constant state of rebuilding since their 2010 MLS Cup win, with hardly anything to show for it.

The Rapids are the most easily identifiable trend in Major League Soccer and the club knows it. Smith opines on the daily about a plan to turn Colorado into a moneyball attacking soccer powerhouse of youth development and a Perennial Playoff Team™. Doing so is easier said than done – and it is easily said.

Meanwhile, the club’s remaining supporters are running out of patience, not that they can be blamed. Attendance continues to drop, nationally televised games are virtually nonexistent, and the product on the field is far from ideal. Colorado is winless after five games in a season where the organization’s leaders promised a return to the playoffs.

Reliving in Hindsight

The first game of the second season of the Anthony Hudson era of rebuilds was defined solely by the weather. But before the snow had accumulated on the surface of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, an eye-raising moment set the tone for the season.

In the game’s opening minute, Sebastian Blanco sped around Keegan Rosenberry with ease and gave Diego Valeri a clear cut opportunity to take an early lead for the Timbers. Ultimately, the Argentine’s effort was cleared away and the chance was largely forgotten after Kei Kamara scored in the sixteenth. In hindsight, the moment should have served as a warning sign for what was to come for Colorado for the rest of the month.

a wingback exposé

The rest of the match – Sjöberg’s sending off, the blizzard-like conditions, and Shinyashiki’s dramatic late equalizer – have already been discussed to death. In spite of the draw and ridiculous circumstances surrounding it, there was a lot to like about the performance. Optimism started to brew in the Rocky Mountains.

At the time, the result felt like a win. The squad exhibited extraordinary resilience to battle back twice with a man down. However – with the added context of the season’s first five matches and Portland’s woeful form – the draw looks more and more like two points that the Rapids desperately needed to secure.

A week later, the Rapids traveled to Seattle, where they were once again exposed at the back in the match’s opening minutes. This time however, Colorado’s opponents were clinical with their chances.

Rosenberry mistimed an interception, Danny Wilson was caught ball-watching, and the ensuing scrum in the box resulted in a Seattle goal in the fifth minute. Two hundred seconds later, the same pair would be split by Victor Rodriguez before the ricochet from Wilson’s challenge was tucked away by the hosts.

A loss was predictable, sure, but the consecutive dissections of Colorado’s back line over the space of four minutes was an embarrassment. While most would not have anticipated Colorado collecting any points on the night, the way in which the team started the game served as a gut-punch to the long-suffering souls who made the trip, as well as those dedicated enough to follow the events from home.

Nevertheless, the result could have been forgotten. After all, Colorado’s “Best Defender” was injured, Sjöberg was suspended, Seattle was hot at home, the Rapids played a pretty convincing second half, and Dillon Serna’s emergence at left wingback turned some heads. Optimism took a hit, but remained ever-present.

Colorado would host Sporting Kansas City the following week, where a rare Tim Melia mistake gifted Diego Rubio his first goal in Burgundy early in the second half. With a lead at home and momentum in their favor, the Rapids conceded sixty percent of possession to the visitors instead of pushing hard for a second. The luck that shined on Mastroeni’s 2016 bunker-ball did not materialize for Anthony Hudson – Sporting equalized on a set piece in the eighty-seventh and the match ended in a draw and a suspension for Johan Blomberg.

To his credit, Rosenberry certainly did his best to atone for his mistakes in matches prior with a performance that led the team in key passes, tackles, interceptions, and clearances – but those don’t stop late game free kicks.

After the match, Hudson would describe the result as “two points dropped,” while praising his side for creating “a lot of chances.”

The jury’s still out on Hudson’s definition of a chance – but the alleged abundant opportunities aside – Colorado managed only one shot on target on top of Rubio’s goal.

Two points from three matches was not ideal, but it was certainly salvageable. With members of the defense getting healthy, results were expected to follow. Yet, the Rapids took to Dallas where Colorado’s wide defenders were exposed once more.

In the thirty-fifth minute, Rosenberry was nowhere to be seen when Michael Barrios entered the top of Colorado’s box. The twenty-five year old sprinted to close down the Colombian, but Barrios already had more than enough space to take the chance with ease.

Despite a Tommy Smith equalizer in the seventieth, Dallas took home all three points after a miscommunication between Sjöberg and Rosenberry played Zdenek Ondrasek onside in the dying moments of the second half. Howard saved the Czech’s effort, but the rebound fell to Ryan Hollingshead and the defender made no mistake with his execution.

While Portland, Seattle, and Dallas demonstrated how to expose the Rapids on the right, Houston put on a clinic on how to do so on both sides. A week after heartbreak, Colorado conceded four goals against the Dynamo – all of which had their roots in poor defending from those occupying the wingback positions.

On the first, Rosenberry lost the pace with Memo Rodríguez, who cut through the Rapids back line unmarked and through on goal. Shortly thereafter, Alberth Elis rinsed Serna and delivered a cross that deflected off Howard and Sjöberg before falling unceremoniously into the back of the net. Elis would get away from Serna once more twenty minutes later, again firing off a cross that resulted in an own goal from a Rapids defender.

Hudson replaced Serna early on in the second half with Kellyn Acosta – who began the night on the bench in favor of Cole Bassett in the midfield. Elis wasn’t phased. The Honduran winger sped right by the makeshift wingback to score in the sixty-seventh – this time without the aid of Sjöberg or Rosenberry.

Kei Kamara would score a penalty near the end of the match, but it was nothing more than a consolation for Colorado. In the blink of an eye, the Rapids ended March with a mere two points from five matches.

The Diamond Exposed

By now, a common theme should be overwhelmingly obvious: the 4-4-2 Diamond tactic – as currently implemented – is leaving Colorado’s wingbacks out to dry.

Since Snow Clasico 3, every open play goal Colorado has conceded first originated from an error involving one of the club’s wide defenders. This is not to shoulder the entirety of the blame upon the players. Rather, Hudson’s diamond approach expects its outside defenders to bomb forward and participate in the attack. This inevitably leaves acres of space open in the areas behind and Colorado’s relatively slow central defenders with lots of ground to cover in the event of a fast break. In some instances, the wingbacks could be faulted with poor marking and aggression. In the others, they were too far forward to ever stand a chance.

The Houston match in particular deserves extra scrutiny. The Dynamo played the Rapids like a fiddle, as Hudson’s tactical approach was welcomed by Wílmer Cabrera’s counterattacking 4-3-3. Overwhelmed on the wings, every Colorado wingback – be it Serna, Rosenberry, or Acosta – was doomed to fail from the start.

For that, only the Head Coach is to blame.

Poor defensive performances were not unexpected of the Rapids in 2019. Most of the offseason legwork was spent upgrading other areas of the squad. Furthermore, the “attacking soccer” vision imparted by Smith was always going to result in an uptick of goals conceded.

The difference, is that the 2019 Colorado Rapids were expected to be capable of outscoring their opponents in spite of their underachieving defense. Colorado might be finding the net more this season, but the team can’t manage to close out a match even when they find themselves in a comfortable position.

Looking Forward

Five games in, it feels as if the season will inevitably be written off amidst a cavalcade of apologies from management and the Front Office. Yet, you can never really tell with MLS. The last time the Rapids opened an league campaign with a winless start in five matches was in 2013. Colorado would go on to win four out of their next six, finish fifth in the West, and make the playoffs. That side was also led by a recently-christened Head Coach in his second season with the club. However, there is little evidence that indicates Colorado’s current management is capable of the same turnaround. Time will surely tell.

Make no mistake, the rest of the season will be defined by how the Rapids evaluate and respond to their dismal performance against the Dynamo. The season is not lost yet, but if Colorado fails to improve upon their results by April’s end – it might as well be.

Image Credit: Marvy Melville/AP Photo

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