After a busy week that saw the Colorado Rapids finalize terms with three major attacking talents, the first team reported to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for physicals Saturday morning. The offseason is finally over and we’ll soon have our first glimpse of the 2020 Colorado Rapids. Several years of roster building and three coaches have brought the Rapids to this moment, leaving supporters in anxious anticipation for Opening Day.
First on the docket for the Rapids is a trip to Los Angeles on Tuesday, followed by training camp, a set of three closed-door scrimmages, and four friendlies. Of those four friendlies, two will be open to the public at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.
Despite management making significant moves in addressing Colorado’s weak points in the offseason, there are still quite a few interesting storylines surrounding the squad as players head into their first preseason with Robin Fraser. The questions below are the four most interesting items I’m following as the team begins to take shape.
1. How Does Colorado’s Attack Line Up?
Colorado’s projected front three is by far the most compelling narrative entering preseason. The Rapids attack collectively tallied fifty-eight goals in 2019 – a figure tied for third among the entire league. Since the season’s end, the club has only added to the list of options available for selection in Fraser’s attack.
Colorado typically lined up in a 4-2-3-1 after Anthony Hudson’s departure. Kei Kamara usually led the line as striker with Diego Rubio underneath. On the wings, both Fraser and Conor Casey usually opted for two of Jonathan Lewis, Nicolas Mezquida, Sam Nicholson, and Andre Shinyashiki.
With 2020 and the arrival of Designated Player Younes Namli, the Rapids are expected shift more to a 4-3-3. Namli is presumed to slot in as the team’s primary creative force, linking the midfield pair of Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price with the Rapids starting attackers. That expectation leaves Nicolas Benezet, Kamara, Lewis, Mezquida, Nicholson, Rubio, and Shinyashiki all vying for three spots up front. While there’s a solid chance Fraser could experiment with other formations, I expect most of Colorado’s lineups to look something like this in the attack.
Preseason camp and the subsequent friendlies will serve as a critical time for Fraser to evaluate these options. Though the Rapids will likely rotate heavily throughout the season due to injury, suspensions, and match congestion, Colorado’s starting lineup on Opening Day will largely be formed as a result of preseason performance.
Kamara should still be favored as the team’s starting striker. The reigning Rapids Golden Boot winner put fourteen in the net in 2019 and proved to be an essential aerial threat on both ends of the pitch. However, the Sierra Leonean did just turn 35 and is entering his final contract year with Colorado. It wouldn’t surprise me if Fraser began experimenting with Rubio or Shinyashiki as the team’s primary outlet up top. Niki Jackson does serve as a reserve option should things get hairy, but I anticipate he’ll spend most of the season on loan once more.
The wings are a bit more complicated. The addition of Benezet and the expected Summer arrival of Argentinian prospect Braian Galvan has provided significant reinforcement to the weakest area of Colorado’s attack in 2019. However, the question of who will win the starting job on day one is a little less clear. Benezet has primarily played as a left winger throughout his career, so it’s probably wise to expect him and Lewis as primary competitors on that side of the pitch. Toronto’s playoff hero comes in on a TAM salary and an impressive European pedigree, so I’ll give early odds in favor of the former starting against D.C. United. Shinyashiki and Mezquida could rotate-in as well, though the Uruguayan will likely remain a super-sub.
Casey and Fraser both usually favored Nicholson on the right in 2019, so it’s reasonable to consider him the first option at the position. Inconsistent finishing aside, the Scottish winger provides a lot of value to the Rapids due to his defensive work rate, quickness, and skill with the ball. Throughout last season, Nicholson usually cut inside from the right to shoot across goal with his strong left foot – a strategy that would mirror Benezet’s right foot from the left side. Lewis will inevitably fill in on this side as well, with Shinyashiki also providing service when called upon.
Colorado’s attack in 2020 will be stacked to the brim with talent – a far cry from previous season’s efforts at roster building. After factoring in Galvan’s arrival, the team will have three quality options available in each position. Though there’s no reason to be concerned now, there is the possibility that a few of 2019’s stars will see a significant reduction in playing time. We’ll understand by midseason how that will work with Colorado’s plans to develop young talent like Lewis and Shinyashiki – more on that below.
2. How Will the Trialists Perform?
While most of what I wrote on Colorado’s defense at the close of 2019 remains accurate, SuperDraft acquisitions Jeremy Kelly and Robin Afamefuna add a line of intrigue to the team’s back four in preseason. Both players will be playing to secure a contract and their efforts over the next few weeks will determine their future in Colorado. The SuperDraft has become pretty hit or miss after the top five selections, but Kelly and Afamefuna might prove to be solid utility options if called upon.
Kelly, who played as a defensive midfielder and fullback with the University of North Carolina, has been brought in as a potential depth option at right fullback. While Keegan Rosenberry started every game in 2019 at the position, the Rapids only had 17-year-old Seb Anderson as a reserve option at the position. Presumably, signing Kelly would enable the Rapids academy graduate to spend a significant amount of time on loan with Colorado Springs. Anderson could get regular and valuable match experience with the Switchbacks and the Rapids wouldn’t be hamstrung on options if Rosenberry fell to injury.
Afamefuna’s play will also be something to keep an eye on in preseason. Like Kelly, the University of Virginia standout played as a utility man in defense and midfield. While the rest of the depth chart remains clear, it’ll be revealing to see where Fraser opts to deploy the German in the first friendlies of the year. I imagine that Afamefuna has been brought in as potential depth in defensive midfield, but he might end up challenging Deklan Wynne as Sam Vines‘ backup at left back.
While the Rapids haven’t yet released the roster of players reporting to camp, usually a few other players join in with the first team during preseason. This is typically a motley crue of academy standouts, Colorado Springs regulars, and free agents trying to secure a new deal. I’ll update this piece once the roster is released on Tuesday – it’s possible Colorado brings a third goalkeeper aboard from one of these groups.
Update (Jan. 21, 2020):
Colorado’s full preseason roster features seven trialists in addition to the two SuperDraftees. Argentinian prospects Andres Alarcon and Brian Lopez are surprising inclusions to a list that typically only includes Academy players and free agents. The Rapids have been setting up a scouting network in Argentina for years and appear ready to reap the fruits of their labor beyond merely signing Braian Galván. With Alarcon, the Rapids get the chance to evaluate a promising defender, rated highly for his passing. In Lopez, Colorado seem intrested in his potential as a defensive midfielder.
Long-suffering MLS viewers will immediately recognize Kwadwo Poku on the list of camp attendees – the Ghanaian attacking midfielder last played in MLS for New York City F.C. before spending a handful of years in the American lower divisions and a playing a brief stint in Russia.
Also joining the Rapids is Memphis 901 defender Jacob Hauser-Ramsey. Hauser-Ramsey was drafted by the Rapids out of the University of Connecticut in 2019, but couldn’t secure a contract.
Three Rapids Academy players make up the final group of camp attendees, including Goalkeeper Abraham Rodriguez, midfielder Will Vint, and forward Darren Yapi. Many supporters are already familiar with Rodriguez, who split time between the sticks with Andre Rawls in Colorado Springs last season. The 17-year-old is looking to earn a spot on the Rapids roster as a reserve goalkeeper.
Vint, 18, is a central midfielder that originally came through Real Colorado before leaving to join Manchester United. Unfortunately, visa issues forced Vint to return stateside in 2018, when he joined Atlanta’s academy. There, the midfielder made sixteen appearances with United’s USL team. Vint joined the Rapids Academy on August 20, 2019, so he will need to complete a full year in the program before he can qualify as a homegrown player.
Yapi, 15, is a forward who received a camp invite after a series of strong performances in Development Academy league matches. His presence will give him valuable experience with the first team, even if his chances at winning a full contract this season are slim.
3. Can the Kids Earn Playing Time?
With a plethora of options up and down the pitch, it’s not unfair to question whether players like Kortne Ford, Cole Bassett, Lewis, and Shinyashiki can find consistent starts come the new season. It’s no secret that the Rapids want to develop young talent, but management has to walk a fine line between putting out the best available lineup and granting valuable matchday experience to its promising starlets.
Ford’s case is a particularly interesting quandary. While Bassett, Lewis, and Shinyashiki are first options off the bench in their positions, the 2017 Rapids academy signing faces a steep hill to climb in defense. With Abubakar and Trusty as presumed starting central defenders, Ford will need to compete with Moor as primary rotation option. That doesn’t even account for a potential surge in form from Abdul Rwatubyaye, who quietly impressed during his time with the Switchbacks in 2019.
All of Colorado’s young talent will have moments in the spotlight throughout the year, but preseason remains the best opportunity for all the prospects to show they can hang with the team’s projected starters. Great performances over the next four weeks could mark the start of a breakout season.
4. Will AltitudeTV Return to Comcast?
AltitudeTV was dropped by the big three television providers at the close of the 2019 Rapids season, right as things started to flourish under Fraser. Though the network is back on DirecTV, fans subscribing to the region’s largest cable provider have yet to experience a return to regular programming.
I’m not going to thoroughly rehash a subject already given scathing commentary by analysts across the rest of Colorado’s sports landscape. However, it’s absolutely something I’m keeping in the back of my mind as the season begins to take shape.
This Colorado Rapids squad is certainly the most talented roster constructed by the club’s management in half a decade. It would be a shame to watch the club drift further out of the minds of Denver sports fans in what could be an exquisite year.
What are you watching for in preseason? Drop your answer in the comments below or let me know on Twitter.
Image Credit: Colorado Rapids