It may not have been pretty but they got it done. The Colorado Rapids earned their 8th road win of the season against the Houston Dynamo last weekend and are now marching their way towards the MLS Cup Playoffs. It has been another strong season for the Rapids. The organization has taken a clear step forward under Head Coach Robin Fraser and Executive Vice-President and General Manager Padraig Smith.
The club and several individuals have set multiple club records. Sitting on 58 points for the season currently, they've tied the club record for points in a season (2016). They also set the club record with their 16th win of the season. William Yarbrough has set the individual shutout record for the club at 13th clean sheets which is currently tied for the league lead. Dom Badji scored his 9th game winning goal for the club in the outing vs Houston on Halloween which is good enough for 3rd all time on the club record list. That's his 4th goal of the season and 3rd in 4 matches. Congratulations to Badji on earning another MLS Team of the Week nomination.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
The club rode a wave of good form throughout much of the season. After a fantastic month in August, the tide has slowed however. Following the last win against Houston, Fraser had this to say about the teams performance, "I didn't think we were very good at all, and to be honest, I definitely have to take some of the blame. We never really got into a rhythm and we live and learn. At the end of the day, I'm really proud of the team for finding ways to win and the three points is obviously huge, but certainly not our best performance".
This quote captures the points perfectly. When a team isn't playing very well but finds a way to grind out results, that says everything about their character. That is exactly what a good team does. That's what a winning team does. A championship team. This Rapids team is a contender for the MLS Cup this year for this exact reason. Coach Fraser wasn't the only one to express this opinion. On ESPN's Extra Time program this week, Marcelo Balboa shared this same thought that the Rapids aren't playing great lately but are still finding ways to grind out results.
Rapids vs LAFC
Although LAFC drew the Vancouver Whitecaps midweek, in a dramatic 1-1 game, they have one last shot at the playoffs. However, LAFC are not in control of their own destiny. They can't just win and get in, they have to depend on other results.
Under Bob Bradley, LAFC play in a 532 formation as well. They have mostly been without Carlos Vela this year, their star DP, which appears to be a big loss. Their attack is still potent as they have firepower all over the field. The biggest weakness in the team is their defense and in particular their ability to defend set pieces. They also appear to be open to counter attacks as they tend to attack in numbers recently out of desperation. This bodes well for the Rapids who have the most set piece goals in MLS for 3 straight years. The transition game getting into a counter attack is also a strength of the Rapids as Barrios has proven to be too much for most teams to handle on the break.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
Presumably this is an opportunity to put the best eleven players on the field for the Rapids. This is a warm up for the playoffs and not a time to experiment. Unfortunately for everyone, there is a full two week break before the playoffs begin. Any kind of momentum can dry up with that amount of time off and poses a serious challenge for every team in MLS.
MLS Cup Playoffs Outlook
Following a wild set of results on Wednesday night, the Rapids could actually clinch first in the Western Conference. Here's the scenario: Rapids win against LAFC, Sporting KC draw/lose vs RSL and Sounders draw/lose vs Vancouver. None of those games are easy. Vancouver is one of the hottest teams in the league right now and a major surprise to most. Probably their second best season ever. Every Rapids fan would love to root for RSL to fail but we need Sporting KC to draw or lose in order to gain the first spot. The first spot in the West means you get a bye in the first round of the playoffs. This is a huge deal and everyone will be gunning for that elusive 1st place spot.
(Image: SB Nation)
Regardless of who the Rapids play, they should feel confident going into the playoffs. The depth in the squad is a weapon and isn't something that many teams can boast. Typically it's the elite teams at the top of each conference who can confidently put squad players into the starting lineup in important games. Colorado has proven they can do that this year. Another major factor in their favor, is that they're one of the best teams on the road this season and their defensive record helps bolster their chances.
Tactical Deep Dive
Some soccer fans may not be aware but despite playing in a formation with 5 defenders the Rapids are not a defensive team. They do not simply sit back and soak up pressure. Yes they're a gritty team but that's not their identity. The Colorado Rapids under Coach Fraser have an unpredictable and varied style.
The Rapids fly up the left wing and use an overload tactic where the left back can select to make overlapping runs or cut inside. This hasn't changed even though the club sold star left back Sam Vines last offseason. Lucas Esteves or Braian Galvan have picked up right where Sammy left off. In combination with an attacking left wingback, the Rapids typically have their right back stay home. That's not to say they can't join the attack but not at nearly the same clip.
The team will try to build up out of the back with possession. This is the first instinct although the likes of Danny Wilson, Auston Trusty or Jack Price can always ready to send a long ball over the top or diagonally. Once the team carries the ball past half-field their options are open. They can attack directly, they can drive to the wing and swing a cross in. If they can stretch their opponents through these tactics we can expect to see a dominant performance. This system under Fraser utilizes a variety of options and when it works it's very fluid.
As Balboa pointed out on Extra Time, the weakness of this system is when a central defender bites and pulls out of formation. When this happens it opens up gaps between the lines. We've seen this happen a few time this year. This mostly comes down to a mental lapse and often times we see Abubakar's aggressive style as the culprit.
One of the biggest questions about the Rapids still remains, what does their best starting eleven look like? And to further complicate matters Dom Badji is in such hot form, one has to wonder if he's the starter now? What better hot hand to ride than Badji going into the playoffs? With his speed and ability to get in behind the defense, he provides a valuable weapon off the bench. It certainly doesn't hurt that he is scoring whether it's off the bench or when starting. Outside of strikers, the midfield is so loaded that the team has great options for an attacking or a defensive approach. Same problem with the backline, there's quality everywhere. So, assuming Fraser keeps his preferred 532 formation, here's what I think the best starting eleven looks like:
This still leaves many questions. What about our DP Younes Namli, Jon Lewis or Cole Bassett amongst others? Considering that when the Rapids are losing they usually switch to a 433 in attack and 442 in defense, there are certainly some alternative options. By switching to a 433, the team can maintain a higher press on defense and higher position on offense. Technically by dropping a centerback you open up attacking options as well. There are a lot of variety in this squad and many ways they can lineup. If we went defensive or missed one of our key midfielders, I could see Collen Warner getting the nod in that scenario. It's also worth mentioning that team frequently switches to a 433 when losing. If they really have to "go for it", expect to see a transition to a 433 on the ball and a 442 defensively. I could stay down this rabbit hole for way too long, so I'm going to stop and share an alternative best lineup if the Rapids were to switch to a 433 formation:
Enjoy the chaos of Decision Day. Until next time, stay safe out there soccer fans!