It's not time to panic
Over the weekend the Colorado Rapids got smacked around at Portland losing 3-0. The team was caught ball watching on two of the goals while Yarbrough made a poor choice giving up a penalty. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion which meant Abe Rodriguez made his MLS debut. Rodriguez had to face a penalty immediately upon entering the field which he wasn't able to save. Not at fault for a single goal as the 19-year old played strongly with 4 saves on the night. Otherwise, largely the entire team was flat.
Arguably the worst game of the season. Sure, there were injuries and suspensions which dampened their chances. More importantly the team continues to be inconsistent and played very poorly on the road. They had nobody but themselves to blame for the rout. The Rapids are now 5-7-4 (W-L-T) on the season and remain winless on the road. In the past six games, the Rapids have beaten LAFC and Seattle, drawn at NYCFC and lost to Sporting KC, Nashville and now Portland.
This inconsistency is glaring and needs a course correction quickly. They haven't been able to find the right stuff needed to remain in the top tier of MLS this season. The difference between the elite teams (like LAFC, NYCFC & Philly) and the rest, is that they find a way to win. They produce consistent results. Mistakes happen, everyone loses games. Just score lots of goals, don't give up too many. Simple, right? Well that's certainly not the case for the Rapids this season. Does that mean fans have to ask the dreaded question- is it time to panic? I say no.
I don't think the struggles of this team are down to one specific thing. One of the key issues appears to be mental errors. Whether that's because of team organization (i.e., players not knowing where they've supposed to be, who to mark or what their assignment is) or individual errors is not relevant. What matters is that mental issues plague this team. Another major issue seems to be the turnover in the squad over the past year. The balance of the team is off. The chemistry between the players has been disrupted enough to disjoint the team. Players used to know where the next pass is, when their teammate is making a run, providing cover when needed etc. That "sixth sense" has vanished.
We are roughly half-way through the season and the defense is leaking goals. As a unit, they are not as solid as last season. Meanwhile the attack looks completely inept. Incapable of connecting passes, finding space, creating shots and finishing. The basic fundamentals of the game are simply lacking.
It's easy to throw the blame at Zardes, he's new, he's our DP and if we aren't scoring goals, it's his fault right? Wrong. The service to our strikers has been horrible. I mean it's not like Zardes has missed a bunch of good chances. And we should all know by now that he doesn't create a lot of chances on his own. He's capable but that's not his game. Not only has the service from midfield been lacking but the wingers aren't scoring goals themselves which adds further pressure on our strikers. Combine this with the fact that success from set pieces has dried up. Despite leading the league, the last 3 seasons in set piece goals we are simply not finding the back of the net in those situations any longer. Once again, not scoring off set pieces creates further pressure on our strikers to score from open play.
So, in short, it's not any one single aspect. It's a series of smaller issues. No matter how you slice it, the Rapids must find a way to score while improving their team defense. No matter which players step on the field, they need to perform and perform consistently.
Formation Change? Let's talk tactics!
Defender Auston Trusty is leaving for Europe on July 17. In January, he signed a deal with Arsenal Football Club where he is expected to go out on loan to another team in Europe. He leaves a very big hole in the Rapids defense. Although Colorado did pick up both Aboubacar Keita and Gustavo Vallecilla, neither have featured with any regularity since signing. Keita is injured for the remainder of the season while Vallecilla has seen limited action. The Ecuadorian, Vallecilla, has made 5 MLS appearances, 1 in MLS Cup and 5 in MLS Next Pro. Both are left footed and could be seen as long-term replacements for Trusty if they develop and grow their game. Looking at this season, it's possible Vallecilla steps in immediately for Trusty in the 3-4-3 formation (or whatever similar variation is used). However, because he hasn't been slowly introduced to the team it seems less likely that he'd slot right into the starting lineup.
We could be looking at a new formation in the future. The most likely scenario in my opinion is a 4-4-2 formation. This fits the players on the team and provides a more direct attacking approach. It's very possible that Nicholson is an option off the bench in the near term but beats out Lewis for the starting job in the long term. Otherwise, here's what I think an alternative to our current tactics would look like. Zardes as the target striker with Rubio working underneath. Two wide midfielders supported by two central midfielders and a traditional back four. This would allow for more traditional wing play by building up through short passing in possession. With two strikers, especially in target man Gyasi Zardes, swinging in crosses is much more viable. Esteves would have to play a little more defense which could also open the door for Markanich or Beitashour to be rotated in depending on the situation.
If Head Coach Robin Fraser does in fact keep the same relative formation intact, Vallecilla would most likely step straight into Trusty's role at LCB. Alternatively, Rosenberry could shift to RCB and Beitashour starts at RWB. Whether you call it a 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, this is what I think it'd look like. The front three would consist of Rubio, Zardes and Barrios. Kaye and Price holding down central midfield with Esteves and Rosenberry the wingbacks. In game, we'd likely continue to see Esteves and Kaye bomb forward and overload the left wing.
Regardless of the tactics and formation, the Rapids need to get back to winning ways. They need to find that consistency and team chemistry. If they can't bounce back in the next few weeks, they risk a losing season and missing the MLS Cup Playoffs. The stakes are high. As they say, every game from here on out is like a cup final and should be treated as such.
Current MLS Western Conference Standings
Colorado is currently sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference where the top seven teams qualify for MLS Cup Playoffs. The four teams below them are struggling this season but none are easy games, especially on the road. Just above the Rapids in the standings are Vancouver, Houston, Seattle and the Galaxy. Again, not a single easy opponent to face. The top of the West is locked down with LAFC leading the way (who just brought in reinforcements in Bale and Chiellini), RSL, Austin, Dallas and Nashville. There's still half a season to play but the task is daunting unless Colorado can turn it around quickly.
Yes, the issues plaguing this team can take time to overcome. As it stands, the Rapids are not anywhere near the position they were last season when they remained in the top 3 for most of the season. However, this is a talented group with a phenomenal coaching staff. They tend to show up for big games. Which is great news because the Rapids next game is at home to Austin FC on Independence Day. The Texas side are second in the league with 31 goals scored this season. Stifling that attack is paramount on the road to recovery. If you're going to the game, have a wonderful time. Load up on sun block, enjoy the tailgate scene and the largest fireworks show in the state!
News Update: It's official. Nico Mezquida has signed with Volos FC of the Greek Super League. He wasn't seeing much action this season and is off to Europe. The Uruguayan possessed fantastic technical skill and is most well known for his positive nature and high energy. Arguably his best moment came in 2019 with a late game-winning goal against Columbus Crew (video below). All the best to Nico!
GOAL: Nicolas Mezquida late heroics secure the win for Colorado | MLSSoccer.com
Until next time, stay safe out there soccer fans!