The day is almost upon us friends. The first ever MLS game on Thanksgiving Day. In primetime. On national TV. HAPPY PIDSGIVING! Note that the actual kickoff time is 2:40pm MT on Fox.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
The Rapids are entering their second straight MLS Cup Playoffs under Head Coach Robin Fraser. This time they didn't just squeak in via the points per game rule breaks a tie. The Colorado Rapids finished atop the Western Conference for the first time in club history and earned their spot as the #1 seed. This gives them home field advantage through the playoffs (unless they play the Revolution in the final). The home record at DSG Park has been phenomenal where the Rapids haven't lost in 16 straight games. The Rapids were 9-1-7 overall at home this season and 8-6-3 on the road. Needless to say, it's been a historic season for the Burgundy Boys.
The Rapids set a number of impressive records this year - 61 points on the season and 17 wins were both new club records. Yarbrough and the defense shined throughout the season as evidenced by a league-leading13 shutouts, which was also a club record. Jack Price climbed up to 3rd on the Rapids all-time assist list with 12 assists this season (2nd best in MLS).
Game Plan vs Portland Timbers
The Portland Timbers advanced to the Western Conference semifinal after defeating Minnesota United FC 3-1 at home on Sunday. Portland now has four days to travel and prepare for their next game against the Colorado Rapids.
The Portland Timbers are very dangerous team, especially in the attack. Typically they like to sit back, soak up pressure and hit their opponent on the counter. The Timbers have one of the lowest possession percentages of any team in MLS with 44.9% on average. After losing to the Rapids 2-0 away at the end of the season, they've won four straight games. They're hot and have been getting production out of the entire squad. The Colombian contingent - Diego and Yimmi Chara, as well as Goal of the Year candidate Dairon Asprilla - have been electric. Most fans know what to expect with the Chara brothers but Asprilla really surprised by notching 10 goals and 3 assists this season. Of course you can't talk about the Timbers without discussing the other South American stars, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri. Both Argentines can play as the #10, but the most dangerous thing about this team is that they rotate so much. Unlike the Rapids with squad players, the front three or four players will switch positions during the game. It's fluid and hard to keep up with defensively.
Meanwhile, the Rapids have a similar question that frequently comes up: who are the best 11 players and what exactly does the ideal starting lineup look like? It's extremely hard to predict with Fraser and this team. However, the same general formation and tactics can be expected. The Rapids will look to control the game by building out of the back and picking the right time to attack. They have become a smooth team in transition where they are frequently scoring on the counter attack. Set peices are the biggest strength of this team which has led the league three years running in set piece goals. Another factor we can expect is the continued focus on attacking down the left wing. Primarily through an active left wingback like Esteves, Galvan and formerly Sam Vines, the Rapids are able to overload one side of the field. This allows them to gain the advantage needed to unlock the defense.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
Next Man Up
Although it's fairly easy to pick out individual performances that stood out, that's not the story of this team. As Fraser said on Fox 31 this week, "The strength of this team is the team". In seemingly every game this season, fans and commentators alike couldn't accurately predict which players would take the field. The squad is rotated heavily and often. In each position, there is competition within the squad.
Often times, especially in the national media, the criticism of the Rapids is that they don't have a superstar. They don't have the Designed Player (DP) production that other teams do. Their payroll is lower than most teams. They're the team of MLS misfits. On the flip side, the fact that they don't rely on one superstar can be an advantage. It's harder to defend against a team like that because the defense can't just mark one player out of the game. The Rapids might not have a goal scorer in that 12+ goals per season range, but they are getting production throughout the squad. Five different players scored at least five goals, and the team had 18 different goalscorers. The Rapids have scored from set pieces, counter attacks, and slow possession build up this season. It's an unpredictable, different type of problem for the opponents to cope with.
It was early in the season when Fraser said something that really stuck with this team throughout the season. Back in April, during the World Cup Qualifying window, Kellyn Acosta was called up to the National Team which meant he was out for the Rapids. I had the chance to ask Fraser about coping with his absence. His response epitomized the team approach he leads with. He called it the "next man up mentality" and reiterated his belief in the entire squad.
Yes, this Rapids team is all about teamwork, but there's still individual performances worth noting. The new additions of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Michael Barrios and Dominque Badji have all been tremendous difference makers. They've fit into the team seamlessly. The leading goal scorer for the Rapids this year was Barrios with 8 goals and 5 assists. So the Rapids may not technically have a DP, but they get DP-like production out of Barrios.
The same can be said for several other players including Acosta, Kaye, Price, Trusty and Yarbrough. Jon Lewis has really broken through lately, excelling in the hybrid role of winger/striker. He always brings the energy whether he's starting or coming in off the bench, but his production has been fantastic especially towards the end of the season. Trusty has stepped up after many doubted him, becoming an undroppable player on the team. The left center back role fits him well as he's expanded his passing ability, frequently finding space down the left flank for an attacker. Dom Badji has excelled in his return to the Rapids from Nashville. Despite only starting three games in half a season, he has scored 5 goals (equivalent to Rubio's production) and has proven his talent. I would be remiss not to mention that Head Coach Robin Fraser is a finalist for the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year Award. The Kingston, Jamaica native led the Rapids to their best start since 2000 and into the history books for the aforementioned records.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
It was another fantastic season for the club captain from Shrewsbury, England, Jack Price. It's easy to look at his 12 assists and set piece deliveries alone and say yes, that's unique and above average. But that's not all Price brings. He provides deep cover in front of the back line, frequently breaking up play, organizing the team and all while controlling the game intelligently on offense. Kellyn Acosta has raised his game in the past 1.5-2 years but played particularly well this season. He's embraced not playing in the #10 role and leaning in to his defensive abilities more. In fact, when he's filled in at wingback he's been exceptionally good. That being said, the team benefits greatly from his physical presence in midfield.
The last player I'm going to mention here is Kaye who has played fantastic this season. While at LAFC he played in a deeper, defensive midfield type of role. Fraser could see the potential and has unleashed the Canadian international. Playing in a more advanced role, and often times Kaye has been given the freedom to get more involved in the build cup, make deeper runs and attack. It's easy to see the change was needed, and he's flourishing in his new role.
Weather, Tailgating and Altitude
The most recent weather report I've seen shows partly cloudy skies and a high of 55 degrees. It's been a very mild fall in the Denver metro area, and it looks like that trend will continue. For the early morning tailgaters, expect it to be chilly in the morning with a low of 23 degrees the night before. Sunny and warm in the afternoon. So if you're in the east end stands it'll actually be nice to catch some sun. However, it is Colorado, so be ready for the weather to change quickly as it always does. One nice thing about kickoff time is the sun will be up for most of the game before it starts getting really chilly.
If you're tailgating, there's an official tailgate hosted by the club. They'll be right next to the C38 tailgate making it one big party. There will be over a dozen large screen TVs showing NFL games, yard games and other activities. For a rundown of the timeline and full details, follow this link: Join Our Epic Friendsgiving Tailgate on Thursday! | Colorado Rapids
As the club rightly pointed out, "the MASTERS of the pregame tailgate, Centennial 38, will be right across the way from our Friendsgiving Tailgate, and they'll be getting things revved up at the same time! Join one tailgate or join both, we're all celebrating the holiday and the Burgundy Boys!" The C38 tailgate normally offers draft beer, grilled burgers/hot dogs for a $10 donation and is welcoming to all. Expect something turkey or Thanksgiving themed for this special game though.
Altitude is a legitimate factor that some people overlook. Frequently the away teams at DSG Park appear to be more tired, earlier in the game. The Rapids boast a deep bench where they can, and do, bring on several subs in the 2nd half. One has to look no further than the last game vs LAFC. The visitors were tired early, the gaps between the lines started widening and the home team brought on subs that changed the game. It appears to be a clear strategy - the Rapids try to take advantage of their mile high status.
Lastly, The club has requested early attendance in order for each fan to receive a complimentary, commerative Rapids flag and participate in a special pre-game procession. Tailgates close at 2pm so that everyone can get to their seats in time. The club hasn't provided all the details yet, so please stay tuned! Given this inaugural Thanksgiving Day MLS game, we want to make a good impression for the national tv audience. This is a massive opportunity for the club, the players and the fans. It should be a fun atmosphere on a really special occassion.
Starting XI Prediction:
Colorado Rapids vs Portland Timbers
MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinals
Actual Kickoff Time 2:40pm MT FOX
Until next time, stay safe out there soccer fans!