Ever since the disappointment that was the Turkey Day loss in the 2021 MLS Cup, some Rapids fans have not been able to pick themselves up. They've seen star players leave the club. They've been anxiously watching the transfer window in hopes of seeing more signings. While I can understand this to some degree, I'm here to tell you the sky isn't falling. Everything's going to be ok.
Personally, I think there's ample reason to be excited going into 2022. First, off the club has re-signed some of their core players to new contracts. They've replenished the ranks with three new signings as well. We also saw the new home kit drop today and it looks really, really awesome! (Link: Club | ColoradoRapids.com) The mountain background and Colorado specific details are great additions to the new burgundy kit. It has a clean, simple look and has been received well by fans upon immediate release.
Going into the 2022 season, not having a big turnover in player personnel is a huge plus. The togetherness is maintained. Not many teams can say the same thing which is that we maintained stability. The successful duo of Head Coach Robin Fraser and General Manager Padraig Smith is still in tact. It might not seem as exciting as what the biggest spending teams in the league are doing but it doesn't mean it isn't a viable path to success. Colorado is in a great financial position and has good roster flexibility moving forward.
In this season preview, I'm going to dive into everything. I'm going to discuss all the off-season action, what to expect going into the 2022 season, a deep dive on tactics and what the depth chart currently looks like.
Spending and DP's
The Colorado Rapids go into the third season with Head Coach Robin Fraser under great scrutiny from around the league and fans alike. As great as last season's accomplishment was, similar questions plague the team moving forward. Despite having a solid squad from top to bottom, the biggest criticism is not spending the money on a lethal finisher who can score 20 goals in a season. This is the glaring hole in the squad, the #9 position.
During a January press conference, Padraig Smith stated that "our quest for a #9 continues". The club is pursuing multiple attackers, both at the DP or TAM level. So even though the primary transfer windows are closed the Rapids can still bring in new players before the summer window. The Argentine and Brazilian windows are markets the club has tapped into lately and those windows are currently open. Meanwhile Russia, Turkey, China and a few other countries have open windows currently. Although not confirmed it's hard to imagine the Rapids aren't targeted a striker with a strong aerial ability. The team started swinging in lots of crosses last season and besides Badji, who left the club, there aren't many strikers who pose an aerial threat. A striker is the clear priority but because Smith mentioned two players could come in, I'd assume it would only be one striker. The Rapids are deep at winger so I'd expect an attacking midfielder as the other potential target.
I am yet to see any rumors or speculation on specific players however I wouldn't read into that too much. MLS is notorious for keeping a tight lid on transfers, just look at Auston Trusty for the most recent example.
While it's understandable that some fans want to see the Rapids spend more money, the reality is we aren't a high spending club. Keep in mind that spending is not tied to success. There is not a direct correlation in MLS, just look at last season. The Rapids won the Western Conference with the lowest wages in MLS last season. Would it make a difference if the club spent say $2-3 million on a Designed Player? Yes, I think it would make a huge difference considering there is one position of clear need, and all three DP spots remain open. In fact, I'd argue if the club spent a modest amount of money (not talking record breaking $10, $15 million expenditures) it would catapult them into an elite MLS level.
If the Rapids don't get a striker before the next window, summer of 2022, there are still a number of options up top. Diego Rubio is typically the first option off the team sheet. Jon Lewis is coming off a great season where he is looking to build on that momentum and gain more minutes. He scored 7 goals in 1304 minutes last season. Additional options at striker include Andre Shinyashiki, Michael Barrios and homegrown teenager Darren Yapi. Yapi is a Denver native, 17 years old and despite his age is built like a man. Standing at 6'1' and 175 pounds he has the presence of a natural striker. I think it's possible Yapi sees significant playing time this season after solid pre-season performances.
Beyond the obvious need of a starting striker, the Rapids have strength throughout the squad. A healthy mix of veterans and youth have been a hallmark of the Fraser/Smith era. There isn't another position that has a glaring need. The balance and cohesion of the team is one of their greatest strengths.
The notion that this team doesn't have stars is misguided, however. Yes, there are not any DPs on the roster currently but these things aren't mutually exclusive. Captain Jack Price is, at least for me, the best players on the roster. You could look solely at his passing and in particular his delivery from set pieces to determine his elite status. Add in the intangibles where he leads the team by example but also verbally. Meanwhile, the Canadian midfielder Mark Anthony-Kaye is one of the best final passers in the league. He is extremely composed in heated situations and when it matters most. Although you could arguably pick out a load of other players and say they're stars, these are the two for me. This speaks to the strength of the midfield and the overall strength of the squad. The collective approach is what keeps this engine running in Colorado but that doesn't mean there aren't stars in this squad.
Transfers IN and OUT
Cole Bassett: 18th month loan with an option to buy with Feyenoord Rotterdam.
Kellyn Acosta: Traded in $1.1m in guaranteed GAM with $400k in additional incentives.
Kortne Ford: Signed as free agent with Sporting KC
Dominque Badji: Contract option not picked up. Acquired by FC Cincinnati
Auston Trusty: Signed with Arsenal Football Club, remains with Rapids until June 17th. Gunners confirmed he will be loaned out for the 2022-2023 season in Europe.
Aboubacar Keita: acquired from Columbus Crew for $300k in GAM, plus $150k in additional incentives.
Bryan Acosta: acquired via re-entry draft (FC Dallas previously)
Max Alves: acquired from Flamengo on 4 year deal with club option additional year. Occupies U22 roster spot.
These transfers in and out are mostly like for like. Many have argued it's technically downgrades however it should be noted that literally every single player has improved under Fraser and the Rapids staff. Keita and Max are young while Acosta is more of a veteran. If Fraser can get the most out of Acosta, primarily by adjusting his mentality to not go for the home run ball every time, this could be a real coup. With Max, he could exceed expectations and prove to be an upgrade.
2022 MLS SuperDraft Picks:
No. 23 Pick= Mohammed Omar. Central midfield and defense. Notre Dame. Canada
No. 26 Pick= Anthony Markanich. Left back. Northern Illinois University. United States
No. 45 Pick= Roberto Molina. Right winger. Las Vegas Lights. El Salvador
All three players fill depth spots for the future. All three saw significant time in preseason with the second string squad. Most likely to get minutes with Rapids 2. Exception to this is Markanich as he is tipped to see more first team action than the others.
Keegan Rosenberry 3-year extension with club option for an additional year
Mark-Anthony Kaye 4-year extension with club option for an additional year
Danny Wilson 2-year extension with club options in 2024 & 2025
Jack Price 2-year extension with club options in 2024 & 2025
All four players are what I would call "core" players in this squad. Price, Wilson and Rosenberry are in their peak years while Kaye is slightly younger at 27 years of age. Great business that is very welcomed.
Predictions and Expectations
The Brazilian duo of Max Alves and Lucas Esteves are primed for big seasons. Esteves did very well in his first season with the Rapids. As is the case with most leagues, it takes time for players to adapt but that's not true for everyone. I think it's very likely that we see Esteves breakout in 2022 and really elevate his game to another level. His confidence is growing. He fits the Sam Vines role of this team well, making deep runs and even cutting inside the field quite often in attack.
Meanwhile Max provides the Rapids with a true #10 playmaker. As good as Bassett is, he wasn't a typical #10. This offers the team something different and exciting. Max hasn't performed poorly in Brazil, but it didn't quite work out for him. So, this is a fresh start and a chance to make a name for himself. I feel like he will be unleashed in MLS, given the freedom to go out and have fun playing. Look at how well Esteves did his first season. It's not a stretch to say that Rapids and MLS fans should be very excited to see Max on the field.
With Bryan Acosta coming into the mix, this offers more defensive bite in midfield. This could free up Jack Price while simultaneously allowing Kaye to attack further up the field. It remains to be seen how Fraser prefers to lineup the squad. And let's not forget how much he loves rotation. So, while it's possible to have Kaye, Acosta, Price and Max starting in midfield I doubt we'll see that often. Especially starting the season. It's more likely this will take time to develop, and Fraser will monitor the chemistry and cohesion of the new midfield.
During the offseason the club had indicated that Braian Galvan would be moving into a central attacking midfield role. Sadly, it isn't happening this season as Galvan suffered a serious injury and will be out for 9 months. He tore is ACL and meniscus and underwent successful surgery. This length of time out seems to show that it was a very serious tear.
Potential breakout seasons could include an absolute boatload of players from the Rapids. Up top we have Darren Yapi and fellow homegrown Dantouma "Yaya" Toure, who are likely contributors off the bench or in rotation. In midfield, it looks like another homegrown and Denver native in Oliver Larraz. He's versatile in midfield as a box to box player but excels in the more creative role as well. Not a true #10 but a very attack minded #8. Looking at the backline, the draft pick out of Northern Illinois, Anthony Markanich, is poised for first team action. Markanich was tipped as the best left back in the draft and is a like-for-like in Same Vines. He flows freely into the attack, filling the wider or inside channels. Reads the field well, can tackle and do everything really. In preseason he saw action at LCB which means he could fill in at centerback as well. He is likely the future LWB but will be one to keep an eye out for this season. One additional note is that Sebastian Anderson played LWB in pre-sason when Esteves wasn't in. Difficult to say if that'll remain the case, if Markanich will play more centerback or if something else entirely happens!
Moving away from personnel, the expectation for this team should be to build on last season. And that means winning a playoff game. Ideally, making a deep run in MLS Cup. I think it's within reason to expect a home playoff game this season as well. The team has more depth that most clubs outside the "elite" teams at the very top. It should also be noted that the Rapids could be targeting transfers this summer to further strengthen the team. If they can fight their way towards the top going into the summer, who knows what's in store for the run in to the MLS Cup this fall.
The Western Conference has improved overall which will certainly be an increased challenge. While it's easy to look at improvements on paper it's also fair to acknowledge that anything can happen. MLS is unpredictable. Two seasons ago everyone thought the best team on paper would repeat, the Columbus Crew. And then they didn't even qualify for the playoffs. Injuries are impossible to predict but it's likely at least one or two of the favorites will fall and fall hard. An added challenge for the Burgundy Boys is the prospect of playing additional games this year because of their entry into the CONCACAF Champions League.
One of the key reasons this Rapids team can be successful in both MLS and Champions League is they have a stout defense. Anchored by Yarbrough in the net and Wilson as the central centerback, they are one of the strongest defensive units in the league. Filling out the backline add in Auston Trusty (until June when Keita presumably plays more), Abubakar, Rosenberry and Esteves are your primary starters. The team shape and positioning go a long way to helping this defense shine as one of the best in MLS.
Season Prediction: 3rd place in Western Conference. Wins two MLS Cup games before losing in Conference Finals.
CONCACAF Champions League
As Padraig indicated in the same January press conference noted earlier, the club is not treating the Champions League as a preseason. It is a huge opportunity playing teams outside MLS, to market the club to the world and to test yourself against unfamiliar opposition. The Rapids also have a favorable draw as they face Comunicaciones FC in the first round. The Guatemalan club will be without key players because of COVID-19 in the first matchup while many of their players likely won't be traveling to the US for the second leg either.
An MLS club has a great chance to finally win the tournament this year, in part, because Mexican teams are not at their strongest. The Rapids are the plucky underdogs with a lockdown defense in this tournament. Meanwhile the likes of the Sounders and Revs boast a powerful offense. If there's a year that MLS could win it, this is it. No team outside LigaMX has ever won the CONCACAF Champions League. If an MLS club wins, that means they go to the FIFA Club World Cup. It would be a massive achievement and that is an understatement.
At this point, roster selections have been made but are still subject to change (44 hours prior to kickoff). A few notable players were left off, but injured Galvan is still on the roster currently. Essentially, it's the core group from last season without any of the newcomers included. However, this can and likely will change. If you're interested in seeing the full roster here is the link to every clubs squad: 22_sccl-rosters-r16_feb7.pdf (windows.net)
Away Leg is 2/17 5pm MT on Fox Sports 2
Home Leg is 2/23 6:30PM MT on Fox Sports 2
Get a free trial here if you don't have Fox Sports 2: Watch+FOX+Sports+2+Online | Stream on fuboTV (Free Trial)
Tactics & Potential Depth Chart
Looking at the depth of the squad, here's how I see things. Call the formation what you like, a 5-3-2, a 3-4-2-1 or something else entirely. In part its difficult to nail down the formation because of the fluidity of the squad and the movement of the players. It's not really a 3-4-3 though because that entails having two wingers and one central striker. That is not the shape the Rapids play in. Midfield is usually a double pivot with a #10 sitting in front of them while two strikers are employed up top. One striker stays central while the other has the freedom to drift wide or drop deeper into midfield to receive the ball. For this reason, I tend to think of the formation as a 5-3-2. At times, depending on the personnel on the field it can be a 3-4-2-1 with one target striker and two attacking midfielders. Those attacking midfielders stay in between the central and wide channels. So, in reality, the Rapids often use both a 5-3-2 and a 3-4-2-1. When not in possession, the team organizes efficiently and it looks like a block of five in the back, with three central midfielders clogging the middle and two strikers pressing the backline.
The Rapids have used the same tactics in preseason as they did last season. Expect three centerbacks with two wingbacks. Typically, Rosenberry stays at home while Esteves attacks further up the field on the left. Colorado will usually attempt an overload tactic when in possession where they target the left side of the field more frequently than the right side. Esteves and Kaye will float further up field in this scenario. Of course, the team is sharp on the counter where a second striker, like Barrios or Lewis float into wider positions to open up space and receive the ball. Price will of course stay deep while Kaye plays box to box. This is very important for the team. One center mid stays home while the other can go forward but still has to work defensively. With the addition of Max, I expect him to take up that central channel further up the field. It's possible he's used like Bassett was as the second striker as well. In rotation games, we will see Price and Warner start together. Usually that's a more defensive approach, soaking up pressure to spring the counterattack. Depending on how the game goes, Fraser will then make adjustments at halftime or around the 60' mark.
The most dangerous weapon on this team offensively remains the set pieces. Price is unparalleled in his delivery. The towering defenders like Abubakar, Trusty, Wilson and Kaye in midfield are all superior targets. Rubio certainly has the ability to bury headers, but it isn't his strongest suit either. If Yapi plays, he does pose an aerial threat which is a welcomed addition. At the end of the day, this Rapids team can attack in a variety of ways from a variety of players which makes it hard to defend. Maintaining a solid, defensive shape, the Burgundy Boys are one of the hardest teams to break down in MLS.
That's everything I have for this year's season preview. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave feedback on Twitter where you can follow me @BurgundyBoys96. I'll have updates as Rapids news develops and will share a full MLS prediction on where teams finish the season as well. Until next time, stay safe out there soccer fans!