Things haven't gone to plan this season. There's been a lot of change, some on field issues and maybe even some mental issues at play. Individual mistakes happen but they've been at a higher clip this season. The defense doesn't look as stout and the creativity in attack has been lacking. It hasn't been a bad season per say but there's a lot of room for improvement. In this article, I will break down the issues and how we can cope with them.
During the past year the club has lost several key players including Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett and Sam Vines. Replacements came in, in the form Mark-Anthony Kaye, Max Alves/Bryan Acosta and Lucas Esteves. Despite being worthy newcomers, the team hasn’t performed at the same level. You could argue the talent hasn’t equated to what was in place previously when the squad finished atop the Western Conference. However, I think the larger issue beyond the turnover in the team is the intangibles. More specifically, the chemistry the team had built over the past 2-3 seasons. It takes time to develop team chemistry so it’s reasonable to see uneven performances to start 2022. This comes from genuine understanding of teammates play styles, movements, and preferences. Off field friendships go a long way in this respect. Put simply, players don't appear to have the same level of cohesion as the previous two seasons in particular.
Head Coach Robin Fraser has employed a system that is very fluid and can be tweaked often. We have seen iterations of a 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-3 employed. Before Gyasi Zardes signed for the Rapids, we witnessed wingers swinging in crosses at a high clip. Curiously, that influx of crosses has dried up despite having one of the most productive target men in MLS history. Although Fraser can be flexible with his tactics, oftentimes basing the shape of his team off the opponent and their style of play, there is no reason to think the three centerback system is going away anytime soon. We can debate the efficacy of this formation, but I don’t see it going away in favor of a traditional four at the back.
My expectation is that some combination of Zardes and Diego Rubio is a high priority in attack. The midfield will try to overload either wing, whether it's through traditional wing play or central midfielders and/or wingbacks finding space forward in the attack (think Kaye and Esteves bombing forward). Deep lying playmakers and excellent passers of the ball, Jack Price and Danny Wilson, are vital to this system. They spray the ball all over the field, finding the open space wherever it may be. . No matter which formation or players take the field, the ability to make runs and find space in attack has been lacking. Sometimes it may just be a hopeful cross but at some point we have to take chances. Keep the opponent guessing. Mixing those tactics, especially with Zardes now in the fold, will be very important to the team's success.
In central midfield and defense, we largely see stability and the same core group of players featuring. Unfortunately if either Price or Wilson are out, we have no direct replacements on the team. There are players that can step in who are talented but their passing abilities are unique. Trusty is leaving the team for Europe (officially on July 17) which means we'll likely see more Vallecilla at centerback as the replacement. The other way of shuffling the team around involves moving Rosenberry to centerback and Beitashour/Markanich to wingback. Although the club signed Aboubacar Keita, another future centerback prospect, he is out for the season due to injury. Otherwise, the team defense isn't quite on the same level as last season but with some turnover in personnel this is to be expected. In a few weeks from now, ideally we should see improved defensive performances and overall stability.
The production of wingers like Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis has dropped off considerably since last season. Brazilian U22 signing Max Alves has not seen a ton of action but hasn’t seized his chances either in midfield. The club has also had to cope without Braian Galvan who was expected to move into a traditional #10 role going into this season before suffering a season ending knee injury. We also saw Andre Shinyashiki leave for Charlotte FC on May 3, 2022. Reinforcements recently arrived, however, in the form of former Rapids player and Scottish national Sam Nicholson, on a two-year deal.
(Image: Colorado Rapids)
“We’re delighted to welcome Sam back to the club,” said Pádraig Smith, Colorado Rapids Executive Vice President & General Manager. “Sam is an incredibly talented and versatile attacker with exceptional pace and someone our team and coaching staff are very familiar with from his time with the club. We’re excited to welcome him back at this key juncture in the season and look forward to seeing him continue his career in Burgundy.”
Nicholson saw extensive action with Bristol Rovers, his previous club, in English Football League One, Two and the FA Cup amongst others. He made 75 appearances with 14 goals and eight assists during the two-year span in England. The addition of Nicholson provides a very direct play style, a great option on either wing. He has the pace to get in behind defenders and wreak havoc in 1 on 1 situations. Expect him to slowly integrate into the team and perhaps see his first minutes off the bench against Portland this upcoming weekend.
So what does it all mean?
The Colorado Rapids have struggled but these hurdles can be overcome. Improving the team chemistry comes with time. This could be bubbling underneath the surface and I do mean that in a good way. It's very possible this is visible on the field in short order. Player turnover is a tough thing to overcome and also can take time to mesh. The Rapids have seen plenty of players in and out of the club recently but the identity of the team is clear.
The team tactics have worked well under Coach Fraser and I don't expect them to change much. However, if the team can get better production from the creative players this will help the strikers like Zardes and Rubio. The playing style of these two strikers work in a way that involves the whole team. They're unselfish. Zardes is a good target striker while Rubio excels as the second striker. The wingers have to step up though. Barrios bagged his first goal of the season against NYCFC this past weekend. Hopefully this gets him back on track and we'll see the end product that was on display last season. In the long term, I expect we'll see Nicholson compete with Lewis for the other starting winger spot. Fraser keeps us all guessing when it comes to tactics so don't rule out a front three of Zardes, Rubio and one of Barrios, Nicholson or Lewis. Elsewhere on the field we won't see many drastic changes. Given a little more time playing together, we should see an improved end product.
The consistency is what is lacking, that much is clear. The Rapids have beaten LAFC and Seattle this season and are coming off a draw away to NYCFC. If they can iron out these issues by steadying things at the back and improving the creativity in attack, they can absolutely bounce back to winning ways. Colorado has exactly zero easy games coming up. If they don't start winning though, they could slip out of contention to make MLS Cup Playoffs. I don't think this will happen but that's what is at stake. The next fives games are huge for this club; away at Portland, home to Austin, away at RSL, home to Orlando, home to LA Galaxy. The Burgundy Boys need as many points as possible and to build some positive momentum in these upcoming games. They still haven't picked up a win on the road this season after being one of the best roads teams in MLS last season. The team has to overcome the on and off field issues, regardless of the circumstances. Come together as a team and grow. There's talent all over the field, with great experience and fantastic coaching. We are roughly mid-way through the season and have everything to play for. It was around this time last year that the Rapids got hot and rode that momentum into the final stretches of the season. I expect to see the Rapids turn this season around and climb up the Western Conference rankings. A reasonable expectation is to see Colorado get into a playoff spot and push for a 5th place finish.
Showdown at Providence Park This Weekend
This Saturday the Rapids travel to Portland to face a Timbers side that is sitting in 13th place. The Timbers love to sit back, soak up pressure and attack on the counter. Colorado will have a chance to dominate possession but most do something with the ball. If they can't find the space through a slow build up or overloading the wings, then they've got to just send some crosses in. Like we used to before Zardes arrived. It's never easy to go to Providence Park, it's a difficult place to play but the Rapids need to go in with a winning mindset. Lock it up in the back, stay sharp mentally and play with some urgency in attack.
Enjoy the game everyone, until next time- Cheers!