Martin Tomszak is back with another match preview. The Fire are in Colorado to take on the team at the top of the Western Conference.
What are they all about? Colorado Rapids preview
It took 120 minutes and PKs, but the Chicago Fire beat Indy Eleven and advanced to the fifth round of the Open Cup where they will face the Columbus Crew. However, they won’t have time to dwell on the result as they travel to take on the Colorado Rapids in league action this Saturday. Chicago has not won in the Mile High City since July of 2009 but they’ll be looking to avoid adding to an already record winless away record and get their MLS season back on track as the midway point slowly creeps closer. There seemed to be an aura of belief after the Open Cup victory and perhaps it will translate into some league positivity.
Colorado find themselves on top of the Supporters Shield standings and haven’t lost a home match this season while Chicago finds themselves at the bottom of the East. Will the Fire dig deep and start to turn their season around or will it be business as usual for the Rapids at DSG Park?
Colorado Form Guide (Last Five Competitive Matches): W-D-W-D-W
Previous Match: A 1-0 home win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Formation in the Last Match: 4-2-3-1; MacMath; Castillo, Sjoberg, Miller, Williams; Cronin, Powers; Badji, Pappa, Serna; Doyle
Strengths: If you had asked anyone at the beginning of the season where Colorado would be in the standings after fourteen matches we doubt they would have told you they’d be averaging 2 points per match and looking down at the rest of the league. Pablo Mastroeni himself probably wouldn't have come up with that answer. A team that was almost as bad as Chicago and Philly last season has been totally revamped with a few key signings and some excellent coaching. Let’s take a look at how they got there.
Reclamation Projects: Many critics thought that Mastroeni’s days were numbered after last season’s results but the ownership group stuck with him and they are having the last laugh. Mastroeni has been able to get the best out of his players in ways that other coaches in the league simply can’t. Mastroeni knows what it means to give everything for the club having himself appeared in 225 matches for the Rapids and has brought that pride out in his players, some of which were touted as troublemakers.
Jermaine Jones for example stupidly attacked the referee in New England’s last playoff match against DC in 2015, it earned him a six match suspension which Jones followed up with a contract hold out for a salary increase at New England. He had already underperformed in his second MLS season and suitors weren’t exactly lining up Stateside or abroad. Colorado took a chance on him and it has paid off. Channeling some of Jones’ frustration and aggression by utilizing him as a CAM instead of a DM, Mastroeni has seen a return of three goals and two assists in seven matches from Jones, two of which were match winners.
Former Fire legend Marco Pappa finds himself in a similar boat. After DUI charges and a bizarre incident where he was allegedly stabbed by the Former Miss Washington pageant winner his days in Seattle were numbered. A high salary and a drop in on-field quality meant that few teams wanted to gamble on him. Mastroeni stepped in and again reaped rewards with Pappa netting a goal and adding three assists in his seven appearances on the season.
Zach MacMath was brought in from Philadelphia at the beginning of the season and has started all 15 matches across all competitions for the Rapids. He may not feature much after the arrival of Tim Howard, but his 5 shutouts and effective distribution show that Mastroeni’s trust was well founded.
Pablo’s Kindergarten: Among the notable changes that occurred in the Rapids camp since that disastrous 2015 is an injection of youth to the side. A squad whose age averaged in the mid 30s now has an average age of 24. While not all of the youngsters feature consistently, Mastroeni has made it a point to include them as subs occasionally which looks like it could pay dividends when schedule congestion becomes a problem. Dominique Badji (23) has impressed this season serving as a second second striker. Although he has only scored one and notched one assist in his ten appearances, his speed creates space for the likes of Shkelzen Gashi, Jones, or Kevin Doyle to work with. If he starts on Saturday he could prove troublesome for Chicago’s advancing wingbacks.
Style of Play: Perhaps the biggest critique of Mastroeni’s side last season was that they couldn’t score. They were third in the goals against category allowing just 43 scores on the season (better than any Eastern Conference side), but they mustered a league worst 33 goals of their own. People complained about Mastroeni’s defend first mentality and he responded with a plea for patience. Well, in his third season in charge he seems to getting things going on the offensive side as well. Colorado still has a league leading 10 goals against tally but they have also scored 17 of their own in league play.
You would think that most of the creativity would flow through players like Pappa and Jones but due to suspensions, injuries and international call ups they have missed half of their team’s matches. It has been interesting to see the other members of the squad take responsibility for the attack in their absence. The 17 goals have been split among 11 goals scorers and the assists have come from 8 different players. Sam Cronin has served as an adequate replacement at CAM and Luis Solginac and Doyle have both had mini revivals of their own as DP Gashi still adjusts to the league. Basically Colorado has become dangerous from multiple outlets. Speed, creativity, clinical finishing, and hold up play are just some of the tools in their attacking box. When you combine that with the “nothing gets past us” mentality of the holding mids and back four, Chicago will have a tough time on Saturday.
The Altitude: Look, this one was obvious. Chicago played 120 minutes before traveling over 900 miles to Denver. Usually the wear and tear of the mountains kicks in at 35 minutes (or so they say) and Chicago hasn’t exactly prided itself on scoring early. Toss in the fact that Colorado will see this as a necessary three points before taking on conference rivals LA Galaxy and it seems very unlikely that the Fire come away with anything from DSG Park.
Weaknesses: Ultimately this section will pay lip service to the fact that there is always a glimmer of hope for everyone in MLS. While fatigue, injuries, squad depth, finishing chances and overall quality have stifled the Fire recently, Colorado has a few areas where they have been struggling themselves.
International Duty: It turns out that if you sign international quality players they will miss a match from time to time. Jermaine Jones was called up for the Copa America Centenario and although he received a red card suspension in Thursday’s match, he won't be allowed to return to Colorado early. DP striker Shkelzen Gashi is also away with the Albanian national team at the European Championship. As stated above, squad depth is not necessarily an issue but we cannot forget that Colorado also played midweek and fatigue could be an issue for both sides.
Closing Out Matches: One area where Chicago may find hope is in Colorado’s inability to close out matches against Eastern conference opposition. In their matches against Philly and DC this season late goals have forced the Rapids to be satisfied with just a point rather than all three. Their draw against Montreal saw them come back from behind twice, however statistically speaking they dominated that match and arguably could have had a late victory there as well.
Murphy’s Law: Colorado will be looking to reach 30 points at the earliest stage of a season in their club’s history on Saturday. Perhaps a bit of MLS voodoo will prevent them from reaching that mark. Who knows? Maybe they’ll underestimate a desperate Chicago side and be made to pay for it. We’re sorry but that’s all we’ve got folks. Colorado is undefeated in their last 10 matches, hasn’t lost to Eastern Conference opposition this season, and hasn’t really put a foot wrong in recent matches.
Prediction: Chicago might look to rest up before what will be a crucial week featuring matches against Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia in league action and then facing rivals Columbus Crew SC in the fifth round of the Open Cup. Look for a weakened starting line up and a less than pretty score line. Chicago 0-3 Colorado