What Are They All About? Colorado Rapids
Toyota Park is a fortress. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the Seattle Sounders 4-1 in front of a “sold out” crowd. The result extended their 2017 home unbeaten streak to five matches and the performance reiterated the resurgence present within the club. The match provided onlookers with exemplary soccer from front to back as last year’s champions were humbled by the most complete match the Fire have put together this season. Shifting Bastian Schweinsteiger to his preferred box to box role, replacing Bava and Harrington, and giving Michael de Leeuw free reign underneath Nikolic all paid dividends for Veljko Paunovic. Chicago will look to repeat that performance this coming Wednesday as their busy spell continues against the Colorado Rapids at Toyota Park (7:30 CT on CSN Plus).
Standing in the way of continuing the fairytale is a Colorado Rapids side that has a lot to prove. It isn’t Chicago’s job to ensure that their opponents are at their best heading into contests and the Fire will be smiling slyly as the Rapids hobble into this one on poor form and amidst a somewhat head-scratching retooling phase. Colorado finished second in the Supporters Shield standings last season and made a run all the way to the Western Conference Final, adopting the “Worst to First” mantra that has surfaced over the years in MLS’ insistence on parity. This season they seem to be rebranding as “First to Worst” entering Saturday’s encounter at the bottom of the league. Pablo Mastroeni has some talent on the roster and has shown that his sides are tough to beat no matter where they sit in the standings. This league has already been full of surprises this season and Chicago cannot enter into this match with even a hint of complacency. Will the Rapids snatch their first road points of the season, or will the Fire continue their fine form? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Colorado Form Guide (last five matches): W-L-L-L-L
Previous Result: A 3-0 home victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.
Formation: 4-4-2 (typically 4-2-3-1): Howard; Hairston, Burling, Watts, Miller; Gashi, Azira, Powers, Saeid; Gordon, Badji
Strengths: Aside from losing Jermaine Jones who, let’s be honest, only saw Colorado as a stop on his way back to his hometown, this Colorado side entered the season mostly unchanged from their successful 2016 season. Mastroeni’s leadership and connection to the club have continued to pay dividends in terms of earning him the trust of the Rapids ownership and the fans. If there is anyone who can turn this squad around it’s the well-dressed Argentine-American. Let’s see where Colorado may excel on Wednesday.
The Memory of a Goldfish: In his post-match press conference on Saturday, Mastroeni said that the Rapids strung together the most complete performance he’s ever seen at the club. While he may have been exaggerating slightly in hopes of boosting morale, the 3-0 thumping of a playoff positioned team was a much-needed result. The Rapids will be hoping to have turned a corner. Mohammed Saeid, Shkelzen Gashi, and Dominique Badji showed well in the match. If Colorado can live in the moment and forget their horrendous run this season, they may just surprise a few people. If that seems like a backhanded compliment, you’re right. We struggled to prop up the mess that is the Rapids. We’ll continue anyway.
The Best Form of Defense is Attack: It seems that Mastroeni has taken that clichéd adage quite literally. In the match against San Jose, the Rapids opted to address their recent defensive struggles by shifting winger Marlon Hairston to right back. The move worked beautifully as Hairston completed 86% of his forty-seven passes, registered a shot on target, ran wild down the right-hand side, and completed ten successful defensive interventions. Aside from earning him a spot on the team of the week, the tactical shift also earned him high praise from Mastroeni who said that despite Hairston’s lack of enthusiasm for being labeled a “defender”, had a brilliant performance. Mastroeni alluded to a permanent positional switch for the youngster and the change could serve as a strategy to keep David Accam honest on Chicago’s left flank.
Tim Howard: No cute quips are needed to introduce this strength. After his bizarre suspension, the USMNT keeper returned to play against Vancouver last week. Although the Rapids fell 1-0, Howard kept them in the match throughout the encounter and he followed that performance up with a clean sheet against San Jose. Mastroeni has highlighted the need for Howard’s experience to shine through as a calming presence in times of uncertainty for Colorado. This is one DP that the Rapids have gotten spot on.
Clogging the Midfield: Although many MLS sides utilize the 4-2-3-1, the Rapids put their own twist on it in their assent up the table last season. Rather than having both of the central midfielders–the “2”–play the role of holding midfielders or asking them to both perform box to box duties, the Rapids pair a holding mid and a creative mid into those slots. Micheal Azira and Dillon Powers have made those positions their own this season. The latter has a knack for notching a fair number of assists in MLS, twenty-six over the last five seasons, while the former was utilized as a center back in the USL and in his time with Seattle. When you add the fact that the Rapids favored defensive minded fullbacks until Hairston’s tactical switch, you are left with a scenario in which Colorado is able to have a solid block in their own final third while possessing the ability to create from out of their own half. If Colorado returns to their old ways in this match, McCarty, Schweinsteiger, and de Leeuw could be stifled in the midfield and Nikolic won’t have a high line to exploit.
Weaknesses: This section does not need an extensive intro. This Rapids side is terrible at the moment. Whether they can emulate the type of midseason turn around exhibited in recent years by LA, Seattle, etc. remains to be seen, but Chicago is playing them amidst a unique spell. Let’s take a look at where Colorado will struggle.
If You’re Too Drunk, Put Your Phone Away: In what can only be called one of the most bizarre MLS trades in recent memory, in late March the Rapids traded team captain Sam Cronin and league veteran Marc Burch to Minnesota United for Mohammed Saeid, Josh Gatt, and an international slot. Gatt hasn’t made the eighteen in any of the last three Rapids matches, and although Saeid offers pace down the left and has also been used centrally by Mastroeni, the departure of key players and franchise leaders hardly seems justified in this instance.
The official reason given was that the move frees up salary cap space for attack minded moves in the summer, but cries of league involvement to help a struggling expansion side have been heard as well. The defensive style was working for Mastroeni and although it wasn’t always pretty and may not have fit with MLS style guide, it was working for them. Prior to this week, Colorado lost five consecutive matches in the wake of the trade. If the Rapids don’t land a star in the Summer and find themselves outside of the playoffs in October, fingers will be pointed to this strange piece of business.
These Boots Were Made for Slipping: Perhaps evident of their need to improve on the offensive side, this Rapids side has registered just twenty-one shots on goal all season. If you want a comparison, Sebastian Giovinco alone has twenty. Colorado’s build up play seems to be there, they hold their own in passing completion and possession, and they have three forwards on the roster that should be more than capable of providing goals. However, for multiple reasons, they seem to be struggling with their final touch. Kevin Doyle’s fall from stardom is not only evidenced by his dropped DP tag, but reflected statistically in his measly thirteen goal haul in his fifty-four MLS appearances. Shkelzen Gashi has fared slightly better in his DP tenure, eleven goals in thirty-two appearances, but injuries have relegated him to just four starts this season and questions remain about his consistency. Lastly, Alan Gordon hasn’t adjusted to his new club quite yet. Testing the waters of free agency landed him the salary he wanted, but no goals in six appearances has the Rapids questioning this move as well (emphasized by his tap in miss at the weekend). Kappelhof and Meira will not want to be bested by this lackluster frontline.
The Air is a Bit Different Out Here: Perhaps the most glaring statistical anomaly surrounding this Colorado side is their abysmal away form. Pablo Mastroeni and his charges have not picked up a single point on the road this season. They have lost all four away encounters and stuttered defensively, allowing seven goals in those matches. No amount of game tape can instantaneously overcome form and the Rapids seem to have a lax mentality on the road. The all too distant comforts of home may prove to be a stumbling block for Colorado in this one as they enter a difficult atmosphere.
Injuries: If you didn’t feel bad enough for this Colorado side, they are missing two key players heading into this match. Axel Sjoberg has not fully recovered from a hamstring injury suffered in March and we doubt he will be risked in an away match against an Eastern Conference opponent. Additionally, Nana Boateng is out long term with three fractured vertebrae. The youngster arrived from Manchester City as a response to Jermaine Jones’ departure and was beginning to show his creative spirit before the injury. The Rapids may just be hoping to get through this match in one piece.
Prediction: Both teams find themselves in the middle of a busy period but Chicago will not sacrifice their home form to rotate the squad. That will spell trouble for Colorado whose win against San Jose will be a small blip of positivity on their disappointing month. Chicago 2-0 Colorado. Nikolic keeps his hat in the ring for the Golden Boot and Michael de Leeuw notches a much deserved first goal of the campaign.