Fire v Rapids match preview

What Are They All About? Colorado Rapids

Stasis. Last weekend the Chicago Fire drew against the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 in front of yet another desolate SeatGeek crowd. The result sees the Fire sitting on six points from six matches, a trajectory which will leave them far short of the average 1.41 points per game ratio it has taken to reach the playoffs over the last five years. Worse than that statistical reality is the fact that a Chicago side which has talent on paper was completely devoid of ideas against a defensive minded and mediocre Vancouver team. It seems as if every step forward on the pitch is followed up with at least a step back. It is time for serious questions to be asked of a technical staff that has had a relatively easy start to the MLS schedule with little to show for it. There is time to right the ship yet, but hope is dwindling as the Colorado Rapids visit the Windy City this Saturday (Noon CT on ESPN+).

The Rapids, however, make the situation in Chicago seem like a vacation on the beach. A franchise that is perhaps the only organization in the league that has been worse off than the Fire in recent memory is at it once again this season. A glimmer of promise was instilled in the hearts of Colorado fans this past offseason as they significantly bolstered their squad with MLS veterans and players with the hunger to win. The likes of Kofi Opare, Keegan Rosenberry, Diego Rubio, Nicolas Mezquida, and Kei Kamara were added in January after a head turning move for Kellyn Acosta transpired towards the end of last season. While their only DP is a retiring Tim Howard, the remainder of their squad has the makings of a midtable side that should be pushing for playoffs. Instead, the Rapids have two points from seven matches, and should the Timbers get anything from their game in hand, Colorado will be firmly cemented in last place of MLS.

Head coach Anthony Hudson came into the league last season after an impressive run with the New Zealand Men’s National Team which saw them just miss out on World Cup Qualification in the play-in match against Peru. His tenure with Colorado has been anything but a reflection of that run. A boring style of play, tactical rigidity, and the failure of his handpicked Kiwi and English lower division signings to adapt to the league have led to an 8-24-9 coaching record in MLS, a record that even Paunovic does not come close to mirroring. Needless to say, a loss in Chicago might spell the end of Hudson’s short stateside stay. Will the hosts put another nail in the coffin of the Rapids’ revival, or will the visitors condemn the Fire to another week of mediocrity? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.

Colorado Form Guide: L-L-L-L-D

Previous Result: A 3-2 home loss to DC United.

Formation: 4-4-2; Howard; Vines, Smith, Opare, Rosenberry; Bassett, Acosta, Price, Feilhaber; Kamara, Rubio

Strengths: It is not all doom and gloom for this Rapids side who are essentially and expansion team in all but name. There have been bright spots through the season including nearly beating a very good Sporting Kansas City side, grasping a point from the jaws of defeat in the snow against Portland, and nearly fighting back to salvage something against high flyers DC United. Let’s see where they might succeed this weekend. 

Goalscoring is Key: The Rapids have struggled to find the back of the net for what seems like an eternity. From last season’s abysmal thirty-six goal haul which saw them bottom of the league in that category to the quintessential 1-0 and 0-0 results under Pablo Mastroeni, this Colorado franchise has barely been able to tread water in a league that is quickly becoming electrifying in the final third. That seems to have changed this season with the acquisition of a plethora of attack minded players.

The Rapids have notched eleven tallies thus far in the season, the highest such haul from any non-playoff team in the league. Kei Kamara has revitalized his form of old—scoring four goals in just over six-hundred minutes—and newcomers Diego Rubio, Benny Feilhaber, and Nicolas Mezquida have all found themselves on the scoresheet as well. While their backline is still figuring things out, it is comforting to know that your forwards can keep you within touching distance of a result in any game. Colorado has done an exceptional job of providing an aerial threat in the final third through direct headers, hold up play, and knocking on second balls for the front two to capitalize on.

This is a particular strength against a Chicago side that has struggled significantly in the air. Marcelo’s miscalculations of flighted balls have directly led to three goals this season and converted center back Bastian Schweinsteiger has never been know for his aerial prowess. Kamara could once again haunt Chicago as he did with Vancouver, New England, Columbus, Kansas City, and Houston in the past. The Sierra Leonean has nine career tallies against Chicago and seems to have a particular knack for scoring in matches which mean a great deal to the Fire.

We’ve Got Nowhere to Go but Up: While the Rapid’s start to the season is anything but ideal, their last match against DC United may indicate that a change in fortune is around the corner. Colorado came out of the blocks looking to dominate the match and they did just that. They controlled possession, were dangerous in the midfield with Benny Feilhaber pulling the strings and had an intensity worthy of a playoff team. They also looked threatening in the final third. The result was a quick goal and the prospect of another. Unfortunately for the Rapids, they let a good DC side back into the match. There are some signs that the quality and desire is there.

If they can find consistency and truly unshackle themselves on the front foot, they have the potential to dig themselves out of this hole. One way to embrace such potential would be a formation shift. The 4-4-2, often with a flat midfield, is simply an outdated formation and does not suit Colorado’s strengths. If Hudson were to shift to a back three, or perhaps even utilize a 4-3-3, he could force a reactive Paunovic to bunker in the same way that he did against Vancouver. Colorado's roster has bold players, and Hudson should allow them to showcase that boldness. 

Weaknesses: Ok, now time for reality. This Rapids side has given an atrocious Timbers side their only point on the season, allowed a subpar Orlando side to claim their first victory of the campaign, and were humiliated at home by Houston. There is a lot of work for them to do to even reach mediocrity in the standings. Let’s see where they might struggle this Saturday.

A Mile Below Expectations: Ultimately, this is not a FIFA simulation where your roster works magic based on algorithmic outcomes, player ratings, and other statistical qualifications. The Rapids have not performed to the expected standards of this squad. A complete lack of pressing from the forwards, a nonchalance towards closing down in midfield, and mental errors from the center backs have come to typify this Rapids side in crucial moments of matches. Were it not for instances of each one of those factors against DC, the standings would look much different heading into this encounter. Hudson needs to find a way to motivate his players to focus for ninety minutes and play to their strengths. If he can’t, perhaps it’s time that Stan Kroenke finds someone who can.

A What-Fence?: For as good as their offensive exploits have been, the Rapids have been abysmal defensively. Their back line has needed improvement for the last two seasons and nineteen goals against in just seven matches sees them leading the pack—again—in the goals against category. The utilization of rookie Sam Vines at left back has been a move of necessity rather than a move spurred on by talent. Additionally, Kofi Opare has continued to cement his status as a reclamation project, and Keegan Rosenberry has justified his relatively low TAM and GAM cost while reassuring Philadelphia that they made the right move in letting him go. When you add the fact that Tim Howard’s retirement tour has already been plagued by head scratching mistakes, communication errors, and an inability to gel with his backline, the Rapids have quite the issue on their hands. Yes, you can win matches 6-5, but that is a dangerous way to set yourself up and it hasn’t exactly worked for Colorado. If CJ Sapong continues his current run of form and Nikolic shows that the first three matches of the season were just a blip, Chicago should win comfortably.

Prediction: We have an eerie feeling that dropped points against Vancouver, Orlando, and now Colorado will come back to haunt this Chicago side in October. Rapids 2-2 Fire. Kei Kamara with a double for the visitors. Nemanja Nikolic and CJ Sapong for the hosts. Look for vague post-match references of fight and determination.

Filed under: 2019 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire

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