COMMERCE CITY, CO - APRIL 21: Mike Magee #18 of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Kosuke Kimura # of the Colorado Rapids vie for the ball at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 21, 2012 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Galaxy defeated the Rapids 2-1. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
There is a very simple strategy now that can be used to win over the Colorado Rapids this season, and teams are starting to realize it. See, the Rapids have fallen into the trap of trying to play 'sexy football' without actually knowing how to play 'sexy football'.
What does 'sexy football' even mean? Well to be honest, I still have no idea. It's just what most people call a possession and solid passing filled game these days, the kind of play the Real Salt Lake pride themselves on. The Rapids have certainly figured out how to possess in their new system, but the type of possession that they're producing just isn't productive possession.
I'll explain what I mean. See, the idea of 'sexy football' is usually to create goals, using great passing through all areas of the park to do so. That last part is why Gary Smith's style wasn't considered good looking, because while there were plenty of goals being scored they were mostly scored using a counter attacking style that just involved tons of crosses into target forwards in the box from the fullbacks rather than any real elaborate passing game. That was the first point that the Rapids needed to change when moving from that defensive 4-4-2 to the attack minded 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation they're using this year.
Unfortunately, it seems that they have no idea how to do so, and that's why the offense has faltered.
There's a difference between possession and positive possession. Possession is simply when you have the ball, and any idiot can tell you that it's good when you have the ball. The other team certainly can't score when possession is on your foot and you usually get more chances to score yourself. When your team is taking the ball forward and keeping possession with good passing around, that's positive possession and that's where goals come from.
The Rapids don't do that, though. They are doing a more negative form of possession, which means holding the ball in your own half for as long as possible, passing around your third around the defense for minutes at a time before finally trying to move the ball up, and eventually putting it right back in your third if the chance falters at any point. In fact, the Rapids are leading MLS in that particular type of passing right now, with over 21% of their passes coming from their own third going into the Galaxy game.
Colorado seem to play hoping that holding the possession will give them the win, but it's simply not working because they don't seem to know how to finish off plays once they get to the final third.The passing through the midfield is usually solid but when it gets to the top of the field they seem to revert right back to their old ways, with more crosses into the area with nobody on the end of them than attempted through balls and key passes into the eighteen yard box.
With so many players being played slightly out of position (Brian Mullan as a striker, Omar Cummings as an isolated target man up top) it seems to be keeping the team scared of turning it over up top since those plays rarely happen in the middle and when they do, turnovers do indeed come often.
That brings me to the easy way to defeat the Rapids new system that I mentioned earlier. Anyone who has watched those games can probably guess it. Simply let the Rapids have their possession and play for the counter attack with at least eight men behind the ball at all times when the Rapids take it over midfield. Their passing simply isn't polished enough to carve defenses up right now - part of that comes from having so many new players trying to adjust with each other, and some of that comes from the players out of position - so simply bunkering and working to get counter attacks and set pieces works like a charm.
Look at the last three games and you'll see the numbers bearing it out right in front of your eyes:
At Real Salt Lake - Rapids win possession 51%-49% and outpass them by 30 with the same passing accuracy, RSL outshoot Colorado by four and win 2-0.
At Seattle - Rapids win possession 60-40 and outpass Seattle by almost 200 with 6% better accuracy, Seattle outshoot Colorado by 14 (!) and score on one of many corner kicks they earn.
Vs. Los Angeles - Rapids win possession 62-38 and outpass LA by over 200 with 12% better accuracy, LA don't outshoot the Rapids but win 2-1 on a set piece and goal from a counter attack.
Conor Casey rejoining the team will certainly help the Rapids fortunes out when it comes to scoring goals, but even then he'll probably only help because they'll be doing the same system they've been trying for several games now of whipping as many crosses into the box as possible and hoping someone will get on the end of them. Casey will certainly get on the end of a couple of them and probably stick a few in, but there will still need to be work done at making their possession game into a positive possession game. He's more of a band-aid than an actual solution to the problem.
Unless we want to see this repeat itself ad nauseum again if Casey goes down injured, the Rapids need to solve the problems that they are having with their system in the roster selections and mentality that they've brought in. Otherwise, they'll never really be playing sexy football -- just a bastardized imitation of it that will see them wishing that possession was what won games rather than goals.
Gary Smith was very good at seeing what players he had available and crafting a system that fit the players he had rather than shoehorning them into places they might not otherwise belong to try and act as means to an end. Oscar Pareja seems to be caught in a loop of overthinking himself to try and get results. He's still a young manager, so he's got time to improve things but there are fixes that need to be done sooner rather than later.