Think back to last season for a second. I know, it's painful, but do it. Remember all of those matches that saw the Rapids put 15-20 shots on the opposition, but not score a single goal and lose 1-0 or 2-0? (Sometimes 2-1 if we were 'lucky'.) It was a recurring theme, and there was a very easy tactical blueprint to use against Colorado last season.
You see, the Rapids suffered from two things -- well, more than two, but we'll focus on two -- last season: finishing that wasn't particularly clinical and a horrid lack of defensive presence on the outside of the pitch. That meant an easy out for any team with even an ounce of width. All you had to do was let the Rapids hold the ball as much as they wanted in the back and the midfield, press high in the final third and they would either miss every chance or turn the ball over. A quick restart or a counter attack down the flanks later, it always ended in either a brilliant Matt Pickens save or a goal for the other team.
Well, the shoe's on the other foot now, and don't it feel good?
Getting an early goal is always a good thing, but the Rapids were able to pull a very similar tactical move against the Crew on Saturday after Edson Buddle tapped the goal in during the 9th minute. Columbus is a talented team, but their attack has been incredibly streaky this season and looked like they were misfiring a bit through the first 10 minutes of the game.
One might ask how we can say that the Rapids played a dominant game when they got outshot by 18 and let the Crew win the possession battle. It's the same reason that the Rapids were often dominated last year despite holding those stats: remember, when it comes to statistics, especially in soccer, one must always remember the narrative that followed them.
When Barcalona have 70% possession and 25 shots, it's usually because the other team simply couldn't stop them. There were no tactics involved there, it was simply Barca being Barca and taking down their opposition with no trouble. In this case, it wasn't a dominant performance by the Crew, it's because the Rapids let the Crew have the possession in the back and the midfield whenever they wanted. (When people try and say that possession is a 'useless' statistic, they usually only do so after that sort of game, when a team is being handed possession instead of working for it themselves.)
With the Crew holding the ball in the midfield and back the whole time, the Rapids were free to keep a high press going in the final third and try to force Columbus into bad attempts. To make an analogy to another sport, it's almost the soccer version of Syracuse's 2-3 zone in college hoops. No pressure until they get to the final area, and then smart positioning to keep them from getting anything but long shots. It's a bit risky, as your defense being subpar or the other team being able to take long shots destroys the idea, but it worked wonderfully for Colorado.
Check the OPTA chalkboard for the game, specifically at the shots that Columbus took. 14 out of the 22 shots were from outside the box, some of them from way outside. Six more were from just inside the box -- an area I'm classifying as anywhere from the edge of the box to the penalty spot -- and four of those missed the target. Only two chances came from close range, and both of those missed as well.
There were differences in the tactic from how it was used against Colorado last season, namely the fact that the Rapids played their usual game instead of trying a quick counter every time, but the final result was the same: a fantastic 2-0 win. I'd argue that the Rapids playing their usual ground game was even better than just going for counters every time as well, since it allowed the Crew fewer chances to have the ball themselves. Kind of a 'we'll give you possession, but keep it when we get it' sort of system. (Had they just gone counter the full 90, I doubt the possession would have been anywhere close to 55-45.)
That tactic is not going to work every time, but it does show another page in Oscar Pareja's tactical book, one that seems to be growing as the season goes along. Considering that particular one was used against us maybe 20 times last year, I'm glad he was able to figure it out.