The "Prince Of The Pass" Returns: The Opta Perspective On Martin Rivero

USA TODAY Sports

Martin Rivero has returned to the fold for his first significant minutes since last year, what are the significant points of his performance against the Columbus Crew?

Martin Rivero's return to the starting 11 was met with some fanfare by me and a lot of other fans. MLS commentators on ESPN noted how important Rivero is to Pareja's 4-3-3, and UZ and I have both noted how Pareja has transitioned from his tandem of attacking midfielders (Castrillon and Rivero) to more of a spine which features a guy to take care of the base of the team, a guy to connect and transition, and a guy to orchestrate the attack.

Thus far, we've seen a lot of different iterations of that "spine" with a rotating cast of characters all either coming in or going out based on injuries or loss of form, but the concept remains the same: one foundation, one connector, and one maestro. And while the Rapids have more than certainly found their first choice Foundation in Hendry Thomas, and almost certainly found their new Connector in young Dillon "American Xavi" Powers, their Maestro has been cast in somewhat of a doubt. For while the Rapids have certainly been possessing the ball in their opponents half, they haven't been remarkable at making good chances turn into goals.

A lot of this falls upon the forward corps. Again, another rotating cast of characters. Now they seem to be settling upon a philosophy similar to the "Spine" that Pareja favors in his midfield: Foundation (Edson Buddle), Speed and Width (Danny Mwanga), and Power and Unpredictability (Atiba Harris). Of course, in an ideal world, the guys to occupy those spaces would seem to be Buddle, Kevin Harbottle as the guy to provide width and speed, and the power and unpredictability to come from DeShorn Brown. But for now, these are the guys we have got.

I'm going to look at two games, one against the Houston Dynamo and one against the Columbus Crew.

One thing I want to make pretty clear is that some of the things I saw in the match against the Crew can't be translated into Stats. One of them is dangerous tackles which were not called as fouls. It should have been unclear to no one watching the game against the Crew that both Dillon Powers and Martin Rivero (with an emphasis on the latter) were singled out as players to watch out for and to tackle mercilessly. I could count nearly on both hands the amount of times someone recklessly launched into a ball that was completely under control by the opponent.

Drew Moor also got punched in the face by Jairo Arrieta--a foul that looked exactly like the one which cost the Rapids Centerback a red card and a Mike Magee penalty. The Crew played cynically and deliberately targeted the two young players. As karma would have it, Powers bagged a goal and the Rapids got a win for their troubles. Justice was done at least on some level.

But what was the "Rivero Effect"?

In essence, the effect Rivero has is that he increases pass efficiency and offensive fluency in the final third. No one player has the kind of influence Rivero has. When you put him in the equation, the Rapids complete 109 of their passes in their opponents' half. Without him? Only 84. No one has that kind of swing in their bare numbers, and those are just his passes. In a game where you're not seeing a whole lot of the ball, a guy like Rivero is the difference between making the most of your possession and having to restart the play again from the back.

Another thing that Rivero does is for the most part he gets tackled far up the field, and man was he getting tackled hard. 5 out of the 16 tackles on him were foul-worthy calls. The kid takes an absolute beating, and was tackled more times than any other player on the pitch save for Atiba Harris. Though I think it's important to make a distinction between Harris and Rivero, because the game they play is so different. Harris likes to battle for the ball in the air, while Rivero seems to be a magnet for hard tackles because people want to rattle him off the ball and prevent him from making plays. So while Harris might be getting tackles because of his penchant to battle, Rivero gets it because of where he likes to play--right in the thick of it.

Here's where things get promising. If you look at Powers' map from Houston, and overlap that with Rivero's map from the Crew game. You start to see something emerging that, if successful, could mean that the Rapids spine is finally coming together. Both of them like to play in the center of the park, but until now, Powers and Hendry Thomas to a certain extent have had to either put a ball up over the top to the forward corps or dump the ball out to the wings in order to get some kind of an offense going. Or, alternatively, the forwards have to drop deeper to get the ball from midfield. This is not ideal because if you've got to drop deeper to get the ball, then you've got more space to cover to get back into the 18, and that gives a defense time to organize and post up. Not so, anymore. Now Powers has a guy who can take care of the ball in the center of the park just as well as he can, and can have more confidence going forward.

Look at the positive plays from Jamie Smith in the Houston game. It should be clear from that map that Jamie Smith is not a guy who likes to play through the middle. He likes to play on the wing and then cut in to the middle when he nears the 18. In a game where you need some extra width on the wings (like Houston) then that's a good thing. But if you want to play through the middle, you're going to need a guy who can work there. That's Martin Rivero.

The Rivero effect is this: the Rapids have a guy now who can play a central role going in their opponent's half of the field and has a mind to unlock the forward corps. You have a guy who can make the final decision in the attacking third as to where the ball is going to go before he gets it and has the confidence to call for it even though he's probably going to get clattered.

It's what the Rapids have been waiting for, and it provides the option the Rapids need to finally start looking like a versatile playoff team.

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