I honestly don't care who starts in the defense and midfield against the Montreal Impact. I'm expecting the exact same lineup as before, with Brian Mullan perhaps slotted in at right back instead of the struggling Marvell Wynne. Other than that, the Powers-Sturgis-Thomas midfield and the Mera-Moor center back pairing with Chris Klute outside will be fine. (We'll assume that Shane O'Neill does not, in fact, have access to a magical elixir that would allow him to make a start after playing 90 minutes on Thursday and then enduring a plane flight from Turkey back to North America.)
The Impact will probably find goals regardless of who is playing in the back for the Rapids. When you have Marco Di Vaio as your center forward and talents like Felipe and Justin Mapp surrounding him, it's not a particularly hard prediction. Like so many games this season, the Rapids will need to score goals -- note the letter 's' on the end of that -- if they want a result in Canada. (I think we can all agree that a tie is truly a win for all of us, correct?)
In other words, we're going to be rooting for another crazy goal-fest like last season's 3-2 improbability-fest, though probably without the magical wind powers of Scott Palguta saving the day this time around. Probably. "But wait!" you scream, "We were actually putting the ball in the back of the net on a somewhat regular basis this year, and we're awful at doing so this year!" Well, Mr. Voiceinmyhead, that's a very good point. Finishing is bad, as is the team's ability to create chances so easy that anyone could finish them. The spice that we'll sprinkle onto the team sheet to fix that is the same as the spice so often attributed to live: variety.
So here's where I juggle things a bit to get a result: the starting three up top. If I were managing the team -- I've won several Football Manager trophies, I'll have you know! -- here's some of the line ups I might consider:
Harbottle - Buddle - Brown
Castrillon - Harris - Brown
Cascio - Brown - Harbottle
Ben and I discussed this on the Thugcast on Thursday, how the Rapids were going to need a variety of skills up in the attack if they were to have any chance of knocking on the door of Montreal's rock solid defense. One of my biggest issues with the Portland Timbers match -- and trust me, there was plenty to get disgruntled about in that one -- was that Oscar Pareja chose to play Nick Labrocca and Atiba Harris on opposite sides as wing strikers, flanking Deshorn Brown. The problem with it was that they're both pretty much the same player when put in that position -- a guy with average speed who rarely helps keep possession and struggles to run at people. Predictably, when the Timbers started double-covering Brown, the offense died immediately. They lacked any semblance of speed and even when Brown got the ball, he was rarely in a position where he could dump it off to anyone but his midfielders. It's no coincidence that after Brown, the most shots belonged to Nathan Sturgis.
Pareja can't afford to do that against a much better Montreal defense. If he starts Atiba and Labrocca again, the game's pretty much over before it began, especially because at that point 2/3 strikers on the field will be slow, and easily closed down by Montreal's defense, which is light on pace but heavy on talent.
There are three types of attacking players in my mind:
Speed: Speaks for itself. Ask any coach and they'll tell you all about the one thing that you can't teach on the field. Omar Cummings was the type of guy that thrived mostly based on his speed and his ability to run at people with it or get a ball in space and outrun anyone coming his way. Currently, Kevin Harbottle is a pretty good example of a speedy attacker on the Rapids.
Strength: The type of guy who usually plays as a hold up guy or target man is usually the 'strength' archetype. Soccer smarts help out a lot with this variety -- they mean the difference between a Conor Casey and an Atiba Harris -- but if you have the power to get past other guys and hold them off, you're probably a strength player. Edson Buddle is the best example on the current team, taking the role of 'Conor Casey replacement' that we predicted he would in preseason. Deshorn Brown has the potential to be a special breed of striker simply because he possesses both game-breaking speed and superb strength, a hybrid type guy.
Finesse: This is the Lionel Messi type, a guy who will kill you with technical ability or sneakiness. Tony Cascio and Jaime Castrillon, when they're playing as strikers, are guys who don't get past defenders because they're necessarily stronger or faster than them, but have the ability to weave magic with their feet on the ball. Often, these are the guys that help keep the possession for you if you're looking to keep the ball in the final third as long as possible. Rarely do you see them playing as a center forward, more often used as a deep-lying forward or a wing striker.
That in mind, let's put those three lineups I posted up there a different way:
(Speed, Strength, Speed/Strength)
(Finesse, Strength, Speed/Strength)
(Finesse, Speed/Strength, Speed)
See what I'm getting at? Each one of those lineups, on paper at least (I doubt he starts Tony Cascio regardless of the situation because of the putrid form he's displayed) has a mix of different skillsets in there, and at least one speeedster ready to burn the slow defense they'll be facing. It's OK to have one strength guy in there, as long as you go in with the expectation that he will NOT be the one scoring. He'll be providing for the other two, who will either need to get past that defense with blazing speed or with the sneakiness that 'finesse' provides. Edson Buddle is obviously the poster child for that, but you could theoretically use Atiba Harris or even Brown in that position as long as he's being flanked by finesse and/or speed.
If I'm going to wager a guess, I'd say that the first option up there, despite lacking finesse, is probably the most likely one we'll see. Though 'finesse' is missing, I'd argue that Harbottle's ability to run at people with his quick feet on the ball makes him close enough, and Brown's mix of the best of both worlds helps out even more. When I talk about variety in the attack, that's what I'm referring to.
Now, finishing is another story, but a story for another time. If there's no variety in the attack for the Rapids on Sunday though, I've got a bad feeling that we won't see any chances that will need finishing in the first place, and at this point, we're working on baby steps. If baby steps somehow get us back to the United States with a point in hand, I doubt any of us will be complaining.