There have been plenty of things to criticize regarding Oscar Pareja's handling of the team in his first season with the Colorado Rapids.
In my eye, the biggest issue that our new gaffer has had has been his tactics. We expect tactical naivety from a first year manager, but it's been absolutely painful at times to see some of the decisions he has made. Very often he has outsmarted himself while trying to outsmart other coaching veterans of the league. I could count on my hand the number of times his needless tactical fiddling has worked, and I probably wouldn't need to use any fingers.
Of course, the hope is that he'll eventually start to learn the ways of the game and become a far more stable and smart manager with his tactics. That hope was given a jolt when the Rapids beat the Portland Timbers 3-0 on the backs of not only a great team effort, but some great tactical decisions by Pareja.
Oscar had a short layover between games against the Timbers, so all of the 1-0 loss at JELD-WEN was still fresh in his mind, I assume. There were a few key problems that plagued the Rapids in that game:
* No offensive punch even though the defensive line wasn't exactly dominating. Kosuke Kimura in particular looked weak, but was matched up against uninspiring play from Brian Mullan on the right side of the pitch.
* Conor Casey was playing the same way he had been in the past few games, looking gassed and a step behind. He just couldn't score with the same rate he used to score.
* Tyson Wahl was being overmatched by Sal Zizzo, which allowed Portland to get one too many chances into the box, including the eventual game winner.
Oscar Pareja clearly assessed those problems and made adjustments to fix all three.
* He switched Tony Cascio from the left side of the field to the right side, which matched him directly with Kosuke Kimura. Kimura has always struggled against players notably stronger or faster than him, and Cascio had a superb strength advantage over him.
* He put in Andre Akpan in place of Casey. Akpan was the one guy who hadn't gotten much time to try and get goals among the strikers the team has, and the Casey-Cascio pairing up top clearly wasn't working.
* Luis Zapata, a faster and stronger player than Wahl, was put in to stop Zizzo.
What happened? Those adjustments led to a 3-0 win for the Rapids.
Akpan and Cascio showed a chemistry up top together that we had never seen in several games of Cascio playing with Casey. Kosuke had one of the worst games of his career, matched up against Cascio like that. Zizzo became a non-factor with Zapata on his flank. Three moves, all with minimal risk, three successful tactical ideas to add to his resume.
That's what a great manager does -- sees the weaknesses of the teams he plays and changes his team not to try and outsmart them with something they've never seen before (playing a high line against San Jose) but by changing the team specifically to match whatever they may be lacking in. The trick to turning Pareja into a great manager will be his ability to keep those sorts of things in mind in future games.
Until then, I would argue that the 3-0 win against Portland was the best game tactically he has had so far in his short managerial career.
Of course, there's not just a grain of salt to take the victory with, but a whole shaker of it. In most situations, Pareja won't get to face a team twice in a row and get the chance to so quickly make his adjustments. The Akpan insertion was a risk, despite it working out well in the end, and the game also took place at DSGP, where he has typically not made his most egregious tactical decisions. (4-1-4-1 formation in Seattle, anyone?) It will be interesting to see what he does against the Galaxy in Los Angeles.
Will he try something drastic again, begging the gods essentially for road points? Or will he stick with what worked against the Timbers his last time out, perhaps trying to bolster his midfield a bit to counter the strong attack that the Galaxy have in theirs? (Having Hendry Thomas should solve that problem anyway, but you never know.)
It's good to know that Pareja is learning how to manage this soccer team well as he nears the end of his first season. It's a good sign, even if that learning curve is taking a full season to start gelling in.