Matt Doyle, one of our favorites here at Burgundy Wave, made some very good points in MLS' official playoff preview for the match against the Seattle Sounders today.
Specifically, he spoke at length about how likely the Sounders are to play in a 4-4-2 with a diamond formation in the midfield; that's a strategy that worked out for them against the LA Galaxy, or at least worked out better than anything else they'd tried in the month of October. It's a smart idea for the Sounders, since a large chunk of their talent rests in their midfield and forward corps. You could do far worse than a diamond featuring Clint Dempsey at the point and Osvaldo Alonso in the hole, regardless of who you had on the sides.
The problem with that formation, of course, lies in the wings, where the diamond is usually pinched in to keep the ball working up the middle until the fullbacks work their way up the field on the attack. That leaves occasional pockets of space to work with if you're the other team and you're looking to find a way to attack back.
Say, this sounds like it could potentially be an all right situation for the Rapids! In fact, if Seattle play that way, Colorado will be in an altogether decent tactical situation right from the outset. It's no secret that the Rapids have a system of pressure and possession in the deep center of the park with fast waves of attack down the wings. Against a team that is leaving their fullbacks a bit more exposed than they might be in a more width-based system, Colorado can punish them simply by executing their natural game.
If Seattle goes for the 4-4-2 Diamond formation, they'll essentially be banking on their team's talent taking out Colorado's straight up when going down the middle. Again, not a particularly bad decision to make from Seattle's point of view. Dillon Powers probably won't be in for the Rapids unless a minor miracle occurs, and Seattle has got one of the more talented midfield groups in the league. However, Colorado are built to try and absorb pressure that comes in that part of the field.
That's why Hendry Thomas and Nathan Sturgis make such a good pairing. The two of them perfectly match what the Rapids need in the back-end of their 4-2-3-1's midfield. Even in that horrible 3-0 loss to Vancouver, the two of them were on point, and it was the defense and offense that let the two of them down in the end. The two combined to complete 110 out of 126 attempted passes in that match (87% passing accuracy!) and combined for 27 recoveries and a couple of interceptions and clearances as well.
When the defense is on point behind them, it's usually a good day for the Rapids, even though a goal is allowed on occasion. And make no mistake, a goal will likely be allowed today. When looking at the road record of this team -- I'm not counting the Vancouver game in this, because the team clearly was struggling to find motivation -- the offense has often been the biggest problem, even in matches where the defense struggled as well.
I'm not here to talk defense, though. I'm fairly certain that the Rapids are going to let in at least one goal. Everything is against them in that category. A desperate Sounders team, flooding the midfield and playing in front of a raucous crowd? It's hard to bet against that producing at least one. I'm here to talk about how the Rapids should be able to score a few of their own.
That leads me to today's match. Oscar Pareja has had a somewhat annoying tendency this season to start conservative lineups and sit back a bit on offense when he's been on the road. The last match against Seattle in Seattle was a perfect example. Atiba Harris and Nick Labrocca both started as wing-strikers for the Rapids with Deshorn Brown up top. What happened? Harris and Labrocca both sat back and did nothing while the Sounders put two men on Brown the entire game. Colorado ended that match with a goal from a set piece (something that the Sounders aren't particularly adept at covering) and just about nothing else.
To wit: Harris had a breathtakingly awful 45% passing accuracy that match, attempted eight failed flick-ons, and was tackled to lose possession a whopping 28 times. To give some perspective, that's twice as many lost possessions as Deshorn Brown and Edson Buddle had in that game combined.
Yet, Harris had the ball more than anyone else on the team. Why? Because play down the wings is a necessity for the Rapids. It's the bread and butter of their offense. When the Rapids are sending numbers forward in waves while the ball is carried to the byline, the Rapids are at their best. That's when the player with the ball (either a fullback or a wing-striker) either whips a cross in while the other team is trying to catch up to the forward ranks or a diagonal ball is played on the ground or through the air to switch the point of attack and isolate a guy like Gabriel Torres, Deshorn Brown or Vicente Sanchez, or anyone else who can make plays happen from one-on-one isolation. They were giving the ball to Harris and expecting him to do something with it.
Unfortunately, the Rapids as a team were sitting back in that match, as we so often saw them do on the road this year. It wasn't completely Harris' fault that he could scarcely make anything happen, because he received the ball most of the time while standing around or just past the halfway line. Labrocca hardly fared better, because the Seattle fullbacks had Atiba and Nick's numbers and were easily closing down Brown by double-covering him. Colorado had nine shots all day. One was the goal. Seven of the others were taken from outside the box, and the majority of those came nowhere close or were blocked. Despite the draw and Labrocca grabbing the assist on the set piece goal, I think that was one of the worst games that Pareja coached all year.
Compare that to the 5-1 sloshing that the Rapids put on the Sounders on Oct. 5th. Here's how the goals happened:
1: A long ball to an open Gabriel Torres on the wing, who absorbs the two players surrounding him and launches a perfect diagonal ball into the feet of Deshorn Brown, who makes a great run in from the midfield.
2. Set piece goal, albeit a crafty one.
3. The entire play on the field has shifted to the far end for this one, with Deandre Yedlin covering Brown while the ball is moved cross-field through the middle by Sturgis, Sanchez and Dillon Powers. Powers gets the ball in an isolated area and boots it into Brown's path, trusting him to get through the one-on-one. He does.
4. Another set piece goal.
5. Colorado gets the ball through the midfield quickly, and Martin Rivero sprays it out wide to a wide open and onrushing Gaby Torres. With the Sounders defense playing catch-up, he can pick his shot. Notice a man making the far post run as well.
There you go. Three goals from the run of play, all of which involved getting guys into isolated areas and playing out wide. All of them needed the Rapids to be ruthless and fast going forward, and all of them came, at least in part, thanks to a bit of pace. That's Colorado Rapids soccer at its best. Like the first game against Seattle, Colorado only had nine shots. However, the way those shots were created made all the difference.
What's the biggest difference between those two games? Pareja's lineup choices and decision to go out and ruthlessly put bodies forward from minute one instead of sitting that few feet back, something that has been a theme from home to road games this year.
You do not get that when you sit back and play a slow and ambling game in the attacking half, though. Watch the matches against the Quakes and the Caps again. There's no movement, no speed, no intensity, no isolation. When Edson Buddle was in the box, he was usually surrounded or incredibly tightly marked, because he had to catch up to the play. Nick Labrocca is not a striker, and it shows when he's forced to try and make things happen in the final third. Atiba Harris is good at what he does best, but what he does best clashes badly with what the Rapids do best. (Gary Smith'd love him, though!)
It can look like longball sometimes when things aren't clicking, because it kind of is. They're hoofing it to the unmoving forwards, who at that point are best served either passing back, taking on the defense by themselves (Deshorn Brown actually did that a few times, to be fair) or hoping that an overlapping run by a fullback can make it happen instead. I recall at least one time in that Whitecaps game, Buddle got the ball smacked to him, standing in front of all four Whitecaps defenders, who didn't even move that much to take him on. It was lifeless, and a perfect symbol for the road play that I was talking about before.
For those of you who didn't want to read all of that garglemesh, here's the TL;DR version:
If Pareja decides to go do-or-die and plays the same type of game he loves to play at home with a lineup that features speed and talent on isolation plays, I think the Rapids have a chance to nick a goal or two in this match, and perhaps even shock the world with a victory. If he goes conservative and sits back like he has so many other times... let's not talk about it. Go Rapids.