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Adios, Pablo: A Tactical Perspective

Colorado Rapids fans got a shock when Pablo Mastroeni was traded, but the tactical shift from Gary Smith to Oscar Pareja provides a window into why.

Adios, Pablo
Adios, Pablo

There's been a lot made of the Pablo Mastroeni to Los Angeles Galaxy trade for some non-tangible stuff, and Facebook rants (which horrify my sensibilities as a writer in specific and as a human being in general) aside: this had been coming for a while--though as a fan of the club, I desperately wish it wasn't. I honestly did not believe the team would ever trade away Pablo, but my reasons were purely from a personal perspective: Pablo WAS the Colorado Rapids to the fans, kind of like how Conor Casey was the face of the Colorado Rapids to the rest of the league. So, my thought was that Pablo would always be here, even though tactically he was--and it hurts to even say it--expendable.

Tactically, we could survive without Pablo Mastroeni, and the Rapids will survive without Pablo Mastroeni, though we wouldn't have if this were the same system we were using two years ago, a system that I have come to lovingly call the "Gary Smith Double-Deadbolt Special."

We can absolutely call what Smith did, at the basic level, a variation of clog-and-hoof, or Boom-ball, or whatever "bad-football" term we want to say for it. It was ugly, but not everyone plays the same kind of ugly. It's like people. There are a lot of ugly people in the world, but no one is the same kind of ugly. Ugly has always been more interesting to me than pretty. Pretty has its own set of standards--things we're just supposed to agree on. Everyone who is pretty is pretty in more or less the same way. But everyone has a slightly different ugly. Houston Dynamo have their own way of winning ugly, so do the San Jose Earthquakes. But they're different from each other.

Gary Smith's Double Deadbolt Special was based, fundamentally, on the Italian "Cattenaccio" (which means "Deadbolt") style of football, which emphasizes a rigid defensive shape and a prioritization on preventing goals over scoring them. The Cattenaccio in terms of shape is like a diamond. Kimura and Wallace the fullbacks would be in the same position, but Moor would play more forward and Wynne would play more towards the back as a Sweeper. The Sweeper role is one of the sure signs that someone is playing the Cattenaccio, and that's what Wynne did.

So that's one "Deadbolt" but what about the other one?

The second Deadbolt was in midfield. Smith essentially put the same principles to work in midfield as well, with Mastroeni acting as a roving midfield destroyer and Larentowicz as a lurking midfield sweeper to anchor the midfield to the defense. The offense would run through the wing play, and the fullbacks would not overlap so much as try to either give the ball to the wingers or to launch a hopeful long ball goal wards and hope that the big man - little man combination could latch onto it.

Pablo Mastroeni was so essential to that system because, also due to Gary Smith's lack of attention to depth and preference of a solid starting 11 week in week out, he was the only one who could play that position. Without him, the Rapids could not win the ball far enough up the field and thus would have to fall back and defend more often than not. If the Rapids were a double deadbolt lock, Mastroeni was the key to the lock. His unique blend of skills made him perfect as the centerpiece of the team, its beating heart and vocal leader. Pablo, having been a Centerback, could read the game and set the defense behind him.

Moor and Larentowicz could then respond and shape themselves to deal with an incoming threat, and Wynne would be there for security in case a speedster got by them in on goal. But without Mastroeni, it wouldn't work. No one else could both win the ball and set the defense like Mastroeni. His starting place was assured as long as he could keep it.

And then he couldn't.

The Rapids of 2011-2013 are kind of a story of growing up, and growing up past needing Pablo or else crumbling into nothing. Many times peoples started blaming the young guys who were playing in Pablo's position for being terrible, and while that may or may not be true, this was missing the point. The point was this team relied too much on Pablo. And if we can't win without him, what are we supposed to do when he can't play? Just sit around and say our season is over? (Which we've done)

Enter Oscar Pareja.

Two major things that Pareja and his staff have changed with the Rapids first team, while they didn't cause the trade, made the trade possible:

1. Emphasis on "next man up" depth: whoever is playing best this week in practice gets on the team sheet, end of story.

2. No more Double Deadbolt.

Pareja's tactics emphasize a midfield spine. We've talked about this at length, but the principle is that we have an anchor man, a box to box mid, and an attacking mid. That's the idea. The defense also is different, because the Centerbacks generally play in a line rather than having one in a sweeper role. He also relies frequently on attacking fullbacks to provide offensive width as opposed to relying on wingers.

So as opposed to having two spots where we need a defensive midfielder, we now only have (really) one. Pablo's role, if he could earn it, would be the Box to Box mid, but could he keep up with an ascendant Nathan Sturgis and the revelation of rookie Dillon Powers? Could he even compete with Nick LaBrocca?

That's strange to say, isn't it? Pablo "earning" a spot on the field? But it's what happened. Without that Double Deadbolt, Pablo not only found himself without a role that was his by right, but he also found himself even lower on the depth chart than he had ever been previously. While Pablo always had a place at the Rapids, his place on the field had to be determined by performance--and if he couldn't do it, he couldn't do it. And the Rapids weren't begging for him to come back and save them either, they were showing they could get it done without him.

It's hard to fault the Rapids for this, though people do find ways. The organization kept the door open for Pablo through his recovery: whatever he wanted, he got. He wanted to take time off? Sure. He wanted to get into practices again? OK by me. He wants his spot back on the team? Sure, he can earn that spot just like everyone else--week in, week out.

Pablo, honestly, never struck fans as the kind of player that took anything for granted. A player who pushed himself to be the best each week, and for a while, there was no one better in MLS at what he did, and the entire team revolved around him. He put them on his back through 2010. He saw them through rough seas, ownership changes, venue changes, four coaching changes...

And then, just suddenly as he arrived, he was gone.

I actually stayed up last night to watch the LA Galaxy play the Portland Timbers in one of the crappiest matches I've seen this year just hoping I could see Pablo Mastroeni take the field. Call it a need for closure, but seeing him in a Galaxy shirt, playing for the people of Los Angeles and not for the fans in Colorado anymore, it closed the door for me on the Pablo Mastroeni era of Colorado. I had to wait nearly through the whole boring display just to get to that little bit.

And then, just a few minutes before the final whistle mercifully ended the proceedings, as if he knew I were watching, Pablo Mastroeni got a foul called on him. I had to smile at it.

Adios, Pablo.