Other than the obvious big notes from the line-up of Dillon Serna and John Berner both being given their first MLS starts, there was one other big story from the game against the New York Red Bulls: Nick Labrocca was given a starting spot in the defensive midfield, in the spot Nathan Sturgis had so often held last season.
Understandably, there were a few eyebrows raised at that decision. Labrocca's 2013 campaign could charitably be called 'mediocre', while Sturgis was coming off of a breakout season. We were all forgetting, however, what Labrocca could do in his natural position. Last season, Nick Labrocca got almost zero time in the midfield proper. That's where he was Chivas USA's MVP candidate, and the spot that he patrolled for the Rapids during the later Clavijo years.
You'll remember that last season, we weren't the biggest fans of Labrocca, but it was more the fault of Oscar Pareja than it ever was of Nick himself. Oscar insisted on using Labrocca as a wing-striker, often times across from Atiba Harris when he was playing his usual blend of 'grinding on the road'. The results were often less than stellar, because Labrocca just isn't suited to that type of play. He's not the kind of guy that you give the ball to and then watch run 20 yards up to the byline. He hasn't the pace nor the dribbling ability to be in that role, which is why it was so frustrating to see him get trotted out there week after week.
Pablo Mastroeni has placed Labrocca back into a deep, defensive midfield role. It may have been out of necessity. Losing Hendry Thomas meant that the team would lose a big chunk of its bite and tackling ability in the midfield. Jose Mari is more of the wily passing type in the back, keeping possession and distributing the ball around. There were some questions about his ability to take that spot from Hendry Thomas. Instead, Mari was placed in Sturgis' role from last year and Labrocca was given the old Thomas role. He's still got some decent game when he's in the right position, and he showed us that when he rewarded Pablo for giving him the start on Saturday.
Labrocca was the second-busiest Rapids player on the field after Shane O'Neill. He completed 87% of his passes and had two interceptions, two blocks and four recoveries on the defensive side of things. Those were about the numbers that Hendry Thomas put up most games last season; Labrocca provided a seamless transition against a team that came in with a solid attack.
We'll see if he can keep up the good work in that productive a manner, but Labrocca gave us at least 90 minutes to remind ourselves that, when in the right position, he can be just as solid a starter in the defensive midfield as anyone in MLS.