Like it or not, the Rapids were never going to get a high-profile, experienced coach this off-season. After Pareja flew the coop, there were fans clamoring for names like the Dely Valdes brothers to get brought in, or at least guys with some experience like John Spencer or Robin Fraser. At the same time, those fans were bemoaning another change in playing style that would come with a new coach. Colorado quickly made it clear that a new style wouldn't be a worry.
The Rapids have, from the front office down, what they've called a 'team-wide philosophy'. They're taking the core elements of what Oscar Pareja brought to town and keeping them, similar to what Real Salt Lake have done despite the departure of Jason Kreis. Just like how Salt Lake were never going to bring in an experienced manager with his own style of play, the same was naturally going to be true for the Rapids. There is a difference in our case, of course. It's a bit harder to swallow that the team is going all-in on a philosophy that really only worked for half a season when Salt Lake have an MLS Cup and no fewer than four other trophies that they just barely missed out on (tee hee) as incentive to keep Kreis' style around.
Regardless, this style now guides the Rapids from the academy on up, and they needed a coach who would be willing to bring it to what will hopefully be a period of glory in the future. Pablo Mastroeni is the best guy the Rapids could find for the job, considering what they were looking for: someone who knows the game and is willing to play the Rapids' way.
But what is 'The Rapids' Way'?
Formation & Style
I wrote a piece last year called 'The Evolution of Pareja-Ball' that detailed the four main styles of play that Oscar Pareja used during his time with the Rapids. The fourth and final one was the 4-2-3-1 that won the Rapids success through the latter two-thirds of the 2013 season. That is the same one that the Rapids have used in the 2014 preseason and the one that the team will probably be built around as long as the current front office is in power.
It's a simple concept, similar to the one that Jurgen Klinsmann uses with the US Men's National Team. Possession in their third, fast and smart attacks in the other. The engine that makes the style hum lies in the two deep, defensive midfielders. Those are the players who must be the smartest with the ball and make the majority of the passes on the team. On the offense, movement and speed are the keys. The left back, along with the two wing-forwards, central attacking midfielder and center forward, are the usual five suspects that put on the show in the final third. A bread-and-butter Rapids attack features one of the wide men taking the ball to the by-line as the rest of the attackers flood the box and try to either open themselves up for an isolation play through a cross or a diagonal ball, or create good match-ups for a cross to feet or a head. In the middle of it all, Dillon Powers and, if he's playing, Edson Buddle, act as the steadying mediators to the flurry of movement around them.
It is dazzling to watch when it works out and it should make the Rapids one of the most fun teams in the league to watch regardless of where they are in the standings. To call it a 'possession' style is a bit disingenuous, because the Rapids are not Barcelona or Real Salt Lake. They do hold the ball, but not everywhere on the field. Colorado does not seek to win games with 65% possession, but they don't tend to do well when held to 35%, either.
There are still changes that could come as the style grows. Marvell Wynne not being at right back anymore is a prime example. He had deficiencies on the attack, and bringing Shane O'Neill -- a man who loves to get forward so much that we often saw 50-yard runs from him while he was playing center back -- into that position might mean adding a sixth man into the attacking picture far more often.
Pareja added some ugly wrinkles to the successful aspects of that style last year, specifically a maddening tendency to go conservative, compact, and into semi-longball mode when he was on the road. Those were the games where Atiba Harris and/or Nick Labrocca were used as forwards, including the doomed-from-the-start match-up against Seattle that ended Colorado's playoff run. It's a style that simply cannot work if played in a conservative manner; imagine how Real Salt Lake's narrow 4-4-2 would look if they were trying to sit back and absorb pressure instead of creating as much pressure as they could themselves. It is how Pablo and the rest of his coaching staff handle and grow the club's system that will determine the success on the field this year. If he follows Pareja's lead in terms of conservative performances, seemingly playing to tie rather than win, we might be in for another frustrating season.
Potential Starting Lineup
Mastroeni made it a point during the off-season to involve everyone in the team, and to switch up his starting XI every game so that everyone got a chance to play together. If he's going to have to use a 'next man up' strategy like Pareja did last season, the team will at least be prepared for it. That does leave the starting XI a bit of a mystery, though.
We know there will be changes from expectations last season. Marvell Wynne is returning to center back and Shane O'Neill might be getting minutes at right back. In terms of the forward corps, there are tons of names to pick from. I would assume that we'll see a mix of speed (Brown), power (Buddle) and finesse (Torres) to get the best of all worlds when crafting a starting three of forwards.
Here's my best guess at what we're going to see, assuming everyone is healthy, against the New York Red Bulls on March 15th:
Deshorn Brown - Dillon Powers - Gabriel Torres
Nathan Sturgis - Jose Mari
Chris Klute - Drew Moor - Marvell Wynne - Shane O'Neill
BENCH: Joe Nasco, Grant van de Casteele, Marc Burch, Jared Watts, Dillon Serna, Vicente Sanchez, Marvin Chavez
See the rest of the Burgundy Wave Rapids Season Preview: