The end of the season is always sad when there's no playoffs. A whole year of following and cheering and hoping seems all for naught. It's the extinguishing of that last dying ember of hope of a season that was filled with infinite promise just six months earlier. But this season had a little different sadness: I realized the #RapidsTwitter community that had sprung up this season for me during the game was going to be going away for a long winter nap. Sunday was the moment at which I bid farewell to @storminmay and @protectyournet, to @thevagus and @corapids96 and @MarkMalajusted and @captied96 and. To @terracefoxes and @pablostache and @fakerapidstim. In a season where there was sometimes not enough to cheer for, Rapids banter made the season bearable. So thanks.
What Game States Can Tell Us About the Rapids Season
One thesis I had during this game is a thought I've had a few times this season: the Rapids under Pablo Mastroeni are looking to get a lead, defend, and hang on for dear life. It was my theory that this approach to games was self-defeating; it was more likely that the team would play too conservatively and blow the lead than it was that they'd be capable of scoring first and defending competently. Conversely, the Rapids game plan of getting a lead and bunkering would mean that they would become utterly hopeless if they fell behind early- it just wasn't in the game plan to come-from-behind. My theory was that the defensive mindset was what was helping contribute to the team's failure.
Fortunately, this is a testable thesis. First, the second part. Do the Rapids perform better or worse than league average when coming from behind? According to this article from Simon Borg, MLS from 2008-2012 averaged a come-from-behind win in 10.03% of games. The Rapids in 2015 were 2-11-3 when their opponent scored the first goal. That translates to the Rapids winning in 12.5% games when opponent scores first. With a small sample size like this, that's roughly within the margin of error. So the Rapids actually perform about as expected when they fall behind. I was wrong. They CAN play from behind and win, and they did it about as well as any MLS can be expected to do.
However, the first part of this thesis assumes that in this overly defensive mindset, the Rapids should get and hold a lead BETTER than league average. If that was true, opponents should also pull off the come-from-behind win only at about a 10% clip.
That's not what happened. When the Rapids scored first this season, their record was 8-4-2. That means in 2015 the Rapids lost 28.6% of games when they scored first. They performed far worse than the league average with a lead.
This could mean one of two things. First, it could mean that the defense wasn't good enough. While some of the league's more formidable defenses like the Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps and FC Dallas could stake their teams to a lead, the Rapids didn't have the temerity to hang on to the close ones. I don't love this idea. Say what you will about the Rapids this season, but overall, the defense was generally above average. The talent, in my opinion, was there.
The second possibility is that the problem was tactical. The Rapids played much worse with a lead than your average MLS team did. Thus, perhaps, the Rapids ‘game state' approach when up 1-0 is much worse than it should be. Perhaps the instructions from the coach were to blame. Maybe the team went into a defensive shell too quickly. Maybe too many players were committed to defense to grab that all-important second goal. Whatever it is, the team needs to go back in the offseason and look at exactly what went wrong in the six games where our opponent tied or beat us after the Rapids got a lead. And they must especially look at the four games we lost, where we went from getting all 3 points to getting zero in less than 90 minutes. That's 12 points left on the table. Or, in other words, the distance between 2nd in the Western Conference at 49 points, and 9th with only 37 points.
How Bad Was This Season?
The Rapids finished the season in 19th out of 20 MLS teams, with 37 points from a 9-15-10 record. They went out of the US Open Cup in the fifth round in a game against the Houston Dynamo. Not much to be proud of. The Chicago Fire were worse, gaining only 30 points and going an abysmal 0-12-5 on the road. Like the Rapids, NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union also picked up 37 points, but won one more game than the burgundy crew. NYC have the excuse that it’s their first year in MLS. But their fans also had to endure the pain of shelling out big dough for Frank Lampard, only to have him stay in Manchester till mid summer, arrive in the US, and pull a calf muscle. And the pain of paying big money for Mix Diskerud, who’s hair game supercedes his actual soccer game. And Andrea Pirlo, who can serve some picture-perfect 40 yard lob passes, but also runs like a toddler in a three-legged race and seems to regard defense as a petty nuisance for others to endure. I prefer the Rapids moderated season of stumbling to Chicago’s full-blown ineptitude and NYC’s very expensive, very disappointing midfield.
I know nobody wants to hear that it could have been worse. The standard in Colorado should be trophies, not ‘we were less of a failure than last year.' But it can't be denied that 2015 is actually an improvement on 2014. The 2014 ‘Pids won 8 games and earned only 32 points. If, in theory, we continued at this slow improvement trajectory of a five-point improvement per year, maybe we win 11 or 12 games in 2016 with 42 points, which would put us just below the red line in 7th or 8th. And maybe we get 14 wins, 47 points in 2017, probably good enough for a playoff spot. Don't yell at me yet.
Looking at it this way is succumbing to low expectations, and also gives this team a long trajectory to success which seems overly forgiving. Yes, an improvement of only two wins is really minimal. But this is a league on the rise: getting better at this stage of MLS 3.0 is really standing pat. EVERY team in the league is going to get better. Gone are the days when a team could throw Marcelo Balboa and Carlos Valderrama and 9 semi-pro scrubs out on the pitch and get to MLS Cup. The Rapids will need to get better more so than the rest of the conference. In this paradigm, two wins is a lot. I'm not forgiving the sins of a front office that didn't get it together: Toronto FC went from 41 points to 49 points between 2014 and 2015. It can be done better and faster. I'm just giving a more measured level of expectation for 2016.
It could be a lot a lot worse. DC United was horrible in 2013, finishing with only 16 points and a 3-24-7 record. RSL won only 5 games in 2005; Chivas won only 4 that same year. Both lost 22 games. I know that offers little solace. But those were catastrophically bad teams. Unwatchable teams. The Rapids aren't good. But things could be much worse.