The playoff matchups have been quite a treat if you're a soccer addict, although, as many pundits have noted, it has also been an endurance test. If you cannot miss a moment of footy action, then Sunday began with the North London derby of Arsenal-Tottenham, followed by a leisurely lunch, followed by four end-to-end MLS playoff second legs that were either tied or separated by only a goal. Two went to overtime and one to PKs. That's more than 510 minutes of soccer.
So first of all, MLS, please dear God, space these matches out a little more. Two Saturday and two Sunday games seems entirely logical. Heck, a Monday night game would be swell. I'm sure there are reasons MLS went with two Sunday wall-to-wall socceramas. Maybe it was mandated by Fox Sports and ESPN due to the many College Football games airing each Saturday. Maybe it was theoretical: the World Cup stacks games, so why not MLS?
But please: I think soccer fans are different than NFL fans, who look forward to 4 hours of slovenly couch-surfing, ass firmly embedded in cushion, cell phone in hand on speed dial to a low-grade pizza joint, laptop desperately tracking meaningless fantasy points. Or, if they've been snookered into putting $50 each on seven Draft Kings matchups, praying that some dude named Koyne or LaMarcus doesn't drop a ball that means defaulting on the mortgage.
Some soccer fans will install themselves at Three Lions for the day, but most, like me, will watch one match, then play with their kids, or go for a run or have some wife-mandated social engagements to attend, etc. MLS playoff soccer has yet to become appointment TV for fans of teams that have been eliminated, or for EPL fans. MLS has some work to do with it's TV partners ESPN and Fox Sports in order to get it there.
The Ben Olsen Effect
I don't really want to think about the Pablo Mastroeni question all offseason. I'm sick of it already. That question is: ‘Shouldn't we have fired Pablo?'
Ben Olsen's success in getting to the playoffs, however, tells us a little about what the Rapids could be if both the coaching and the players fell into place the right way. DC United finished 15-13-6 (WLT), good enough for 4th in the Eastern Conference, despite a late season swoon when they lost 6 of their last 9. They also muscled their way through the group stage of CONCACAF Champions League and into the Quarterfinals next March; no small feat. Olsen's tactical philosophy was physical, Thug Life ball. Bunker, out muscle, steal a goal on the counter or from a set piece. It made for ugly soccer against the Red Bulls but it could have, in other circumstances, gotten the job done.
Rapids fans need to embrace this kind of team, because until Pablo gets canned, this is the team we're gonna see in 2016. Fans were anxious in the first 3 months about our lack of goal scoring. I was too. But nicking 0-0, 1-1, and 1-0 results was pretty much the plan all along. It didn't really start to go south for the team until June, when the team dropped a pair to SKC and Orlando City and looked overmatched in both.
The Rapids are a few tactical improvements and two midfield upgrades away from being the 2015 DC United squad. Granted, somebody on the team is going to have to feed the ball to scorers like Fabian Espindola, and somebody is going to have to get goals like Chris Rolfe did off the wing with his 11 tallies. But the crunch and grind in midfield that Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud and Nick DeLeon did; the backline mastery of Birnbaum and Boswell; that kind of tight and physical style is something the Rapids are capable of. Cronin and Sarvas can do that. Serna and Doyle can get those goals. I firmly (naively?) believe that this team isn't as far away as some folks think. I firmly believe, unfortunately, that Ben Olsen might also have taken this team farther than Mastroeni did in 2015.
Darlington Nagbe Moves From Wing to Central Midfield and Explodes
Nagbe's been a perplexing winger for two season's now; his electric speed and slick play on the ball has meant he got a lot of Youtube views. But he had trouble converting that into goals; only 1 in 2014, only 5 in 2015. He got two of those goals in 2015 in his last game of the year. That was the only game he played as a central midfielder. He tore up Vancouver in both legs again.
The Rapids also have speedy and talented winger who hasn't quite found a regular spot: Dillon Serna. In addition, the latest reports have central midfielder Dillon Powers trialing at English Championship club Reading. Regardless of whether Powers moves, I've been largely unconvinced that he belongs as the attacking fulcrum of this team. In my opinion, it's Dillon Serna's turn.
Serna has that outside pace and some of that Nagbe-like creativity that might serve the Rapids inside. Serna played centrally in the US Open Cup against the Switchbacks, and was good. Granted, USL opponents make everyone look good. Still, this is a Rapids team that was almost completely devoid of speed and creativity in the central midfield in 2015. If Serna isn't moved inside, the Rapids certainly need to go out and spend move on a number 10.
Hopefully as the playoffs progress, I can stop watching games with an eye toward what they can tell me about the Rapids. But dammit, I can't quite get the stink of last year off me. Or the desire to get it fixed by March 2016.