There's no mystery to what's wrong with the Colorado Rapids: they need to score more goals. They need to score any goals. One goal. The Rapids are setting futility records in MLS: 17 winless since last July; the first team to start the season with three consecutive goalless draws. The Rapids have 29 shots; 2 against Philly, 21 against NYCFC, 6 against Houston. They've been stymied by fantastic blocks; they've missed golden opportunities; they've failed to settle balls; they've fired long shots high and headers wide. One way of not scoring still eludes them: they have NOT yet taken and missed a penalty (note: I don't believe in jinxes, I believe that players make or miss plays, and my mention of a blown penalty has no effect on our next game at New England. That said, I'm sure the Rapids will now fail to score on a penalty kick) .
But there are some positives to take away from the last game too.
Oh, the things Pablo does, Part 1: Good
Pablo Mastroeni deserves equal parts credit and blame for the teams three scoreless draws. On the positive side, Mastroeni instituted a more aggressive press against Houston; at or around the center line, the ball carrier was harried while Powers, Sarvas, Pittinari and Cronin cut off central outlets. The high press also gave the Rapids turnovers right at midfield and generated some opportunities for the Rapids.
In the first half, Houston struggled with possession. Throughout the game, the Dynamo's best option was to go wide and cross, since the middle of the field was effectively blocked.
Above are all of the passes by Sturgis and Clark for the match: notice a) a lot of red arrows, and b) little to no offense going into or coming out of the area between the center circle and the Rapids box. That's Pablo's defense-minded midfield doing it's job well. Colorado forced Nathan Sturgis into a ton of giveaways, and kept Ricardo Clark away from the ball in general. Sturgis made 49 passes, completing an abysmal 60%. Clark had only 27 passes, completing 92%.
I admit, shutting down Nathan Sturgis does not indicate your defense is exceptional. Nathan Sturgis is Nick LaBrocca, but without the fierce defense; ponderously slow, mediocre at passing, mostly harmless in the attacking third. However, shutting down Mix Diskerud the previous week might indicate a trend; the Rapids central midfield is defensively strong. You might think ‘Big whoop, we've played three scoreless draws with this midfield'. But compare that to last years midfield, which was certainly part of the reason the Rapids gave up a league leading 62 goals. It should be cause, indeed, for big whoop-ing.
Oh the things Pablo does, Part 2: Bad
On the negative side, a week after seeing a resurgent Dillon Powers look commanding and rejuvenated at the Central Attacking Midfielder role he blossomed in back in 2013, Mastroeni played him off to the right. He was still effective, but mostly because he didn't venture too far away from the middle of the park. A player played wide that doesn't use the entire width of the pitch isn't really maximizing their best asset. Powers has proved time and again that his vision and ball handling are most valuable centrally. Why is Mastroeni the last to see this?
Moreover, Mastroeni made two subs, bringing on Badji and Sanchez to add late offense. Great additions. To do it, he subs off... Juan Ramirez and Dillon Powers. Ramirez had been the most exciting player on the pitch all night (more on him later), and Powers had laid in some nice passes and brought the steadiest possession. In regards to ratings and passing %, they were the best players on the pitch, without a doubt.
Removing Pittinari, Cronin, or Sarvas would've made far more sense if you are really going for three points. Were we going for three points? Even Houston's color commentary guy Eddie Robinson (who was really irritating all night, by the way; all the histrionics of Taylor Twellman or Alexi Lalas, but he also messed up names, stepped on his co-anchor, and blabbered constant and irrational nonsense) wondered what Pablo was doing removing Ramirez and Powers.
The Defense is still great
Nobody wants to hear that our defense is playing great, because honestly, it's all we've got to be proud of on the back of three scoreless draws. But it really is great. In addition to the aforementioned stymieing of the Houston central midfield, the Rapids took away Houston's one asset: the pinpoint-accurate crossing game of Brad Davis, by winning the balls he launched into the box. Davis lofted up 14 crosses (he had 63 all of last year, fourth most in MLS), but Houston completed none of them. I was worried that without Axel Sjoberg in the starting XI, the Rapids would lose the air game, but Bobby Burling, Jared Watts and Clint Irwin were more than up to the task.
Juan Ramirez sure is fun to watch
One problem I see with the Rapids is that their offensive game during the winless streak has often been a bit static. The team has often relied on interception and counter (kind of exciting!), a chain of accurate passes with good off the ball movement (hasn't happened!) or the ole route 1 over the top (oh my God so boring!).
Juan Ramirez is the first player who plays to beat you on the dribble, every time. He jumped into the season-lead for the Rapids in take-ons, with four Saturday night. Nobody on this team had more than two before.
A dribble attacker like Ramirez is unbelievably valuable: when he beats his man, he draws one or two defenders out of position. That's three defenders dragged into his area, freeing up other players to get onto goal, or better yet, if those defenders haven't stepped up, Ramirez is on to goal. One can argue that Gabriel Torres and Vicente Sanchez are also primarily dribble attackers. Deshorn Brown was mostly a dribble attacker. But Torres and Sanchez haven't proven this season that they can get onto goal, and Brown's main flaw, as I have pointed out in the past, was that his runs always culminated in a shot, and usually an off target and ill-advised shot at that. Ramirez' dribbles have ended in a pass.
Even if he hasn't generated a goal yet, Ramirez is fantastically exciting and will cause future teams to plan and adjust accordingly. When, during this moribund streak, has any other Rapid done this?
‘Two guys right in front of me? Why, I think I'll blaze right though the both of you and drop a pass to Dillon Powers on the give-and-go, thank you.'
Ramirez' panache and moxie was the bright spot in a game that was just the latest iteration of the Rapids' Eeyore-esque 'little black cloud that won't go away.' Ramirez is young and likely to make some mistakes. But he's damn exciting. And if the right pieces come together on offense around him, with the defense holding steady the way it has been, the Rapids *might* just get the whammy off of them this Saturday against the New England Revolution. Stranger things, like a 510 minutes without a goal, have happened.