Whether they lied to us or lied to themselves, the Colorado Rapids lied last off-season. After Oscar Pareja flew the coop last year, we were told to expect only the most minor of changes no matter who the coach was that was brought in. The coaching search, we were told, was one based on who could continue 'The Rapids Way' that Oscar Pareja had such success with in 2013, and Pablo Mastroeni was picked not just for his potential as a coach in the future, but for his love of the team and willingness to keep that system going. In my season preview from last year, I based this entire post on that very idea:
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.
We know how that story ended. 'The Rapids Way' was utterly dismantled last season by Mastroeni, who right from the start of the season was doing his own thing instead of the old thing. Cohesion was lacking, players were being moved all over the field and the ill-fated '30 starters' mentality meant that everyone was getting a shot, deserved or not. The Rapids used a 4-2-3-1, a diamond midfield, a flat midfield, a defensive 4-5-1 like the one Gary Smith's Rapids started out 2010 with, and probably some other one-off shots that I'm forgetting. The way that Pablo coached last year reminded me of my first time ever playing Football Manager, when I decided to take my assistant coach's pep talks a bit too literally and changed my formation almost every single game.
"The Rapids Way" was supposed to be a beautiful thing to watch, a 4-2-3-1 with rotation, speed, movement and grit all rolled into a winning formula. We saw approximately none of that, which may have been the most disappointing thing of all about last season.
However, with great caution, we're going to have to move right back to what we were thinking in 2014 because the Rapids are throwing the same line out. This time, Pablo Mastroeni is a year wiser, but is it a 'fool me twice, shame on me' situation?
Formation & Style
This preseason was actually rather promising for the Rapids this time around, at least in terms of a preview of what's to come on the field. Back is the 4-2-3-1, and the team is insisting that once again the old Rapids Way is back in business. Early returns from preseason play were spotty, but fun to watch.
Oscar Pareja's old 4-2-3-1 was based mostly on speed more than anything else. They aimed to bombard the other opponent with speedy attacks launched from deep in the midfield, leading to numbers advantages as five or six guys at a time would end up in or around the opponent's 18-yard-box. Watching the bombing runs of Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Vicente Sanchez, Gabriel Torres, Chris Klute and the rest was immensely entertaining in 2013, and it led to a lot of media attention for the Rapids, who were even being pegged as a dark-horse cup contender. (That was a title that they perhaps could have lived up to had Oscar Pareja not been a big dumb-dumb and played the most mind-bogging line-up of all time in their playoff match.)
It looks like speed is going to be the word of the hour for Pablo Mastroeni's new 4-2-3-1 as well, and in fact a lot of what we saw in Oscar Pareja's signature season in burgundy is going to be coming back into the tactical fold for this Colorado Rapids team. One word we heard a lot of in the preseason was 'rotation'. One of the things that made that 2013 team so dangerous on offense -- and trust me, they would have been much more dangerous had anyone on that damn team been able to finish -- was the mazy runs that the forwards made in, around and through the box, finding isolation for themselves in order to make scoring chances happen. That was accomplished through tons of off-the-ball movement, with the top four players rotating around to force defenders to continually have to shift and change assignments. Moving defenders tend to make more mistakes, which means isolation is easy to find and, in the end, goals are easier to find as well.
It's somewhat hard to tell what exactly the rest of the team will be doing in the system, as Pablo Mastroeni didn't seem to favor fullback runs quite as much as his predecessor did last season, and despite the move to a 4-2-3-1 we can't know if they're still going to favor the old deep possession method that Pareja's teams did. (The good money would probably be on yes, since they have possession wizard Marcelo Sarvas now manning Hendry Thomas' old spot and two very capable other players in Lucas Pittinari and Sam Cronin next to him.)
The important attacking measures, however, seem to be in place. We're back to a very speedy side with guys like Deshorn Brown, Juan Ramirez and Dillon Serna on the outside. We're back to a team that wants to rotate up in the final third to create confusing situations for defenders. We're back, essentially, to the system that the team really, really wanted to keep for their own back in 2013 as 'The Rapids Way'. The Rapids certainly have the talent to bring the system back, and they're *still* tantalizingly close to having a strike team that could be one of the best in MLS if only they would improve their finishing abilities a bit. We'll see if it all manages to click together for Mastroeni's side.
Potential Starting Lineup
The biggest improvement of the season is definitely in the overall depth of talent on the squad. Guys like Jared Watts are no longer the 'next man up', which means that a couple of injuries like those that hit last year won't cripple the squad nearly as quickly. Looking at the bench in this potential starting line-up you can already see that there's a hell of a lot more talent than we saw last season, when it wasn't strange to see Gale Agbossumonde, Jared Watts and Danny Mwanga hanging out waiting to get some minutes.
Juan Ramirez - Dillon Powers - Vicente Sanchez
Lucas Pittinari - Marcelo Sarvas
Marc Burch - Drew Moor - Shane O'Neill - Micheal Harrington
Bench: Clint Irwin, Axel Sjoberg, Marlon Hairston, Sam Cronin, Dillon Serna, Carlos Alvarez, Gabriel Torres
Check out the other parts of our Rapids Season Preview: