Whew! What a relief for my fellow Colorado Rapids fans and I. Our long (no-so) national nightmare is over. When Dom Badji pegged the Rapids first goal after a 601 minute 37 seconds dry spell, I had barely sat down. Unimas didn’t even have time get the first four players from the starting lineup on the chyron before they were so rudely interrupted by Dillon Powers perfect lofted cross to Dom’s extended boot. (Note: maybe, like NBC and ESPN and Altitude, Unimas should, you know, post the lineup and formation in the 60 seconds before kickoff? I know that’s two Nationwide or telenovella commercials they have to sacrifice, but, seriously, I’ve seen the soccer balls fall off the green bus like a million times.)
I ran up to tell my wife about Badji’s goal. She’s been my personal therapist through this entire winless ordeal. She doesn’t have the foggiest clue who Zat Knight is, but I’m pretty sure she hates him too, if only because he caused me so much anguish. Her response to the goal: ‘It’s a Passover miracle.’ And I think that’s apt. God splitting the Red Sea and bringing ten plagues on the Egyptians was unlikely and improbable; it is just as improbable as the Rapids 1) scoring a goal, 2) scoring before FCD, 3) scoring in only the 2nd minute of the game, 4) scoring on the road, against a team widely picked by pundits as an MLS Cup finalist, and finally 5) scoring their first goal of the season with Dominique Badji, a 4th round afterthought-of-a-SuperDraft pick.
How unlikely is it that Dom Badji scored the goal? Only four other SuperDraft rookies have scored this year: Rob Lovejoy, Fatai Alashe, Cameron Porter, and Cyle Larin. Larin was the first overall pick, Alashe was the fourth, and Porter blew out his ACL and is done for the year. Badji is the only fourth round pick amongst them. Most of the other 3rd and 4th rounders are playing for their MLS side’s USL affiliate, or didn’t even make an MLS roster at all. Dom Badji is the Mickey Mantle rookie card you find in the dust jacket of the book you got at Goodwill for a dollar.
It got a lot more improbable when the Rapids busted through for three more goals, prompting a lot of ‘When it rains it pours’ folk wisdom from the MLS commentariat. Sure, the Rapids were karmic-ly due for a goal. Sure, some of the previous weeks had featured heroic saves and fantastic bad luck from the Rapids to prevent them from scoring. But goals are not the result of the magical debut of the gold kits, or the lucky Eggplant Parmesan dinner you ate before the game, or even the statistical surety that if you keep shooting, eventually one of the damn balls will bulge the old onion bag. The Rapids made this win happen, and FC Dallas also did a few things to lose it.
Holy Moly Dillon Powers
Let me set the scene for you. Last Tuesday, while on Passover Break (yeah, that’s a thing if you are a rabbi at a Jewish school) me and kids drove out to DSGP to watch the Rapids practice for at least as long as a 4 year old and 2 year old can handle. (They watched for 30 minutes! New record!) As a warmup, the younger Rapids were having a giggly, goofy game of 5v2, with loud laughs and chuckles and smiles all around as the rookies tried pickoff the ball while getting nutmegged by the vets.
Dillon Powers was having none of it. He set up a man-shaped blocking thingy (I’m sure it has a formal name. Feel free to inform me below) and took a series of angled charges on goal, rifling edge-of-the-box shots from all points. Brother didn’t so-much-as grin the whole time, while ball after ball rattled into the net. I might be projecting, but as I watched him, I imagined him thinking "Fuck if I’m gonna giggle like a school girl when we’re about to tie the MLS winless record. I will score on Friday if I have to drag Blas Perez’ fat ass on my back 40 yards to do it." Like I said, I might be projecting. Nevertheless, he seemed to me to be a man deeply focused on the job at hand. And as the shot and pass graph below shows, he was.
Green + Soccer Ball- Goal; Blue- Assist; Green- Passes; Yellow- Key Passes (resulting in shot); Red- Failed Passes
Rapids fans and armchair pundits (me) have been saying it over and over again.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Someone explain to me the concept of Dillon Powers on the right</p>— Kevin Kinkead (@KevinKCBS3) <a href="https://twitter.com/KevinKCBS3/status/584510821851471872">April 5, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" lang="en"><p><a href="https://twitter.com/rapidsrabbi">@rapidsrabbi</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/thelosthooligan">@thelosthooligan</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/ProtectYourNet">@ProtectYourNet</a> I think w/Powers central, it creates the best option for legitimate scoring chances.</p>— @CapTied96 (@CapTied96) <a href="https://twitter.com/CapTied96/status/584912159324286976">April 6, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Dillon Powers is a box-to-box central midfielder. Having him play wide at the end of last season and early this year was dumb. I know when you aren’t winning, it makes sense to shake things up, but Powers game has always been fantastic passing and the ability to hold the ball, shoot the ball, and play good midfield defense. He’s not slow, but speed, the calling card of the winger, ain’t his thing. And while most folks generally think he’s better when positioned deep in an Andres Pirlo-type role, his play against FC Dallas might make all of us rethink that idea. As you can see, Powers’ play in the opponent’s half- far upfield, in the kind of traditional CAM role- was exceptional. All the more shocking was that his goal and assist both started wide. And that’s the thing: letting Powers roam as the fulcrum with Ramirez, Torres, and Badji triangulating off him allows him to be a huge threat. Let’s hope he’s permanently returned to the CAM role he proved Friday he can do very, very well.
Rapids Defense makes Dallas attacking trio non-factor
It was hard to keep saying it over and over during the first four games, but the Rapids defense has been good. Hard to say because defense isn’t sexy, nor did it translate in our first four games to goals on the counter attack. Also hard to say because I’m sure some Rapids fans think that my positivity towards our defense was glossing over the things that are wrong with the team. However, the defense was good again Friday. Strong team defense is clearly not an anomalous event for the Rapids. Although Dallas made a number of good runs in the first 45 that looked like they might result in a goal, the defense denied Dallas any real threat once Dallas reached the final third; Clint Irwin made mostly routine saves, and no heroics were needed to win this one. This Rapids backline was very veteran heavy, with Harrington, Burling, Moor and Riley representing 40 total seasons of MLS experience. Those four vets had never played before together: three played for different clubs last year, and the fourth, Drew Moor, hadn’t played in an MLS match since he tore his ACL against New England last August.
They looked sharp and organized, and they kept two MLS attacking stars, Blas Perez and Fabian Castillo, and the reigning rookie of year, Tesho Akindele, from doing much of anything for 90 minutes. It’s hard to quantify using the stats at hand, but the play below illustrates the kind of effective defense and coordination we saw all game.
One defender bodies up Castillo enough to force him into a wide run to the ball off a tricky move he was trying to put on. The second defender collapses on the ball and clears it. This was just one example of how the Rapids made the last 30 yards of the pitch a dead-zone for Dallas.
Another thing that’s hard to quantify is the impact of a true defensive leader. Having a veteran organize the defense and communicate is critical, but it can’t be measured beyond stating that the defensive marked up properly, or that they kept their shape, or they responded quickly. The Rapids did all of these things, and Drew Moor, the veteran leader and captain, certainly deserves some credit. Moor’s return is, of course, a great story in itself: the captain returns to end a 18 game skid and right the ship. Moor barks commands and plays D equally well. When O’Neill and Moor were both out, the team brought in Zat Knight to organize the defense, and he did: he barked commands loudly and players went where he told them. Only, Knight himself moved like a seven-ton bronze statue. So its not just Moor’s mouth that contributes to this defensive performance.
Dallas Defense makes Rapids look like Barcelona on offense
Remember all the things I said about the Rapids defense? Organized? Responded quickly? Yeah, the Hoops defense- notsomuch. FCD sort-of made a mistake on the first goal, in letting Riley play long to Torres to play it long to Powers.
Powers pass to Badji was fantastic, and Badji was marked by two defenders, but the defense probably should have been in a position to close out the through-balls down that right side which set up the goal. But those were understandable errors.
The next big mistake to get punished was the Rapids second goal. Sarvas was fouled, and off the throw in plays a long pass to Dillon Powers.
You can see 9 FCD players in the frame. Watch how little they move from this frame to the next.
Oh my God, right? Dallas barely reacts. Well, to be fair, J- Vaughn Watson reacts… by taking a late step towards a ball… that is drifting past him…
… and into the feet of Dillon Powers, who pounds home a goal to the far post on a challenging angle. Watson’s not soley responsible, because a better reaction from the rest of the backline could have forced Powers into a tougher angle. Still, this kind of suspect defense and overall sloppy play was pretty common in the first 45 minutes. In the home opener against NYCFC, the Rapids and New York both played solid if unspectacular soccer, and the final 15 minutes looked like a test to see which side would make a mistake first. Neither did, and the game ended 0-0. This game, the Rapids played solid football, and pounced on FCD’s mistakes early and often.
Zach Loyd played well, but Watson looked outmatched on the wing, and Hernandez, who was responsible for the pass that led to Badji’s goal, was so bad through the first frame that Pareja subbed him off at the half for Atiba Harris, a converted striker. Defensive Midfielder Michel was also notably awful, and Dallas’ only star defender, recent USMNT capped played Matt Hedges, was out. If the D in Big D keeps playing like they did against Colorado (4 goals conceded) and last week in Portland (3 goals conceded), you can forget the playoffs for them.
Down two goals, Dallas were forced to do what many teams do: throw men forward. This is what is referred to as ‘game states’; that the score in a soccer match will dictate the tactics and action far more than the talent or formation or any other factor. Pareja didn’t seem to adjust down 1-0, and the game hummed along with a regular back and forth pace and players well aligned and organized. Then Dallas gives up a goal in the 43rd minute, and down 2-0, Dallas gets over-aggressive. Then this happens:
Michel’s flop and giveaway gives the Rapids a 4 on 2. The Rapids don't convert here, but it still perfectly illustrates that for Dallas to have any hopes of getting back into this one, they had to leave themselves often dangerously exposed, and it ended up not working out. There’s no way Dallas has the defense that far forward in a nil-nil game. At this point of the game and onward, tactics are dictated more by desparation than anything else. The Hoops are well behind to a defensively-oriented team that loves to sit back and counter, and the second half is less ‘FCD mounts furious comeback attempt’ than ‘Dallas throws too many guys forward, then hangs on for dear life as the Rapids roar back’. Certainly that describes Dilon Serna’s breakaway firecracker from 28 yards outat the 82nd. That goal doesn’t happen if Dallas was playing normally. But normal was out the window for Pareja most of the game.
Let’s not get irrational over Claudio Lopez managing
Finally, some on Twitter thought that maybe the Rapids won because Pablo Mastroeni was suspended, and Claudio Lopez was managing. Maybe. We can’t know unless the two each get to manage a bunch more this season. I’d argue that the facts of the game; the early goal; a listless and disorganized-looking FCD; the huge tactical disadvantage of trying to claw back down 2-0, which the Rapids exploited for two more goals; those factors were much bigger than Mastroeni’s absence. Pablo sets the formation, organizes the practice plan, and picked the starting lineup. By the time Lopez got to make his first sub, the score was already 3-0; at that point, a chimpanzee with a smart-looking blazer could’ve managed this team to a win.
A lot was clicking this week. Next week the Rapids face Seattle Sounders, winners of the 2014 Supporters Shield and Lamar Hunt Trophy. We’ll get to see if all this success is a momentary aligning of the stars, or whether this team really can put the rest of the Western Conference on notice for the duration.