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Backpass: The Defense-First Mentality Works (Finally!)

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With the Rapids, it all begins with defense. That means keeping shape, keeping organized, and keeping in communication. I love it when a plan comes together.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

At the season’s outset, many pundits picked Vancouver Whitecaps as favorites to rule over the Western Conference. Their high-powered offense, led by Mauro Rosales and Octavio Rivero, and supplemented by speed demon Kekuta Manneh and CDM Matias Laba looked to dominate in a conference where the 2014 leaders, Seattle and Los Angeles, mostly got a little bit worse (Donovan and Yedlin departing), and the rest of the conference had yet to prove itself.

The right strategy for the Colorado Rapids, then, was to possess the ball and be defensive. Of course, with Pablo Mastroeni, defense has been the watchword all year. But additionally, one-third of the way into the season, things are starting to solidify for the team. The back line seems to have settled on preferred Moor-Sjoberg pairing. Riley, Burch and Harrington have all done the job at outside back well. The 4-2-3-1 is the formation every week, whether we all like it or not.

It would be easy to talk about Solignac and Doyle making their debuts, but there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about, and besides, I wanted to talk defensive shape. Because, truth be told, that’s how the Rapids won this game, and that’s how they’re going to need to play the rest of the year if they are going to make the playoffs.

We’re going to look at defensive shape from a couple possessions off breaks or turnovers. First, lets see how the Whitecaps offense decided to play this one.

One of the early trends of the game was Vancouver launching balls over and past the Colorado midfield. The advantage of the Rapids five-man midfield is that it is hard for opponents to force their way through. Vancouver prepared for this, and their tactical plan was to bypass the middle man. Pa Modu Kah (44), Jordan Harvey (2) and Matias Laba (15) tried to play direct to Octavio Rivero, who stationed himself up top on the left side. Mostly, that didn’t work.

This play came about from a high ball bouncing into midfield. Above you see the defensive shape of the 4-2-3-1 at work. Although James Riley is racing back, Manneh is covered and closed out. Moor is marking Rivero, Sjoberg is positioned in front of him, and Pittinari is draped on Manneh like a coat. Although Cronin (he’s hiding behind the ref) could be tighter on Rosales, he’s trailing and ready to be the main cog for a fast transition back up field if needed.

Here’s an example of the defense looking not-as-good. It came about as one of the aforementioned route-one bombs over the top, which the 'Caps nearly turned into a payday. Moor steps up to Rivero, who heads it over to Rosales. Only a fantastic slide emergency tackle by Axel Sjoberg keeps this from resulting in a quality chance for the Whitecaps. This was one of those times when the defensive midfield was caught too far up-field on the attack. That requires Drew Moor to come out, all while Riley is still getting back. You can get away with this kind of stuff a few times a game, especially if the individual defender plays perfectly. But team defense is about compensating for collective mistakes. Keep your shape, communicate, and you won’t give up goals.

This is just gorgeous. The backline is playing tight and uniform defense, despite Moor and Riley having to switch inside-outside spots. Cronin is man-marking the right striker, Kianz Froese (who, first, I had never heard of till this game, and second, what in the hell is that name? Did you know it is an anagram for ‘Frozen Kias’?) Pittinari is marking the ball. Dillon Powers is doing his box-to-box thing and cutting off the central pass. The only play is wide to Rivero, which is where the Rapids have successfully forced and isolated the play all game. It’s a great illustration of the Rapids doing the one thing they are so good at, and despite our lack of offensive output, has kept the team in the hunt all season. It isn’t glorious, or often written about, but it deserves praise.

However, the next thing that happens after this picture is that Rivero gets the ball in the corner, Pittinari races over, and just as Rivero beats him to turn the corner of the 18 yard box, Pitti knocks him down and draws a free kick in a very dangerous spot.

As Pittinari Goes, So Go the Rapids

Pittinari to me is a somewhat frustrating player. Yes, he picked up his first career MLS goal in this game, but also fouled a lot (in this game and previous matches) in lieu of playing well-positioned defense. I appreciate his aggressiveness: I find him better at ball-winning than the departed Jose Mari. But it is fouls like this in an advanced position that underscore my lack of faith in him as the defensive fulcrum for this team. Mari won fewer balls, but overall played smarter defense and passed a bit better a well. As a DP, we signed Pittinari to be this team’s Kyle Beckerman or Nemanja Matic. He’s got to be better.

I’d argue that of all the players on the team, the season hinges more on Pittinari than anyone else. At other positions, there are suitable backups: Doyle and Solignac; Ramirez and Serna; etc. At other positions, there are parallel players on the field. Not for Pitti. He’s your defensive stopper. If he becomes a dominant force, this team can go places. Because he hasn’t, we’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.