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Are The Rapids Headed In The Right Direction In 2015? Grading The Season So Far

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We are a quarter of the way through the 2015 campaign and it is fair to ask if the Rapids are going in the right direction.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

That is a good question to ponder as a Colorado Rapids fan:

"Are the Rapids headed in the right direction?"

I would imagine you could ask a number of different people and get a number of answers.  I have always been an optimist when it comes to the Rapids, but it is a legitimate thing to ask.  I started to do some research on this and looked back at the last five seasons and more specifically the record after 9 games:

Win Loss Draw Points Goals For Goals Against
2011 4 3 2 14 11 9
2012 4 5 0 12 13 12
2013 2 4 3 9 7 9
2014 4 2 3 15 10 9
2015 1 2 6 9 8 8

So what do those records mean?  Not a heck of a lot.  The 2011 team had the second most points after nine games and made the playoffs and the 2013 team had the least amount of points and made the playoffs.  But the 2012 and 2014 teams who had the third and most points after nine games missed the playoffs.

The point:  it is too early to declare that this team is or is not a playoff team.  That much is sure.

But how has the goalkeeping, defense, midfield, offense and coaching looked?  I have looked back at the 9 games and have assigned the following grades to those units:

Goalkeeping:  A

Clint Irwin has been nothing short of excellent this year and without him the Rapids would have at least three more losses.  All of the confusion that was caused by the constant change in net last year are a thing of the past and Irwin has shown that he is one of the best in the league.  He has played every minute of every game and has a Goals Against Average of 0.89 and has four clean sheets.  The four clean sheets is tied for second best in Major League Soccer.

Defense:  B

After a dismal 2014 there were many areas of the Rapids team that needed to be improved, most of all a defense that surrendered 69 goals in 34 games.  To say it was putrid was being kind.  The offseason saw the Rapids bring in Michael Harrington, Bobby Burling, Axel Sjoberg, James Riley and Ben Newnam in to shore up that back line.  In addition Marc Burch, Shane O'Neill and Jared Watts have played along the back line in 2015 and Drew Moor made his return from injury last month.  Looking at the stats, things are much, much better.  8 goals against in 9 games with four shutouts is solid and the 8 goals given up is good for (a tie for) fifth best in MLS.

All of that being said, there is some concern there.  When you take out the four clean sheets, the Rapids have given up the 8 goals over 5 matches and there seems to be a lack of discipline and concentration at times.  Both Watts and Newnam have given up PK's to the opposition and O'Neill looked lost on the goal against LA this past weekend.

Overall though, things are better for the Rapids on the defensive front and this has made the Rapids very difficult to break down.

Midfield:  B-/C+

The Rapids spent a great deal of time and energy and money improving the midfield this off-season that saw them bring in Marcelo Sarvas, Sam Cronin, Juan Ramirez and Lucas Pittinari and they complemented returning players Nick LaBrocca, Dillon Powers, Vicente Sanchez and Dillon Serna.  To be honest, part of the problem in the Rapids midfield has not come so much with the players involved, but the players playing out of position (I will cover this in coaching).  Powers is not an outside midfielder and it has taken the coaching staff a good part of the year figuring this out.

Powers, Serna and LaBrocca have all tallied goals this year which, if taken in a vacuum, is good.  But the overall finishing for the Rapids has sucked this year.  Since the offense is run through the midfield, it is important that they start producing more quality opportunities and then converting those opportunities.  I have seen more shots hit the crossbar or post this year than I think I have in any other full season.  The time for talk is over and the Rapids need to start converting chances.

Forwards:  C-

Basically the Rapids have played with one of two people up front this year:  Gabriel Torres and Dominique Badji.  Torres seems to be having a career resurgence with four goals and one assist.  Badji has one goal on the year and has looked like a rookie from time to time.  He does not quite know how to finish yet and this has cost him in games when he could have given the Rapids a lead.

To address this the Rapids Front Office has signed Kevin Doyle (who will be arriving this month) and Luis Solignac (who arrives pending his P-1 visa) to help out on the front line and their assistance cannot come soon enough.  The Rapids are a good team, but seem to lack that true target forward or goal poacher.  Torres has been good for the Rapids, but he cannot shoulder the entire scoring load.  And until Doyle and Solignac get here, he may need to.

Coaching:  D-

Right now Pablo Mastroeni is not doing well as a coach.  He seems to struggle with tactics, substitutions, and starting lineups.  Two of the brightest young stars on the club (O'Neill and Serna) have played less than 200 minutes this year and he seemingly does not understand where people should play on the field.  (This goes back to Powers playing on the outside).

Mastroeni seems to be inflexible when it comes to formation changes.  When you are down 2-0 against the New England Revolution, what does he do:  gets kicked off the pitch for arguing a call and does not bring on a second attacker.  (This was eventually done by his assistant coach).

Mastroeni seems to struggle with substitutions as well.   When you are losing to Seattle Sounders at home bringing in LaBrocca should never be your option when you need a goal  (This is not a knock on LaBrocca, just a reality of the situation--he is not an offensive threat)

All of this being said, Mastroeni is showing small signs of improvement.   In the LA game this past weekend he actually appeared to be going for the win with offensive minded subs.  And he has stopped the non-sensical goalkeeping changes that plagued him last year.

But for the Rapids to be successful this year, Mastroeni must continue to show improvement and grow as a manager.  It seems (based on reports) that the players like playing for Mastroeni and the Front Office has his back.  This is great and all, but it is time results to come for this team.

I still believe that Mastroeni is the guy to lead this club, but I do understand the frustration and concern that supporters have.  All it will take to calm nerves is a good winning run and getting this team into playoff position.

Front Office/Ownership:  B

How do you grade a front office and an ownership group?  Well, it is not the easiest thing to do, but I think you have to give them a fairly high grade so far.  They were able to take a look at the weaknesses of this team and brought in new players to improve those areas.  They got rid of a boat load of players and, for the most part, those moves have paid off.  The most controversial move: trading Chris Klute to Columbus Crew SC was wise as it netted Sarvas, Sjoberg and Cronin with the allocation money received.  In addition they sold Deshorn Brown for a profit, and whereas it was unpopular, it did bring the team at least $500,000 in transfer fees.

To me, it is clear that the Front Office and Ownership is more engaged than it has ever been.

So why not a higher score?  Attendance is still lagging at DSGP and while the fan experience is good, there still seems to be a disconnect with getting people in the seats.  For whatever reason, there seems to be a lack of engagement with the community in getting fans to the park.  The weather has been much better (compared to 2013 and 2014) so that is not an issue.  Yes, the team is 'not great' right now, but there is much positivity.  The FO and Ownership need to continue to strive to fill "The Dick" and make that place a fortress.  Right now, it is not.

And, on a personal note, I would love to see recycle bins next to every trash can and healthy food options at the match.  But that is just me.

So the Rapids are 1-2-6 after 9 games and are averaging a point a match.  The team is much better than the last half of the 2014 season and there are definitive signs of improvement.  Although they are in tenth place in the Western Conference, a win on Friday against San Jose Earthquakes could propel them into a playoff position (depending on other results).  Regardless of whether or not they are above the red line after this weekend is not as important as getting a much needed victory at home.  A victory at home against San Jose would continue to build this teams confidence as they enter the second quarter of the 2015 season.