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Backpass: If the game against Portland were a Star Wars film, which film would it be?

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I'll give you a hint. It's not part of the original trilogy. I talk about that, and I imagine Sam Cronin as a man you don't want to say hello to on his first day in prison. The tactical geekfest and cathartic release that is Backpass from a week we'd all rather forget.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of performing the tasks of my day job, I seriously considered writing a mid-week column after the Rapids zombie-like performance in Seattle, in which they were out possessed 76% to 24% and out passed 450-something to 150-something. That Seattle passing number broke the record for passes in a half in MLS ever since Opta started keeping track. But instead, I thought: wait. See how they play on Saturday night, so that there will be a complete picture to reflect upon. Part of me thought: they’ll play better on Saturday, and then I can say that the lineup on Wednesday was experimental, or that the team had tired legs, or that everybody struggles against Seattle at home. But in my gut, I knew something was rotten in Seattle, and I was dreading Saturday, because it would confirm my fears. And it did.

The feeling of ‘wait and see, hope it’s better’ against ‘that nagging gut feeling that you aren’t seeing an aberration but a trend’ was familiar. The last time I felt it was on my way to see Stars Wars Pt. 2, ‘Attack of Clones’. I remember the feeling of disgust I had walking out of ‘Episode 1: the Phantom Menace’: having to suffer watching an irritating 10 year Anakin Skywalker; enduring Lucas’ epic CGI chases and battles which, knowing it was actually three actors in front of a green screen, loses all drama or excitement; being infantilized as an audience by the addition of Jar-Jar Binks, who has no purpose in the film whatsoever except in some marketing department’s fever-dream of selling lots of merchandise to little kids. Little kids who really aren’t old enough to be worthy of this franchise, or comprehend adult moments like Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke’s father, then severing his hand in a duel in Cloud City.

But anyhow. You see Episode 1, you hate it, and then you go see Episode 2 anyways. You’re pretty sure it’ll suck. It sucked, but not as much as Episode 1: Padme and Anakin’s hard-to-believe and painfully dull romance; sessions of the Imperial Congress that make CSPAN look exciting; but there’s also some decent fight scenes.

My point is, I could see Wednesday that things were bad, but I still held out an irrational hope that I could write something cheery. Because just as George Lucas was guilty of Episode 1, he was also the man behind ‘Empire Strikes Back’. The Rapids can stink up the joint, but they can also thump Houston Dallas 4-0 on the road. Guess what? Thumping the Dynamo Hoops was an aberration. The movie reviews are in, and the 2015 edition of the Colorado Rapids is starting to look like a rotten tomato.

Here’s why:

Play your best XI?

In soccer, you’ve got two ways to approach a lineup. Approach A: select your system, then select and train your players in order to fit that system. Approach B: pick your best XI guys, then select a system that best suits their strengths.

Pablo Mastroeni has gone with ‘Approach A’ all season. And I believe it *could* work. It requires having a reliable holdup forward with great finishing skills. It requires a defensive midfielder who destroys and another who can either get forward in the attack or play fantastic passes from deep. It requires a pure attacking midfield number 10.

Badji couldn’t do the first thing at all, and now we’ve got two new players, Solignac and Doyle, fighting for the same position. Pittinari and Cronin sort of do the second thing, but not really. Sarvas might be able to do the third thing, but he’s hurt. And we’re still waiting on Powers doing that fourth thing. So my assessment is: this team isn’t suited for a 4-2-3-1. And a third of the way into the season, it’s probably not going to adapt to it in time to make the playoffs.

Turning our attention to Approach B, let’s look at the talents and skills of our best players. Our best ten outfielders are: a pair of box-to-box midfielders (Sarvas and Powers); two recently-imported strikers (Solignac and Doyle), a speedy dribble-first left wing-type (Ramirez), a central midfielder who prefers to come from the right (Torres), a bevy of reliable central defenders and a couple of solid defense-minded fullbacks (read: not wingbacks). As traditional and boring as it is, this team’s best formation is the good ole’ 4-4-2.

Wednesday’s lineup made this abundantly clear. The Rapids started Solignac up top (fine). Then the attacking midfield was Powers - Doyle - Torres. Oy gevalt.

1.How many times have we said that Powers does not play on the wing?

2. We brought Doyle in to be our target striker, then we play him as the attacking playmaker?

3. The only player with pace on the team is Juan Ramirez. If you sit him down, you lose any ability to threaten attack.

Against Portland, the Rapids started Torres at striker, and an attacking trio of Ramirez - Doyle - Sanchez. That’s two players out of position, although at times, Doyle looked ok as a number 10. Torres as your lone striker did not look good. I can’t remember Sanchez doing anything at all, but I might have still been shaking off my tailgate buzz in the first 15 minutes.

Burgundy Wave editor-in-chief John Rosch thought the Seattle lineup was going to really play as a 4-2-2-2, which, ok why not? I didn’t really see evidence that this happened in the first half. Mostly because what I saw first half was Lucas Pittinari firing errant midfield passes and the rest of the team clearing everything in sight as the Sounders dominated us.

That leads to my next point.

Sit Pittinari Down

In your best 4-2-3-1 lineup, either Solignac or Doyle is relegated to the bench, or played out of position. And you sacrifice having two strikers for two defensive mids. If you’ve got the best defensive mids in MLS, then it’s a no brainer.

You might argue that Sam Cronin and Lucas Pittinari are both good at what they do and deserve to be on the field. Here’s a look at Squawka’s metrics for offensive score, defensive score, and passing percentage. I listed all of the players that I could think of that have spent the season predominantly at Defensive Midfield. In terms of both offense and defense, Pittinari and Cronin are not as good as their peers.

With Cronin, he’s really just filling in until Marcelo Sarvas gets back, so it’s not worth it to bash him. He is what he is: he defends reasonably well, but isn’t fast. His play reminds me of that thing they say about going to prison: on your first day, find somebody and kick the snot out of them just to show everyone you’re "hard". Cronin has 4 yellow cards in only 8 starts. Other MLS players that have four yellows with 8 starts or fewer: Abdoulie Mansally, Kwame Watson-Siroboe, Marco Donadel, Sam Adegkube, and Alan Gordon. With the exception of Gordon, this is not a list you want to be on.

The fact that he got a goal Saturday owed itself more to the need for the Rapids to throw themselves forward at the death then it did any attacking prowess. Note that *even with a goal on Saturday*, Cronin’s ‘Attack Score’ is still only a paltry 2.43. But still, he’s a backup being compared with the best d-mids in MLS, so it’s a little unfair. If you want to deliver a #RapidsThugLife message, prison yard-style, Cronin’s your guy.

Pittinari, on the other hand, has been inked as the starter, and is supposed to do both the regular defensive stopping and a share of the offensive work. Instead, he leads MLS in fouls, with 35, and his pass completion numbers are incredibly low: far lower than comparable d-mids. On Wednesday against Seattle, he completed only 19 of 28 passes, and turned over some real head scratchers. Defensively, Squawka scores him as dead last on this list; worse than Cronin. His defense score compares favorably with players that start *at striker*: Gyasi Zardes is about the same, Will Bruin and Juan Agudelo are a little better, David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips are a little worse.

The question is: is it worth it to have Lucas Pittinari on the field if it means you *don’t* have either Solignac or Doyle? No. No it is not. He doesn’t give you more defensive presence. He doesn’t give you better passing. What he’s good for is being responsible for conceding a fair number of opponent free kicks in our half.

Mastroeni clearly noticed that Pittinari isn’t clicking: he sat on Saturday in favor of Nick LaBrocca. I think that was a good call, and I’ve never been a Nick LaBrocca fan.

Now that I’ve written about Pittinari for like the fifth time in a row, I promise to not write about him again. At least for a little while, anyways.

Other Thoughts

I keep waiting for a good opportunity to write about our new additions, Kevin Doyle and Luis Solignac. That requires the midfield getting the ball up to them. Solignac did have the big contribution of chesting down the Pittinari long-ball and feeding it to Cronin for the equalizer. But it was the only memorable moment for either. Doyle had a good shot in the 1st half that went high. I’m still in wait-and-see mode…

Powers was left on the bench to start the match against Portland. Maybe it was squad rotation, maybe Pablo is searching for the right chemistry. Whatever it was, it was notable to choose to play Doyle as the playmaker and have Torres up top. It also noticeably didn’t work, and Powers came on at the half…

The Rapids struggled to put a great chance on the goal against Portland until late in the game. But they good two good late scoring chances, and then they put one in in the 89th minute. And then, I don’t really know what the hell happen. Having been at DSGP, I can tell you that the crowd woke up, got to its feet, and screamed for the next 4 minutes. The players were seemingly energized and started to believe, ‘Hey, we can win this!’ And then, they did this:

(insert pic)

Of the Rapids defensive six, only Harrington, Riley, and Moor are back against six Timbers. Pittinari tries to cut off the pass, but then's he's behind the rest of the play. Cronin is running back (slowly) from having gone on the attack, and I have no idea what happened to Sjoberg. How the team got so caught up in trying to win it with last minute heroics that they gifted a goal to the Timbers is beyond me. To be honest, it wasn’t that upsetting: if’d you’d watched the whole game, you got the sense that the Timbers were the better team. The fact that they waited until minute 93’ to prove it was just a formality.