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Midseason Review, Part 3: Center Backs and Goalkeepers

The backbone of the defense in review for the first 17 matches. Boy, time flies, doesn't it?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Here's my review of the central defense and keepers to this point in the year. Disagree in the comments. I know you want to.

Axel Sjoberg

Grade: A

Beer: Odell’s 90 Shilling. Excellent. Good any time, day or night. Dependable.

Axel Sjoberg is proof that despite the train-wreck of a season so far, the Front Office is entirely capable of making some great decisions. In the MLS Superdraft, defenders Matt Polster, Clement Simonin, Skylar Thomas, Saad Abdul Salaam, and Tim Parker were all selected ahead of the Rapids 19th pick, Axel Sjoberg. Where are they now? Polster is playing defensive midfielder quite well for Chicago Fire. Simonin has one appearance for Toronto FC. Thomas has 8 appearance for TFC2 in the USL. Abdul-Salaam is on loan with the San Antonio Scorpions in NASL. Parker has 4 appearances for the Whitecaps, but is currently back with their USL team.

Axel Sjoberg played in 9 matches before being sidelined with a knee sprain for the past three games. He leads the Rapids in Clearances, Blocks and Interceptions with 108: Bobby Burling has 71. He wins 61% of duels, including an insane 79% (!) of headed duels.

He’s the team’s best player, game in and game out. He changes other team’s approaches: with Sjoberg on the pitch, opponents taking route one is usually a bad idea, since he can head the ball away most of the time. Opponents can’t play for open play crosses from the wings or expect to score on a corner either, since he pretty much denies everything into the box. Axel Sjoberg is Colorado's second-coming of Dikembe Motumbo, only now in Nordic, soccer-playing form. How many MLS central defenders cause other teams to adjust their plan? Omar Gonzalez, Chad Marshall, and maybe Matt Besler. That’s a damn good pick for Padraig Smith and Claudio Lopez.

Drew Moor

Grade: B (maybe? This was hard)

Beer:

New Belgium Dunkelweiss. Hard to figure out what’s going on here.

With Axel Sjoberg taking away the air, it falls to his defensive mid pair to go to ground and be the quick response for the 20% of the time Sjoberg’s aerial clearances fail. Moor did some of that, but also had some shaky games: a blown coverage or a foul in an advanced position to give up a big free kick. He played two matches at Left Back, which I thought was odd, although he did set up the game equalizer to Dillon Serna against FCD. Against Orlando he didn’t look great. He gave up one goal against Kaka and nearly gave up two, but the Brazilian’s 6th minute shot went off the post. Maybe Kaka makes every defender look bad. Maybe Moor’s starting to decline.

Moor passes at an 83%, and can start the offense off out-of-the-back very well. He’s probably not covering as much ground as he used to. And he organizes the back line well. On the other hand, the Rapids have allowed 11 goals in the 8 games he’s played, and only 7 in the 9 games he sat in favor of Jared Watts or Bobby Burling. This isn’t conclusive, and the midfield has been responsible for some of those defensive lapses. But still, the only number that really matters for a defender is goals concede, and Moor hasn’t been the rock the team would need if they plan to win 1-0 every time out. Still, he’d be my go-to center back to pair with Axel Sjoberg if I was the  coach.

Bobby Burling

Grade: B

Beer: Oscar Blues Ten FIDY Russian Imperial Stout (10.50% ABV)

Big. Strong. Will f^%k you up if you get in its way.

Burling was one of the offseason pieces in the defensive make-over the Rapids made. Last year the season ended with a back line that was a mix-and-match train wreck of Marc Burch, Jared Watts, Chris Klute, Marvell Wynne (usually in the middle) Thomas Piermayr and Zat Knight.

Burling has been better than everyone on that list, so job well done, Front Office. He has height but he also blocks the ball well (11 blocks, leads the team) and is surprisingly quick for a big man. He is also the back line’s finest purveyor of #RapidsThugLife justice, with four yellows, one red (his first match against Philadelphia Union), and 16 fouls. He’s not stupid, though: he doesn’t foul carelessly, and generally makes the right play. Still, final-third fouls leading to set pieces is always a concern. Burling doesn’t pass or move as well as Moor, but at this stage, he might defend better. With the option to go Burling, Moor or Sjoberg at the back, we’ve got such incredible depth compared to last year that I ain’t complaining.

Shane O’Neill

Grade: C/Incomplete

Beer: Great Divide Sampler pack.

There’s good stuff there, but there’s also less good.

Every Rapids fan wants to know why O’Neill isn’t getting minutes: he has 4 MLS starts and one Open Cup match this year. His early two games were esentially as a fill-in while Drew Moor got heathy and Bobby Burling sat out a red. He paired with Axel Sjoberg and turned in two clean sheets, and looked convincing in the role. He went to the bench when Moor returned as wasn’t seen again until the Rapids played the Galaxy at Stubhub. He defensively played very well, as the Galaxy controlled the tempo and attacked relentlessly, but he and Sjoberg also passed at a putrid 44%, smothering the Rapids attack before it could ever start and putting the team frequently on their heels. In his next MLS start against Orlando, he let Cyle Larin slip by to give up the first goal.

We all have seen Shane O’Neill play great soccer last season. Although he hasn’t played much, the times he has played, he didn’t convince the coaches that he was worthy of a regular spot. O’Neill is looking like he’s moving quickly in the Chris Klute situation: young and promising, but not what we need right now, and therefore a potential spare part. That makes me sad, especially since I think with good coaching and development, O’Neill could take over the role as captain of the backline as Drew Moor’s replacement.

Jared Watts

Grade: C+

Beer: Anchor Steam.

OK. Not quite good enough to be in regular rotation. Also, not as bad as some people say.

Rapids fans I know think Jared Watts is terrible. And statistically, according to squawka, he’s not great: his passing, at 72%, could be better, but exceeds the success rate of Sjoberg, Burling and O’Neill. His record of clearances, blocks and interceptions per game puts him second behind Sjoberg. He’s disliked because he fouls too much: and not ‘professional’ fouls like Burling, but stupid fouls, in bad spots. Last season, he committed one (possibly two?) fouls in the 18 yard box leading to penalty kick goals. This season he hasn’t, but the stigma is still there.

I think Watts is unpopular because A) he’s played his whole career in the midst of the dark ages of the 2014 and 2015 Rapids, B) he filled in for fan-favorite Jose Mari early, then for fan-favorite Drew Moor. Nobody looks good next to those guys. That said, Watts is just like O’Neill in that he’s had some looks (5 games started) but hasn’t convinced anyone he can do the job. As bench depth, we could do worse, but nobody who played on the U-20 USMNT is planning for a career as bench depth on the worst team in MLS.

Goalkeepers

Clint Irwin

Grade: A-

Beer:

Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.

One of the best of it’s kind, but overshadowed (maybe deservedly, maybe not)  by the more well-known Guiness stout.

Clint Irwin has kept hopeless affairs closer than they appear many times this season. He’s been excellent, with only one soft goal this year against a sizable number of exceptional saves: he’s been nominated for MLS Save of the Week four times. I’d rate only Tyler Deric, Bill Hamid, and maaaaaybe Nick Rimando and Adam Kwaresey ahead of him. I’m not going to insult your intelligence with GK stats because we all know they are garbage: somebody will eventually revolutionize the field with a stat the works, but until then, my eyes tell me Clint Irwin is the man.

Zac MacMath

Grade: Incomplete

Beer: 404 Error Beer Not Found

MacMath, on loan from Philadelphia Union, had only one match, the US Open clash against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Although the Rapids outscored their USL pals 4-1, controlled possession and had more chances, the Switchbacks actually forced more saves, pressing MacMath into action for 4 saves. MacMath looked great, but you can’t judge the dude’s season on one match. I think he’s an excellent starter for someone in this league, and hope he gets the chance, although having him to back up Clint Irwin is incredibly comforting.