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Tactics Tuesday: New Formation, New Result

For the first time this season, Mastroeni fielded a 4-3-3 that included what he called the "three-headed dragon in the attack."

Pablo Mastroeni, in a dapper blue suit, giving instructions from the touchline.
Pablo Mastroeni, in a dapper blue suit, giving instructions from the touchline.
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Right. Let's just start this the only way we can: THE RAPIDS EARNED THREE POINTS (FROM ONE MATCH).

OK, great. With that out of the way, we can calmly move forward and look at what exactly happened in Saturday's 2-1 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Fielding a 4-3-3 and dropping the Dillons (Powers and Serna) to the bench, Colorado looked quite different than in this season's previous matches. Solignac, Doyle and Sanchez played as an interchanging front three that Mastroeni -- channeling his inner George R.R. Martin in his post-match interview -- called a "three-headed dragon." And even though none of them blew fire, all three contributed to Colorado's goals (yes, goals plural, that's not a typo).

In midfield it was a single pivot three, with Sam Cronin -- praised post-game by Mastroeni for his daily training contributions and performances -- sitting deeper than Marcelo Sarvas and Lucas Pittinari to shield the center-backs. In defense, Mastroeni pushed Drew Moor out to left-back to play a center-back pairing of Jared Watts and Bobby Burling while James Riley played right-back. Clint Irwin, to nobody's surprise, started in goal.

Vancouver, playing in a 4-2-3-1 that often becomes a five man midfield, might well have been Mastroeni's catalyst for the tactical change. In fact, I was interested in hearing why he made the switch to a three-forwards front line, but it was never specifically addressed. (Unless I've just missed it in which case, somebody please link me!) I've heard two lines of thought about whether Mastroeni's motive matters and they go like this: 1) he deserves more credit for seeing the broken formation/tactical issues and adjusting to something different; 2) he only changed because of a specific opponent and we'll be right back to the safety of the 4-2-3-1 against Real Salt Lake on Saturday.

It's important to realize that neither of these lines of thought are mutually exclusive: Mastroeni might well have realized that it's time to make a change because points weren't coming the old way and was concerned what Vancouver's tactical setup would mean for the Rapids. Because I haven't heard him say otherwise, I'm going to assume what I wrote in Burgundy Wave's #PabloOut round table is happening. That is to say, Mastroeni is using the rest of the season to open it up a bit in an attempt to right the ship and save his job.

Tactically, the message was pretty clear: in possession, push the tempo -- look to create space with dynamic, interchanging forwards while maintaining a more structured three-man midfield. Without the ball, Mastroeni wanted an intense and aggressive high-press that would force Vancouver to go long or surrender possession in dangerous areas. And for the first fifteen minutes, that worked really well. Obviously Colorado scored inside two minutes (from a forced turnover in Vancouver's half) but after that, the intensity continued up until around the twenty minute mark when Colorado shifted their approach -- against the instruction of the manager -- and became far too passive, ceding possession and space to the visitors.

Vancouver's goal came from comical defending, starting with Drew Moor's positioning and James Riley's back-post "defending." I've watched it four or five times now and still don't understand why Moor settled into the space he did in the moments leading up to the throw. Riley's mistake is easier to come to terms with, because every player in the backline and Irwin a) assumed Moor had Rosales marked and b) assumed the ball was either running out of play or too difficult to get back across the goal corridor.

Colorado resumed their previously rewarded intense and aggressive high-press around the thirty minute mark allowing them to close the half out strong -- Sanchez's added-time corner was a thing of beauty and might have resulted in a goal on a different night. Doyle's winner came after a strong spell out of the break and was thoroughly deserved considering the energy, effort and busyness the Irishman displayed up to that point. And what a winner it was -- to get that sort of power and accuracy from that contorted body position and from that distance from goal was a real thing of beauty. Having finally scored in a Rapids shirt, perhaps Doyle will have opened the floodgates.

The most obvious question now, is where does this win leave the Rapids? Has Mastroeni stumbled into an attacking formation that gets the best out of his talented attacking players without sacrificing the team's defensive solidity? Is there even room for Dillon Powers in this formation? (Answer: yes, box-to-box!) With another home match coming Saturday against a Real Salt Lake side without it's midfield anchor while Kyle Beckerman's away on Gold Cup duty, there's an obvious opportunity to build the side's confidence and entertain the home support.