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Backpass 7-8-15: Rapids Show a New Look and Grab the Win

A new formation, a lineup full of recently acquired players, and a win. What went right, and is it repeatable?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since forever, my wife and I went out to a movie theater last night and let grandma and grand-dad babysit. I left home in the 32nd minute of the USA-Honduras game, which I was only minorly conflicted by, since I can’t decide whether I should care at all about the Gold Cup. The spoils of winning it; a trip to the Confederations Cup; is kinda cool, but we’re still far enough out from the next World Cup that I can’t really care yet, and let’s face it, it doesn’t compare to the USWNT’s winning the World Cup. It’s hard to get excited about a tournament that, if you win it, gets you into another tournament that previews the World Cup.

So we went and saw Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’: a little tale about the complex internal world of an 11 year-old girl who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Side note: one example of how this movie is pure fantasy is that in the 21st century, no family could actually afford to move TO San Francisco; my wife, son and I moved to Denver FROM San Francisco, and nothing except a Powerball win would’ve changed that.

The five main characters are Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger, and the premise of the movie deals with how the different emotions share and don’t share leadership in establishing the balance of a healthy individual.  I watched the movie mostly as a parent, and a little as rabbi. As a soccer fan, however, this movie explains things perfectly. Sports are, to some degree, a way for a human being to experience all of the above emotions in a low-stakes forum: if my family or work life is filled with stretches of sadness or anger, I might potentially need a therapist, a new job or a divorce, or heavy sedation. If the Rapids make me angry, well, the game is over in 72 more minutes and I can commiserate on twitter with you all. Also, I’m getting used to it.

That being said, the emotional roller coaster this team has taken us on in the last calendar year goes like this:

  • joy, anticipation, disappointment, sadness;
  • frustration, despair, disgust, anger, worry, forgiveness;
  • hope, excitement, disappointment,
  • more disappointment, more disgust, despair, utter despair, exhaustion;
  • hope?

I don’t honestly want to feel hopeful about this team because I’m afraid it’ll end in a let down, but after a win Saturday against Vancouver, I can't help but feel somewhat hopeful. Vancouver is one of the three best teams in the Western Conference, with a stellar GK in Ousted, a potent attack package in Octavio Ribero and Pedro Morales, an excellent defensive midfielder in Matias Laba, and the fastest player in the league in Kekuta Manneh. And we’ve beat them this year. Twice. It means MLS has wonderful parity. But more importantly, it means that these Rapids can actually compete with anybody. Whether they will or not is the whole reason, despite the emotional rollercoaster they put us on, that we watch these games.

The 4-3-3

As Zac MacPhee pointed out, Pablo Mastroeni went with a new formation: the ‘three-headed dragon’ of Solignac, Doyle, and Sanchez up top. I didn’t believe Pablo was capable of it, to be honest, and some on twitter are suspicious that Pablo may have been forced to by the higher-ups.

I was thrilled because A) Pablo trying ANYTHING different is exciting and B) having seen a couple of4-2-3-1 offenses lock horns against each other this season, I was not anticipating another. Usually those matches entail both teams clogging the midfield with bodies, turning over the ball within three or four passes steadily throughout the game, and alternatively launching the ball long to bypass the log-jammed midfield. If your name isn’t Chelsea, it’s hard to play pretty soccer this way.

The Rapids switch to a 4-3-3 was interesting in a few ways. For one, it spread the attack out and pushed it forward, which gave the team a really different look and forced every player to kind-of rediscover their role with the team. Sarvas was a twin-10 with Pittinari. Cronin was the deep lying defensive mid. Solignac got to become the creative attacker on the left, but had Doyle in the center to take off the pressure; something he couldn’t experience in the 4-2-3-1. It worked well.

For another thing, Mastroeni went with a lineup long on players brought in this season and short on long-tenured Rapids. Of the starting XI, only Vicente Sanchez, Drew Moor, Jared Watts and Clint Irwin were on this team last year, and even then, Moor and Watts were playing different positions in this match than in past games. That was a big part of why this might have worked: some of the new guys were being used in the best way possible for them, as opposed to the coaches putting Solignac, Doyle, or Sarvas into positions that didn’t quite suit them.

Let’s look at one play in the ninth minute to see what the 4-3-3 gives you that previous offenses haven’t.

In the 10th minute, Jared Watts steps up to clear a ball into space at nearly the midway line; awfully high for a central defender. In past games, this tackle would've been the responsibility of a defensive mid. The Rapids played a high line throughout this game, which allowed for a quick transition up to the front line on multiple charges up the pitch. This ball was played perfectly by Watts, and it pinged to midfield in juuuust the right way.

The ball scoots to Kevin Doyle, who goes on the attack with plenty of support: Solignac at the left, Sanchez on the right, and Pittinari in close support. The Whitecaps are suddenly facing a menacing four-on-five. The Rapids attacking with numbers, quickly, was something we never saw in the 4-2-3-1 because the striker was always holding up the ball until the midfield got there. By then, the opponent could get back, and the Rapids attack was all but smothered. Here, we're in the most ideal situation: ball in the middle, support all around, and offensive options galore.

Doyle dumps the ball into his left, then works behind and around two defenders as Solignac makes a cut-in run with his right foot. Sanchez fills in one of the spaces Doyle just left between the defenders. Pittinari takes up his familiar spot even with the right post at the top of the 18 for a dish or rebound. Solignac would proceed to take a so-so shot here that Ousted would stop. However, this kind of rotation, off-ball movement, and fluidity is something we rarely saw before this game. It also showed very clearly that Doyle and Solignac could be great players in MLS. It just took a while to figure out how to play them.

Note that Pablo Mastroeni mentioned a while ago in an interview that the best way to use Doyle and Solignac was alongside each other, but it took him six more weeks to actually decide to do that.

Defensively Speaking

The Rapids have been an extremely strong team defensively this year, so getting them into an offensively minded formation was certainly a gamble: eeking out 1-0 wins is harder without a midfield designed to absorb pressure from your opponent. The way the Rapids compensated was by playing a very high line, high pressure defense on the game. See below that at times, we played six defenders above the midfield line. In past games, we might only play one.

This often forced Vancouver to go over the lop with long balls to escape the pressure (as they did here), and that worked great.

Colorado Rapids Players Coming to a Milk Carton Near You

The young core of this team from 2013 and 2014; Dillon Powers, Dillon Serna, and Shane O’Neill, have all been rendered spare parts this season. Powers has seemingly cycled through three stages of fan speculation as to what he would become. Stage 1 was ‘Dillon Powers is the number 10 we’ve all been waiting for’; a talented playmaker that can dominate the middle of the pitch. Only, last year he disappeared for long stretches, making neither on-ball decisions or plays that elevated the play nor off-ball runs to get open. Stage 2 was ‘He’s being misused by Pablo’; Powers was played sometimes on the wing and sometimes too high up, and fans perceived that his positioning was what contributed to his struggles. Stage 3 is setting in: ‘Dillon Powers isn’t clicking here.’ Powers coming on as an 83rd minute sub is a sign that the coaching staff may not feel like he is the building block the club once thought he was. He might still regain his luster, but at this stage, I’m wondering if this might be Powers’ last half-season in Colorado.

Dillon Serna was the most electrifying player against Colorado Springs and against FC Dallas on June 19, but was less effective against Orlando and Sporting KC. He hasn’t locked down a starting spot with this team, but can clearly do things off the bench. I expect that to continue.

Shane O’Neill’s stock seems to have clearly fallen to the point where he is the central defender of last resort for Pablo Mastroeni. Another Rapid in a similar situation is Michael Harrington: both O’Neill and Harrington used to get first-team minutes, but now don’t even make the bench. I can’t explain either of these things, especially Harrington, who as I discussed in my midseason review of defenders was statistically and effectively a very good defender. I can only speculate that something in practice, off the field, in the locker room, or in the front office’s grand vision has led these two players to be in the doghouse.

Solignac looking stellar, Sanchez dipped in the waters

The play of Solignac and Sanchez in a South American 1-2 looked extremely effective this game. Solignac played very naturally up on the wing, and received long diagonals that he converted into threatening attacks repeatedly throughout the game. Solignac had 7 take-ons, 2 chances created (included his assist to Sanchez in the 2nd minute), and 91% passing. Sanchez played well throughout, and caught Marcelo Balboa and Richard Fleming waxing poetic with surprise in his bravado as he danced through two defenders before getting hacked down at the edge of the box. He was 'like a young man again'; so sayeth our lilting British announcer.

I hope we get to see these two wings continue to wreak havoc, but I’m dubious. Teams will likely start to adjust, as they can no longer be caught by surprise with the Rapids running a 4-3-3. But having Solignac, Doyle and Sanchez up top looked at times like we were watching an entirely new team. Which, considering our last place position in the Western Conference with our ‘old’ team, was a really good thing.