The Rapids opened training camp on Friday, and despite not landing any of the big rumored DP targets (yet?), this team still has to, like, play games and stuff with the guys they have. I threw some poop against the wall, and here's a best guess at some lineups. No matter how off I am in the end, it gives us a chance to see who comes into camp with a spot locked down, and which areas are a total mystery to me. And probably, to Pablo Mastroeni too.
Lineup 1: The Known Knowns
This is the lineup based on: 1) Pablo's tendencies, 2) players with lots of MLS experience, and 3) the best players in camp. Doyle's the tip of the spear. You add Marco Pappa playing in his comfortable Left Midfield, Powers in the middle as your creator, and Serna playing on the right side. Serna's funny, because his natural position of Left Mid has been filled over and over for the past two seasons: Juan Ramirez, Luis Solignac, and now Marco Pappa have been brought in there. Serna can play inverted on the right side, but I have yet to see him really prove that he works there. Cronin and Sarvas sit deep, and hopefully both can get that right - Sarvas struggled with injury in 2015, and also seemed to have a hard time figuring out what to do to generate offense. My sense was Cronin was better than him on both sides of the ball, but a Sarvas renaissance could make this team half decent in 2016.
Burch and Hairston slot in at fullback, not because they should, but because they have to. There aren't any other players on the roster that have played there, with the exception of Ensign Joe Greenspan, who played Right Back against Orlando City last year, and was terrible. St Ledger and Burling come back at CB. Both can defend fine. Neither distributes the ball out of the back like Drew Moor. It'll fall to Cronin and Sarvas to do that.
MacMath is your GK. He'll be fine. He had 12 clean sheets in 2013 for a Philadelphia Union team that was lousy.
Lineup 2: Let's get a little freaky
This is a lineup that I would start, but it requires a lot of logical leaps that Pablo Mastroeni may or may not be making. It is also built on the theory that there is a reason the team let Maynor Figueroa go and didn't re-sign a left back. More on that later.
First, we start in a 4-3-3. The Rapids have a lot of so-so midfielders and a couple options on the wing. They struggled with attacking with the ball through the center of the pitch. So maximize that: play to the corners, and do it with speed.
Here, you put Lucho and Ramirez flanking Doyle: the three can use speed and form little attacking triangles in the corners. It kind of takes Vicente Sanchez' game and says, "That was the one thing that worked in 2015. Let's do more of that." It also assumes that Ramirez can do more than attack north to south and fall down. He's going to have to make a quantum leap forward to work here like this. It also assumes that Solignac can, you know, score. I can't imagine the Rapids brought both Ramirez and Solignac back in 2016 just to see them rot on the bench. They either play and prove that their acquisitions last year weren't a horrible front office mistake, or they're gonna be gone soon.
(UPDATE: One is gone sooner than I could have imagined. Juan Ramirez has been transferred to UD Almeria, who are currently fending off relegation in the Spanish Segunda division. That means the Rapids current pool of wingers is Serna, Pappa, and Hairston. Uh oh.)
Sarvas was a box-to-box guy in LA, and he's better moving the ball up than defending. You pair him with a quick and speedy mid like Pfeffer, and you have some dynamism in midfield that makes this team interesting.
Cronin does the defending alone here. That's risky: for all my criticism of Pittinari last year, having him meant you had a defensive agent-of-chaos to cut down passing angles and force mistakes, and another d-mid that can stay at home. Cronin can't go roaming far from home in this role, and the back line will need to absorb more pressure.
It's possible that Powers gets the nod over Pfeffer. It's possible he rotates with Sarvas and Pfeffer. It's possible he's been sold to the Ghanian Premier League by the time you read this. Dunno.
At fullback, you get (dun-da-da-DAH!) Dillon Serna and Marlon Hairston. Serna has spent two seasons unable to establish himself as wide midfielder. So maybe give him a chance at fullback. It solves a position of need for the Rapids, and it may give him a chance to get back into the conversation with the USMNT, who severely lack a left back other than the 34 year old DaMarcus Beasley, and maybe Brek Shea. Hairston at right back might be your only option, but he gives you so many of the things Serna does. Sjoberg, who I think is the team's best center back, plays alongside the more experienced St Ledger.
This lineup is built to generate offense, but it's also prone to leak goals. It might actually be bad, and lose a lot of games. But the best thing about it is that it is full of young players. This lineup might be bad in 2016, but it's built to develop players that could be part of a 2017 or 2018 playoff run.
Lastly, you might be wondering, ‘Where is Marco Pappa?' This lineup could also be called the ‘Stormy Keffeler Lineup'. Pappa's role in this lineup is ‘defendant in a domestic violence case', or ‘suspended 16 games by MLS', or ‘remanded to a mandatory substance abuse program', or, worst-case scenario ‘serving 18 months in a correctional facility in Walla Walla.' I don't like it, but it's a reality we may need to deal with. Slight editorial: in the event it comes out that Pappa did get into a fist fight with the former Ms. Washington, MLS and the Rapids need to be very tough on him. Don Garber should follow the example of how to deal with crisis from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who took swift and appropriate action against Donald Sterling, and not the example from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is a bumbling corrupt overpaid stooge.
Lineup 3: The WTF Lineup
This is the lineup based on conjecture, speculation, lucky rabbits feet, Kabbalistic incantations, bailing wire and glue. So, you know, the thing the front office seems to be working from.
Pulido, who is currently in Greece and/or contract limbo, starts up top alongside Doyle. Doyle and Pulido are both strikers. Putting both players at the same time into Pablo's preferred system of the 4-2-3-1 doesn't maximize either of these players skill sets.
So then you need to sacrifice the midfield. Sarvas and Powers will take their role in a diamond as ‘shuttlers'. The Rapids concede the wings on defense and need to use their fullbacks for width on offense, but they lock down and command the center of the pitch. Some of that sweet, sweet TAM and GAM the team picked up in trading out of the 2nd and 12th picks of the SuperDraft get spent on a creative midfielder with wheels who can score. Juan Mata. Jonjo Shelvey. Somebody. Cronin is your d-mid.
At Left Back, you get somebody who was secretly in the plan all along for this clever front office. Otherwise, why would you trade down out of the #2 pick, when there are two MLS-ready fullbacks there, in Brandon Vincent and Joshua Yaro? Oh, that clever front office. They had it all along.*
St. Ledger gets paired with ‘Jared Watts it is!', who wins the job out of camp. Watts has defensive lapses, but can pass better than anyone else on the backline. He might be the replacement for Drew Moor the team desperately needs.** At right back, it's a magical elf! I say this because the team currently has no right back. I've heard persistent rumors that Hairston doesn't want to play right back. So you send some scouts wandering in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, looking under toadstools for enchanted creatures that are right foot dominant. Seems reasonable.
And finally, you've got Tim Howard at GK. All the looney rumors, all the offseason TAM-grabbing pays off. Howard sells out the first 10 games of the season, and has a Belgium v USA type stand-on-his-head, ‘Secretary of Defense' performance every week. The Rapids win MLS Cup. Pablo gets a knighthood. Taylor Twellman writes a 3 page apology letter to the FO.
Yeah, it's unlikely. But so far, it's the best explanation of our offseason moves I can come up with.
------------------- -------------------- -------------------
* Note: I don't actually believe this. I think the FO screwed up royally and has no plan.
** Note: I believe in Jared Watts, but I'm probably like you in that I get really nervous when he appears on the team sheet.