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Backpass: Get hot at the right time

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Peaking at the right time is key for any team hoping to grab MLS Cup. Are we?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It is rare in sports to have a clean and simple path laid before you in terms of what you need to do. In week 1, or week 10 or week 20, a good game or a bad one is of limited consequence. But in week 31, with only four games to go, the Rapids had a very clear set of outcomes laid before them: win in Houston, and earn a first round bye. Win all four of the remaining games, and the Supporters’ Shield belongs to Colorado, along with home-field advantage for the MLS Cup.

In contrast, the Houston Dynamo had less to play for. Individually each was trying to prove that when the team rebuilds in the offseason, they should be worthy of a contract. And some players, like Christian Maidana and Mauro Manotas, made a pretty good showing. The rest of the team looked less-than-convincing.

In addition to the Rapids winning a game they really needed in order to breathe easier in the playoffs, they did something that Chris White said they needed to do earlier this week: get on a scoring jag heading into the post-season. The Portland Timbers in 2015, the LA Galaxy in 2014 and 2012; they had scorching finishes to the year, and especially excellent scoring runs.

The Rapids have scored seven goals over their last three games: their best scoring streak of the season by far. True, it was against three of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but the Rapids had played those teams earlier in the year and been less prolific in front of goal. Colorado is getting a little hot.

In this match they did it without DP striker Kevin Doyle or breakout star Marlon Hairston, both recovering from leg injuries. And they did it primarily on the boot of sophomore striker Dominique Badji. Dom had three chances on goal and scored on two of them, at 12’ and 54’; only a phenomenal stop by Joe Willis at 47’ kept Badji from grabbing a hat trick. Both of his goals were assisted by slick through balls from Dillon Powers, another player the Rapids need to get hot in lieu of their hotshot DP Jermaine Jones getting it done.

It’s not what we expected. Before the Rapids signed Shkelzen Gashi and Jermaine Jones, the Rapids looked totally aimless and hopeless going into the 2016 season. Even I thought they’d finish 7th. And now, not only are they sitting in 2nd place within spitting distance of the Supporters Shield, they’ve done it without getting goals from Kevin Doyle, or much assistance from marquis signings Jermaine Jones or Marco Pappa.

The guys getting hot are guys like Shkelzen Gashi (8 goals) and Dom Badji (6 goals): an unknown quantity from a league you won’t find on North American TV, and a 4th round draft pick from a school more known for lawyers and clam chowder than MLS stars - although (fun fact!) NE Revolution midfielder Andy Dorman is also a Boston University Terrier .

The team leaders for minutes are Cronin (2766 minutes), Sjoberg (2592), Azira (2323), and Burch (2263); only Cronin was a lock to start when the season began. This team, what a surprise. At this point, expect the unexpected. Including a late-season goal binge.

Those Badji Goals

Here’s Badji’s brace. First, goal #1.

The Rapids had been aggressively pressing again in this game, trying to force an error. Against good teams, this often results in forcing the opponent to kick it long or hurry a play without picking out the best option. Against a struggling Houston side, it resulted in a bad mistake, as former La Liga defender Raul Rodriguez was pressed by Dillon Powers, then Dom Badji, before knocking the ball right to Sebastian Le Toux. Powers really looped a flawless ball to Badji, Badji finished from a tough angle.

Credit to the Rapids high press for working, and in a way that it had worked against other struggling teams all year. Still, Rodriguez’ panic-pass and Jalil Anibaba misplacing where he’d left Badji is pretty bad, even for a struggling team. Kind of embarrassing, Houston.

Goal #2 at 54’:

This is so good from so many. Firstly, Axel Sjoberg (which, I finally and definitively learned from this awesome MLS Insider video, is pronounced in Swedish ‘Hwua-berrie’) wins an aerial.

I mean, of course he wins it. He wins all the aerials. But this one is at the center circle. The Rapids pushed their CBs high to win headers all night. It was really effective, but against faster teams, this makes me nervous. Anyhow.

Sjoberg’s not only gets on the end of the loose ball, he directs it to Micheal Azira, who knocks down a really difficult ball and slips it to Sebastian Le Toux. Le Toux hits a streaking Dillon Powers who’s running east-west across the pitch, and Le Toux picks him out like vintage John Elway to Terrell Davis on an over-the-middle route. Dillon Powers threads another great pass (damn, he’s getting hot too maybe?) to Badji. Badji just two-touch finishes. They’re going to have to name the lower left corner of the Houston goal ‘Little Senegal’ at the rate this is going.

This is an amazing little Rube Goldberg-like machine of a passing sequence... it kind of boggles the mind. Every play in the thread, from the first header to the last tricky slotted finish, is hard, and yet the Rapids pull it off. This one won’t be goal of the week or a highlight reel staple for years to come. But you really should take some time to stand back and marvel at it.

What went right for Micheal Azira was what went wrong for Houston

Here’s Micheal Azira’s defensive actions map for Saturday. Wow

Orange is a recovery, blue an interception, green is a tackle (red a missed tackle), and purple a clearance.

Azira was everywhere on Saturday night, breaking up plays and stepping in front of balls, and even getting his first ever MLS assist on that final goal from Shkelzen Gashi. His 22 defensive actions was the most of any player on either team. Those orange triangles at midfield are a big reason why Houston conceded so many goals too: the Rapids pressure in the Dynamo end was too much, and lot of that came from Azira.

For comparison here are the defensive maps from the aging former USMNT midfielder Ricardo Clark and MLS journeyman Collen Warner, respectively.

So, uh, not as much and not that good. The Dynamo conceded the central midfield to the Rapids in a way that I’ve not seen another do all year. Maybe it was because they were chasing the game for more than 80 minutes, but still. When one team’s d-mid does more than the other teams two d-mids combined, that’s when you get beat. Side note: Warner is a Denver native (East High School grad, and Colorado Rush alum), so some local soccer fans were probably bummed to see the Rapids chew him up. I wasn’t.

At the same time, the Rapids make the central midfield a no-go zone for Houston. You do that every game, you’ll get a good result 80 percent of the time.

Because even if your goal scoring doesn’t stay hot to end the season, the team has gotten here on defense, and it’s that defense that will likely be the determinant for how far we go in the Audi MLS Cup playoffs in 2016.