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Backpass: The Impregnable Fortress

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Dick’s Sporting Goods Park became a fortress this year like no other park.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Chittorgarh in Rajasthan, India. Masada in the Judean Desert. These are some of the legendary fortresses in the world.

Add to that list Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, in Commerce City, Colorado.

In 2016, the Colorado Rapids conceded just 7 goals at Dick’s, with a home record of 11-6-0 (WTL), better than any other team in MLS this year. Lots of teams have run off impressive home unbeaten streaks; the Houston Dynamo hold the record, with 30 unbeaten from 2011-13 at home. The Rapids finish the season having conceded just 32 total goals, home and away, better than any other team in MLS this year.

They did it a couple of ways.

First, they played front-to-back defense, starting their pressure against most teams with their attackers in the opponents own half. Shkelzen Gashi and Dillon Powers and Marlon Hairston acted as agents of chaos that generated goals-via-turnovers at a high rate, but also forced the opponent to play quick and more often inaccurate passes up the field; that led to conceding fewer shots, on average, than most teams. The Rapids faced 12.3 shots per game, 6th best in MLS this year. Four of the five teams that were better than the Rapids at cutting down on shots also qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs.

Second, they make long aerials and high crosses into the box theirs every time. The Rapids were 2nd in MLS in clearances with 20.6 per game, and Axel Sjoberg was 2nd in individual players in MLS with 5.13 per game.

Third, the backline of Marc Burch, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts and Eric Miller were extremely well coordinated and consistent. Analysts on ESPN, and even MLS’ guru Matt Doyle have called it ‘a bunch of no-names’ and ‘a rotating cast’, but in fact, it’s really a well-oiled machine that was slowly constructed through the offseason. Jared Watts has been the distributor and ground-based partner to Axel Sjoberg’s anti-air battery. Marc Burch and Eric Miller are phenomenal defenders in their own rights too. The entire back line is quick enough to stop most attacks, while none is a speedster in his own right. The team makes up for that by ensuring that there’ll be few, if any, open field breaks, by clogging the middle with Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin, and by keeping bad turnovers to a minimum.

Fourth, the team sets out from the start to pitch a shutout. The team’s approach is defensive in nature, and it keeps the game from opening up until after the 70th minute. The team is clearly far more concerned with ‘stopping the opponent’ than ‘scoring first’, and it means that more mental and physical energy will be expended on defending, first. Last year, that was frustratingly boring. This year, it’s been devastatingly effective.

Fifth, this team is going to physically punish you for 90 minutes, and everyone they play knows it. The Rapids are the most physical, most foul-prone team in MLS.

So maybe some of the Rapids opponents don’t go pell-mell into that 50-50 challenge out of fear, or maybe the ref swallows his whistle on a few tough tackles, and the Rapids kill a nice build-up or a fast break dead. Or maybe even better, the ‘Pids come away with the ball on a break. Ask SKC.

And sixth, the Rapids run their opponents down and take advantage of them in the late goings, when tired, sea-level legs aren’t equipped to deal.

The Rapids hold home-field advantage against every team in MLS through the playoffs, except FC Dallas, by virtue of their 58 points accrued in the regular season. In addition, the away-goals rule for the home-and-home series the Rapids will play in the 2nd and 3rd rounds means that Colorado has an advantage by being defensive. A home nil-nil draw means Colorado can draw 1-1 or 2-2 on the road and go through.

Sure, this team has flaws, and other MLS teams have star-power or momentum going into the playoffs. But I’d say that the Rapids should be considered one of the favorites to make it to MLS Cup this year. Building themselves a fortress this year is a big reason why.

Breakdown of a breakdown

Colorado conceded in the 21st minute in this game. It was, as mentioned above, only the team’s 7th goal allowed at home this year. Let’s scrutinize this rare occurrence a little and see what happened here, because winning in the playoffs for these Rapids is probably all about eliminating defensive errors.

Collen Warner* (26) passes to DeMarcus Beasley (7). Beasley’s obvious play is a short dink to Boniek Garcia (27), but instead he sees Alex (14) getting in behind Eric Miller (3). Beasley feeds him a great ball. This is a big problem. The pass has cut out both the Rapids midfield defense and their backline with one chip. If you rewatch this and just look at Eric Miller, you see he was man-marking Garcia, and Alex was free. Watts rotates over to cover Alex, but now you’ve got the midfield beat, and half of the backline is all squeezed into the southeast corner. That means the entire box is defended by just Sjoberg and Burch. Uh Oh.

Alex passes to Mauro Manotas (19), the 21 year-old Colombian sensation that has been giving Houston hope for 2017. He takes an audacious shot from a ridiculous angle that no sane human should take. Ricochet falls to Andrew Wenger (11). Bang, 1-0, Cream-sicles.

Maybe Axel gave Manotas a tad too much space to turn and shoot. Also, holy hell, what a turn-and-shoot! Burch ain’t guilty because he’s waiting in the right spot to clear out a deflected shot. No, this play is a mess because of the midfield and the wing. Sebastian Le Toux is late to commit to something in the buildup. In means Miller has to mark Garcia when it should have been Powers or Le Toux. Sam Cronin and Dillon Powers are closing down space until the pass comes in, but then they’re jogging rather than panicking to stop the shot from coming in.

It’s just not good enough. It’s also kind of a weird play, so I can comfortably say this kind of thing won’t happen often and coaches shouldn’t spend too much time drilling teams on ‘what to do when someone attempts to score on a shot that must bend the space-time continuum to go in the net’. But still. Gotta become error free and marking with all 11 to win an MLS Cup.

We’ll need some finishing luck in the playoffs, too

It wasn’t there in this game. Not for Doyle:

...

And not for Badji:

We’ll need a little bit more to get hardware this season. Do we need better finishing? Better luck? Do those things even exist for strikers? I don’t know if I agree with Sean Steffen’s conclusion in the linked article, but it’s an interesting question. Either way, we were the better team second half, and we were pretty darn close to a win here.

Rapids Sartorial Style Corner

And finally, Shkelzen Gashi scored his first goal at DSGP (Really? <Checks> Really.), and 9th goal of the 2016 season. He’s been growing out a beard since the first week, and it’s gone through the stages of ‘Stubbly Rugged Mountain Man’ to ‘Hipster Chic’, but has progressed straight on to its current stage of ‘Amish Butter Churn Salesman’ (salesman, not churn, pictured below).

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Somebody take this guy to a barber shop. But maybe, after the playoffs.

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*Collen Warner of Denver, CO, who I was unkind to just two weeks ago in Backpass. Payback is, indeed, a bitch.