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Galaxy-Rapids playoff, first leg: The LA hype train will meet the cold reality of Colorado

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A tactical preview, by way of looking at other previews and saying, ‘Mmm, Nah.’

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The conventional wisdom going into the two-leg Western Conference semi-final is something that almost everyone in the soccer illuminati agrees with: the LA Galaxy, MLS’ glitz and glam franchise, chock-full o’stars, will play open, attractive soccer, and the Rapids will be defensive and play for a nil-nil road draw.

I mean, I could just stop right here and hit 'submit', and I’ve roughly summarized the thoughts of some really good and thoughtful writers, like Brian Straus and Matt Doyle.

But let’s scratch a little bit more at some of the root assumptions that soccer writers are projecting onto this game.

Claim 1: LA’s injury replacements like Emmanuel Boateng, Sebastian Lletget, and Baggio Husidic will help this team to peak in the playoffs.

It isn’t wrong to think that Emmanuel Boateng can be a spark for the LA Galaxy, as si.com’s Brian Straus said in his column Friday. Boateng’s slice across the RSL backline in the 18 yard box Wednesday was poetry in motion, and his second goal as an inverted right wing showed he can be really dangerous when deployed in creative ways.

However, having seen half-a-dozen Galaxy games this season myself, my impressions of Boateng are: fast, decent dribbler, but not a strong passer or finisher. He *might* be a spark. He also might be a flash in the pan that won’t repeat his performance against RSL again this year.

Boateng had 2 goals in the regular season and 5 assists on 16 key passes. Other Galaxy wing players with similar minute totals this season (between 1400-1700) include fellow forward Gyasi Zardes, who had 6 goals and 28 key passes, fullback Robbie Rogers with 1 goal and 19 key passes, and Mike Magee with 6 goals, 22 key passes. AKA, LA’s other wingers have consistently been more productive all season.

In addition, Boateng didn’t even establish himself as a sure-fire starter for the Galaxy until MLS Week 25 on August 24 vs the Chicago Fire. Before that, he was down on the depth chart of Galaxy forwards behind Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane and Mike Magee and Giovani Dos Santos, and now he’s possibly even behind Landon Donovan. Who, we all know, was playing rec-league ball with Spray-Tan Dan just last month.

In short, I don’t buy the ‘sudden star turn’ ‘breakout player’ narrative generated by the soccer press, based on the games I’ve seen. Sure, Boateng has speed, but we’ve never seen him string together two productive games in a row. I expect him to turn back into a pumpkin in the first leg against the Rapids; the Rapids will neither need to devote special attention to him, nor will he be the offensive spark the Galaxy need to break a suffocating Rapids defense.

The excitement around replacement midfielders Lletget and Husidic is equally specious.

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Yes, they had a good passing game against RSL. That RSL midfield was made up of Javier Morales, who doesn’t defend, Burrito Martinez, who doesn’t defend, and something called ‘Sunny’, along with a still-effective but aging Kyle Beckerman.

Assuming that Husidic and Lletget are the solution in central midfield after that game is like seeing a middle school team win a game 10-0 and assuming they’re ready to take on Barcelona.

That’s not to say they’re a bad pair. Husidic really is a capable two-way midfielder, and his defensive chops are real. And Lletget, at times, has looked dangerous, although the reality of ‘Da Boy’ never matched the overblown hype that arrived when it was revealed that he was dating pop starlet Becky G.

The LA midfield began the season with Gerrard, De Jong, Zardes and Dos Santos. It’s now Lletget, Husidic, Donovan, and Larentiowicz. Forgive me for sounding dismissive, but color me unimpressed that a bunch of subs and after-thoughts are now touted as ‘Magical Bruce is pulling all the right strings at the right time.’ Puh-leeze.

Claim 2: LA’s offense is too pacey for Colorado’s ponderous d-mids and backline.

Matt Doyle has said a few times this week (on Extra Time Radio and in his regular column) that the defense for the Rapids, while certainly formidable, are not fleet of foot.

I call bull. (Sorry Matt. Love you, buddy.)

With the notable exception of NYCFC and the 3-3 tie in Vancouver, nobody has put up more than two goals on the Rapids defense. And I can’t recall but a handful of times that a speedster got behind the Rapids defense this season, and I watched every minute of every game, usually twice. David Accam was kind of terrifying in our game against Chicago, but he was kept off the score sheet. If you look at the list of goals scored on the Rapids this season

- (go here, click the ‘Show’ button on the right side of every individual game) -

you find very few speedsters scoring or even setting up the goals Colorado conceded. The only notable exceptions might be one Jack Harrison assist to Frank Lampard, one golazo from Juan Agudelo, and a nice counter-attack goal from Joao Plata.

This defense doesn’t let folks get behind them. Sam Cronin is still pretty quick, and his positioning, along with the ability of Jared Watts and Axel Sjoberg to read and space the defense in relation to Cronin and Azira, mean that we don’t ‘get beat’ by speed from the run of play much.

The last side note on this is that Matt Doyle hasn’t given sufficient love to Marc Burch, calling him, specifically, slow. Marc Burch is possibly the most underrated player on the 2016 Colorado Rapids, and I believe his personal resurgence this year has been one of the keys to the entire teams resurgence in 2016. He’s a fantastic crosser and a potent offensive tool, and yet he is never, ever in a spot where his efforts at getting forward expose the defense to too much risk. Burch is also one of MLS’ best practioners of the long throw-in, a potent skill that makes him extra-useful. He keep defenders in front of him at all times, and he’s an excellent emergency tackler. Yes, there are faster players than Burch, but it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t get beat, and overall, Burch has been a big addition to the ball club.

In other words, LA are not going to beat us with speed, because speedier teams haven’t beaten us with speed.

Claim 3: The Rapids will concede possession and strike on the counter.

This is a reasonable tactical idea, in the sense that, on the road, with a defensively-oriented team, you make the other team prove their mettle, and you strike on the counter. This would have been true of the 2014 and 2015 Rapids. I don’t think it’s true of this year’s edition.

The Rapids average 50% possession on the season. On the road, that number drops to 47%. They are hardly, then, a classic counter-attacking soccer team.

I expect the Rapids will continue this trend. The team’s offensive style is a fairly even blend this year of short passing that builds from the back, some use of long direct balls, wing play to the fullbacks that concludes with a cross into the box, and attacking runs sparked by off-ball or on-ball movement from Marlon Hairston. Add to that a bunch of goals the Rapids create by picking off passes in the midfield via a frenetic high press, and you see that, at least from this writers vantage point, this Rapids team isn’t really built to strike on the counter. Sure, we can do that, but this team’s 39 goals have really come in a ton of ways, and this teams defense is just as interested in taking the ball away from you as it it to sit deep and say ‘come at me, brah’.

My prediction is that, as long as the score stays 0-0 past the half (and I think it will), the Rapids possession at StubHub at the end of the night will be north of 44%.

So, them’s my thoughts. The classic narrative laid down by some smart soccer folks, while carrying elements of truth to me, seem predicated on a few oversimplications and half-truths.

I can’t wait to see on Sunday if I’m right. And if I’m totally, completely wrong, and we still either win or emerge with a 1-1 draw, well, then, I’m ok with that too.