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Backpass: Down Go The Timbers

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The defending MLS champions needed a result against Colorado. Nope. Colorado was the more determined team on the night.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We just keep rolling. And we do it our way.

The Colorado Rapids 1-0 win on Saturday night over the Portland Timbers was the 11th 1-0 game the Rapids have been involved in this year across all competitions. Ten of those games were MLS regular season matchups, and the other one was the Rapids ousting of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks from US Open Cup by a score of 1-0. The Rapids have won nine of those 1-0 matches.

Think about that. If only one team gets a goal, 82% of the time, it’s us. And fully 32% of Rapids games end 1-0. That’s crazy high. The Rapids way - grinding, boa-constrictor soccer - is incredibly consistent and incredibly effective. In addition, many of those nine 1-0 wins are the result of a late Rapids goal. We just like to play it tight to the end. The Rapids are a bit more challenged when they have to play any other way than 1-0. Still, looking towards the playoffs, if the Rapids can force teams to play into their hands, Colorado looks comfortable and in-control. It bodes well going forward.

What do I mean?

I’ve done little defensive breakdowns throughout the year of how and what the Rapids do, so here’s another one. Here’s what an extremely well-oiled machine of a five-man midfield will do to your opponent as long as everyone gets back in transition and knows their role:

Close-down the ball. Cut off the central passing lanes. Man-mark anyone in Zone 14 (the dangerous shooting space at the top of 18 yard box). Do the defensive work with your midfield five, and let the back four play flat and serve as the safety valve. It’s beautiful.

If I were to nit-pick, Ned Grabavoy (#10) has a little bit of space here to turn if he wants because Sam Cronin is standing off him a little. But Grabavoy doesn’t turn, and instead kinda blows what he thinks is a 1-2 to Darlington Nagbe, which Marlon Hairston turns and takes the other way. That’s another reason why the Rapids defense works so well - it’s entirely possible for one player to miss a tackle or an interception, but for there to be little else for the opponent to do, and before they make a play, for someone else to come in and force a tackle or turn-over. To make a play here, Nagbe would have had to go through Sam Cronin in front of him with Hairston on his inside shoulder. The Rapids have really reduced the options.

If you go through every play in the game for Portland, you see that being forced back results in two other types of tries - down the wing, where the Rapids’ fullbacks have been extremely tough to beat one-on-one, or over the top and long, which also really doesn’t work. Hence, another 1-0 to the good good guys.

Portland tries to out-Rapids the Rapids; Nagbe Struggles

When defensively-minded MLS teams go on the road, or when they face a defense-first team like the Rapids, they tend to start the game trying to play the lottery; and by that I mean, they launch long balls. It’s logical: you get the ball out of your own end with a slim chance that your forward will be on the end of it with only one or two defenders to beat. If you are playing a team with a crushing midfield defense, the long-ball will bypass all that. No muss, no fuss. If you can snag that early goal and batten down the hatches, you can escape with three points on the road, or maybe even just one point. It’s safe and boring and it works. The Rapids do this when they go on the road. Most teams have done that in Commerce City. Judging by our home record of 10-5-0 (WTL), it hasn’t worked for anyone in MLS coming to Colorado.

In this match, Portland took nine shots; six were the result of long balls, two from dribbles, one from a ball that pinged around and ended up with Diego Chara in the final third. Here’s your prototypical Portland attack:

I feel like this was too conservative for a team that came into the game 7th in the Western Conference - on the outside of the playoffs. Caleb Porter put the game on Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri’s shoulders, when the 2015 Portland Timbers seemed to be Darlington Nagbe’s team. Here’s all his touches in this match:

Basically, Nagbe did next to nothing in this game, either because he wasn’t involved, or because he wasn’t part of the plan. The two key passes were little lay-offs for long hopeful shots from waaaaay far out. The one pass in the final third that could have been something, in the 14th minute, was too weak to get to a streaking Adi. Other than that, Nagbe wasn’t involved.

It’s a bummer for Portland. For the last 10 games of 2015, Nagbe was in-form and driving this team to glory. I can’t help but wonder if using the 4-2-3-1 with Chara and Jewsbury at the back; Grabavoy, Valeri, and Nagbe in attack is hindering Nagbe. Last year in the 4-3-3, Nagbe played alongside Valeri with Chara behind him and three attacking options in from of him. It’s presumptuous of me to diagnose this team’s problems on the back of the handful of games I’ve watched. But Nagbe’s lack of involvement certainly hurt on this night.

One other possibility is that they were just tired. Portland played Saturday, September 24 in Houston; Tuesday, September 27 in El Salvador, and Saturday night October 1, in Denver Colorado. Nagbe, Valeri, and Chara started all of those games. Portland may be struggling with a dip in form and a lack of bench depth.

The Rapids took advantage. It means Colorado will be going to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and the defending-champion Timbers almost certainly need 4 points with only two games remaining to make the playoffs. And their next opponent... is the Colorado Rapids at home.

Le Toux!

It’s a great goal, and of course it’s the result of an amazing run by Marlon Hairston. I’ve written that sentence many times this season. It never gets old.

This is How You RapidsRabbi

Saturday night was the night before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In other words, it’s the rabbinic equivalent of the MLS Cup Western Conference Championship . Yom Kippur, in 10 days, is the Jewish people’s “Cup Final”. I was trying to double prepare - Backpass and my Monday morning services and sermon.

#KeepFighting indeed.