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Backpass: The Sword of Damocles

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Playoff Leg 1 versus the LA Galaxy, dissected in detail. Post-season Backpass! It’s like regular Backpass, but more anxious and excitable.

In my lifetime, I’ve been to countless sporting events. I’ve seen the mundane: your average, mostly irrelevant midseason game in a 162-game baseball season or an 84 game NBA season. I’ve attended games that were entirely about the future but ultimately held no inherent meaning, like Spring training in Arizona. I’ve seen a lowly college basketball team upset the nation’s number one program. I’ve seen professional motocross and Olympic volleyball and the LA Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League. I’ve even seen history: Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Dodgers vs. Oakland.

But I’ve never been to a make-or-break, do-or-die game at the professional level*. The proverbial game seven; where the winner cries tears of true joy and adulation, and the loser spends four months thinking ‘what if?’ amidst rounds of golf and meeting up with their agent for mimosas to talk about ‘our next move.’

Sunday, that will change.

Because the Colorado Rapids of America will host the Five-time MLS Cup Champion Los Angeles Galaxy for all the marbles**. And I’ll be there.

It is the parable of the sword of Damocles, come to life. The parable tells the story of a king. It’s good to be the king, because you’re rich and famous, and that’s pretty awesome. But the tradeoff to being king is being able to deal with the pressure of literal sudden death, as a mighty sword hangs suspended over your head, suspended by just a single horse’s hair.

By going down to LA 1-0 in Carson on Sunday, the Rapids are acutely aware of the sword swinging over their necks. If they play their preferred style of play this coming Sunday, a grinding, defensive, nil-nil draw, it would mean going home for the winter. The away goals rule affects the way the team must approach the game even more: if the team surrenders even a single goal to the Galaxy this Sunday, they’ll need to score three goals to move on in the playoffs; scoring three times in a single game is a feat they managed just three times in the regular season.

It’s a lot of pressure for the players and the coach. Getting past a five-time champion chock-o-block full of big name players like Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, and Landon Donovan is a tough task: these guys have been in big pressure games many times before, and they know how to handle it. While the Rapids have a couple big-pressure guys like Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones, they’re also likely to feature their young inexperienced bucks like Axel Sjoberg and Dom Badji and Micheal Azira and Marlon Hairston. It’s a big test for the kids.

Perhaps Colorado will be buoyed by the knowledge that every MLS neutral will be rooting for them, the Rapids, a higher seed who will nonetheless be perceived as the underdog. Because nobody likes the LA Galaxy and their smarmy #RaceToSeis hashtag, except LA Galaxy fans. No, if the Rapids win, it’s a win for all the struggling teams buried at the bottom of the table in MLS, like the Chicago Fire, and all the smaller market teams like Kansas City, and all the lunchpail teams that lack massive star power, like Philadelphia. Everyone tuning in this game Sunday around the globe who isn’t a raging jerk or a native Angeleno is rooting for Colorado.

All the meaning and drama pent up in this game means that there will be a lot of pressure on us fans too. My heart will be pounding away for the full 90 minutes. All nachos will need to be consumed well in advance, because there’s no way I’m going to be missing a critical play while waiting for the Aramark staff to find the replacement bag of fake-cheese product for the nacho machine.

For me also, I have a small additional life’s quest on the line. As a gift to myself for my upcoming 40th birthday, I plan to travel with the Rapids for the away leg of the MLS Cup Semi-Finals. This sounds pretty cool until you consider that, in comparison, my wife got to go to New York City for five days of Broadway shows and cultural elitism and long brunches along the Hudson for her 40th, while I was stuck back in Denver cleaning up pee accidents from my 4 year-old and fetching the umpteen-gazillionth bowl of cheerios for my 6 year-old. #DadThugLife. Twenty-four hours away for footie doesn’t rate in comparison.

Still. I’d really like to go away to Seattle for my birthday (less so, Frisco) to carouse and get my soccer on properly. If we lose, my alternative birthday plans will probably devolve into me sitting in my underwear trying to get Alex Hunter past Watford in FIFA17 in my basement at 2AM.

So please, Colorado. Win this game. For yourselves. For your fans. For all the MLS neutrals that are on your side. For me.

Leg 1 Summary

In short, the Rapids did almost enough in this game, but came up a tad short. The tactical approach was expectedly conservative, and yielded only one goal, just after the half. That can be called a success. LA saw more legitimate chances in this game than the Rapids, but some great emergency tackling by Jared Watts, some selfless blocks from Micheal Azira and Axel Sjöberg, and a pair of awesome first half and second half saves from Tim Howard kept us in the game.

Here’s a full highlight replay, if, like me, the anxiety led you to consume many adult beverages and your memory of specific events is a bit hazy.

And then, at the 50th minute, we let in a funny goal.

LA’s only goal of the match required four odd fluky things happening all at once.

First, that centerback Jelle Van Damme would come charging out of a deep spot to get a rebound, like he’s Neymar Jr. out there or something.

Second, that the big lug would actually make himself <look> like Neymar Jr. in nutmegging Micheal Azira to get into a dangerous position.

Third, that a pretty good downwardly headed ball would get deflected right into the back of the net by Axel Sjöberg, who normally does so much better even with the trickiest of balls.

Four, look closely and you’ll see Alan Gordon takes out right back Eric Miller, and Jared Watts and Miller both scramble to get to their assignments, just as Azira is megged. It could be argued that the ref should have blown for a foul on Gordon for obliterating Miller.

I would’ve thought that some of those other LA chances had better odds of snapping the net, but it was this funky weirdo play that did the job for LA. Playoffs be weird, man.

The Rapids approach was conservative, even for them, until the goal came in. There was little or no high press, which has been the way the Rapids often generate offense, by stealing the ball at midfield with Gashi or Hairston. And with the exception of a brief period from minute 50-70 when Jermaine Jones was being peak Jermaine Jones, the team really didn’t harry LA much.

Offensively, the Rapids were pretty dour. The first half possession went in LA’s favor, 60-40, which is below my expectation. When the Rapids did have the ball, they didn’t look particularly sharp with it. One sequence that was instructive occurred at 36’.***

Shkelzen Gashi (11) takes the ball off a Galaxy dribbler, and Sam Cronin (6) picks it up and skoots it on to Dom Badji. Badji dribbles his man and sends in a good pass to Dillon Powers on the right side about 40 yards from the Galaxy goal, with at least four Rapids players as options in front of him and loads of space. Opta says that pass happened at 36:19. Powers waits, and waits, and waits, and Giovani Dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget converge on him and take the ball at 36:23. Attack: snuffed.

That was the one real moment of a good chance. Powers big moment to shine on the biggest MLS stage. Bungled. Offensively, the rest of the game was a story in a lack of penetration or sharpness, a lack of an effective high press creating chances, and also a lack of success with the long ball due to LA’s really tight wing play on our midfielders. The team looked a little sluggish.

Hopefully this is something they can overcome on Sunday, November 6th. With the home crowd on their side, and with the Rapids knowing what they need to do, they can be (and must be) more aggressive. Because if they aren’t, the season is over.

The Curious Disappearance of the Albanian in Carson

Shkelzen Gashi picked a hell of a time to have a bad day. Either the Albanian national was instructed to play conservatively, or he had the flu, or his head wasn’t in the game. Whatever it was, Gashi did not contribute in any appreciable way in this game. His one big chance to shine on the big stage, and he was practically invisible for all 90 minutes. So much so that when Doyle was subbed off for Hairston at 69’, many on Rapids twitter wondered why it wasn’t the Albanian who was sacrificed. I concur.

Here’s his passing, dribbling, and shooting charts. First half:

and second half:

That one yellow line is the little pass to Jermaine Jones at the 59th that JJ bombed from 30+ yards out that Brian Rowe slapped away. That one red circle was the only shot he took; the free kick from 37 yards out that he blasted into the LAX flight pattern. It was his only shot of the game.

Gashi was 27 for 36 in passing, for 75%, 1 key pass, and 4 ‘unsuccessful touches’ - AKA badly controlled balls - to match only 1 shot. He completed only two passes in the final third. In the regular season, Gashi averaged 3.4 shots per game and 2.4 key passes per game. This game was, offensively, not a good performance for him.

He looked cautious; almost nervous. There were times when he received the ball in space and looked backwards first, passing into a situation that averted risk but also gave LA another two or three seconds to drop and organize the defense. I can’t tell if this was part of his instructions: play it safe, or pass back to Cronin and make a run; or if it was him being off.

Whatever it was, we need peak Gashi ; top-of-his-game Gashi ; in leg 2.

This Lineup

The Rapids are guilty of something Matt Doyle railed against on Extratime Radio yesterday in regards to NYCFC and FC Dallas, who were the really big losers on the day: getting away from what made a team successful in the regular season when they arrive in the playoffs.

Colorado mostly stayed true to themselves and ‘danced with the girl that brung ya’: stalwart defense, staying tight and organized, and defending front-to-back. Even Shkelzen Gashi register around his average amount of tackles and interceptions, as did the rest of the attackers.

The lineup, though, was something we hadn’t seen maybe all season. From d-mid back, it was the regular crew. So that’s good. But the attacking players were a mixture of guys in different spots and combinations than usual.

It was Badji on the left and Gashi on the right; Doyle up top and Powers in the middle. That is in contrast to what we’d seen for the past eight weeks and more. For the last three games, the Rapids rolled out an attacking line of Gashi, Doyle, and Le Toux or Hairston, with Badji up top. Before that, when Doyle was out with an ankle injury, the team went with Gashi, Powers, and Hairston; Badji up top.

Both of those end-of-season lineups looked better than this one. Badji’s pace was pretty well neutralized by Robbie Rogers, who is probably one of the top three right backs in MLS, and Jelle Van Damme neutralized his size when he got into the 18 yard box. Doyle’s ability to drop back into the midfield and turn in traffic, which we saw in flashes when he stepped in to be the number 10, was irrelevant while he was stranded up top by himself as the number 9. The left footed Gashi never looked comfortable on the right side. And Dillon Powers wasn’t able to change the game himself, either. Jermaine coming on at the half gave the team an electric jump, but only until he became exhausted by minute 70.

I can understand starting Doyle up top. I can see why you’d start Powers over JJ in this game, considering JJ’s fitness. Not starting Hairston in this game absolutely mystifies me. He’d been the hottest player on the team at the end of the season, with 3 goals and 5 assists in the second half of the year, which is excellent production from a winger. The only explanation I can think of is that Pablo thought the left-footed Gashi would cause Ashley Cole more problems than the speedy right-footed Hairston. But leaving Hairston on the bench feels to me like tinkering: Mastroeni and the staff trying to be clever and strategic when in reality they were messing with success in dumb way.

I really hope they don’t do that again.

To sum up, the Rapids got more right than they got wrong, and they go into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with a decent if not entirely favorable 0-1 deficit to make up. This is the playoffs, though, and both the players and the team need to be pretty close to flawless to stop an LA Galaxy team with experience and talent and a propensity to peak at the right time.

Rapids Sartorial Style, Halloween Edition

Keep Fighting, indeed.

— — — — — — —

* I’ve seen some do-or-die games at a high school level. Generally, the underdog team enters facing a team that they know is going to mop the floor with them. Small-school basketball is great in a lot of ways, but it generally isn’t a place where you find loads of parity.

** I mean, actually, I know this isn’t ‘all the marbles’ since the winner still needs to win the Western Conference championship in order to play for MLS Cup, which would be an actual ‘all the marbles’ situation. But still: if we lose, there will be no marbles for us. No. Marbles.

*** I’d gif stuff like normal, but the blackout window on MLS matches on ESPN is 48 hours, so I can’t re-watch the game till Wednesday. Dammit.