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Leg One vs Seattle: Tactical Preview

What Colorado needs to do to come away from Seattle on top.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

If you are one who lives according to the maxim ‘Go big or go home,’ tomorrow is your jam. There is literally nothing bigger than a road game at Seattle’s Centerlink Field.

The last away team at the CLink was Oscar Pareja’s FC Dallas. FC Dallas, who had already collected the Supporters Shield and US Open Cup, and were looking to be the first MLS team to collect a treble. Seattle blew them out of the water, 3-0. There was no hope for FC Dallas on the second leg: the series was already over.

The Rapids must avoid a similar fate in front of maybe 60,000 of the most rabid fans in MLS, or next Sunday in Colorado will be nothing but a goodbye letter to their fans.

Here’s how they do it.

1. Contain Nicolas Lodeiro

This is not a grand piece of secret wisdom I impart to you. Everybody knows that the secret to Seattle’s resurgence is the mid-season signing from South America. Let the Denver Post’s Daniel Boniface hit you with the knowledge:

About the time retailers began running “back to school” ads, the Sounders were in ninth place in the West and had just fired longtime coach Sigi Schmid. With the calendar threatening to flip to August, they signed Lodeiro, a 27-year-old Uruguayan playmaker from Boca Juniors of the Argentine first division. And the rest is history.

Lodeiro is a classic, dazzling, dribbling number ten. You constrain him by clogging the passing lanes and constricting open space. Sam Cronin knows it better than me.

He’s been fantastic for them all season at finding little gaps. We need to get as close as possible to him and minimize his space and time on the ball and push him backward and wide. If we can do that, I think we’ll have a lot of success.

The Rapids faced Seattle twice this year: on April 21 and May 23, winning 3-1 at home and 1-0 on the road, respectively. But Lodeiro didn’t join Seattle until July. Our previous matches against Seattle don’t particularly inform what is likely to transpire tonight.

A lot of the question of ‘how’ hinges on ‘who’. Will Mastroeni start Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin at defensive midfield? Their tandem play has been excellent defensively. Or go with a more aggressive destroyer like Jermaine Jones alongside Cronin? JJ got only his first start at d-mid for the Rapids in leg two against the LA Galaxy; otherwise this year he’s been the Rapids attacking midfielder. Or do the Rapids put the better-passing, worse-defending Dillon Powers in at d-mid? Or do JJ, Azira, and Cronin all start and play super-defensively? Will Lodeiro start on the wing and be the primary responsibility of Hairston and Miller or Le Toux and Burch?

The good news is, the Rapids team defense can adjust regardless of the personnel they elect to go with, and they’ve smothered every talented number ten in MLS this year, from Gio Dos Santos and Sebastian Giovinco to Ignacio Piatti and Benny Feilhaber. The bad news? Lodeiro has shredded every team in the league with 4 goals 8 assists in only 13 games, and I assume those teams all planned to ‘contain Lodeiro’ too.

2. Force Seattle to make mistakes

Seattle is playing with a funky mixed up lineup that has seen a dozen different iterations this year. Nelson Valdes will be filling in for the injured Jordan Morris at striker. Lodeiro is taking over for Clint Dempsey, who is out with an irregular heartbeat. Andreas Ivanschitz may or may not be healthy by game time. The last lineup they used included Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso at defensive midfield; Jordan Morris, Erik Friberg and Nicolas Lodeiro. Ivanschitz has 3 goals, 8 assists, and Roldan has come into his own. But if both Ivanschitz and Morris both need to be replaced, the alternates include Brad Evans, who’s played more in defense and has lost a step; Aaron Kovar, who has 883 minutes this year, with 1 goal, and 0 assists; Alvaro Fernandez, a 31 year-old Uruguayan journeyman on his fifth club in four years including a stint in Qatar; and Oniel Fisher, who has only 232 minutes this year.

That one spot, along with Nelson Valdez, who had yet to score an MLS goal in a full season with Seattle until he exploded for two in two games during the playoffs, look like positions the Rapids can potentially exploit. Joevin Jones at left back is an exceptional player, but also the kind of fullback that likes to wander forward. Look for a potential run in behind by Marlon Hairston if that happens.

Colorado’s smothering defense makes great teams look pretty average, and it causes average teams to make fatal mistakes. The difference between a loss and a draw, or draw and a win, will be forcing and converting those mistakes.

This won’t be easy: Seattle is a good, steady team that look like the kind of team that don’t make a lot of mistakes. But if the Rapids are going to score an away goal, it’s best hope if off of a high press turnover, a sloppy midfield giveaway, or an overly aggressive attack that results in a Rapids counter.

3. Threaten from key partnerships

There are two pairs of Rapids players that like to work off of each other: Jermaine Jones looks to pass to Shkelzen Gashi, and Marlon Hairston looks to pump balls in from the wing to Dominique Badji. We’re probably without Gashi for this match, and possibly for the rest of the season. Jermaine will need to pick up his comfortable combo play with Kevin Doyle or Sebastian Le Toux, even if those fellas don’t ‘shpreken zie Deutsch’. If you get either of them drunk enough, I bet Gaelic or French sound close enough to German anyhow.

Colorado needs to create a reasonable threat to keep Seattle at bay. Pablo Mastroeni tends to play defensively, and tends to allow the opponent to control possession, especially on the road, where the Rapids were 14th in MLS with only 47.3% of possession. If the Rapids retreat late into a defensive shell and invite waves of Seattle attacks, and if Seattle get emboldened enough to bring up six or seven players in attack, Colorado may crack from the pressure. Our better attackers need to find a rhythm and keep Seattle honest, lest they get too comfy.

Ideally a Hairston to Badji hookup is the thing that nicks the critical away goal. But even if it helps to move the ball into the middle third of the pitch, it’d be of great use to the Rapids.

A good result is a 0-0 tie, or even (!) a 0-1 loss. A great result is a 1-1 or 2-2 draw, or even a 1-0 or 2-0 win. If Lodeiro is taken out of the game and the offense finds a little spark, then win the return leg, the Colorado Rapids can join the Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, RSL, and LA Galaxy (three times!) in the illustrious pantheon of Western Conference teams that have knocked Seattle out of the playoffs short of winning MLS Cup.

Fun side note: as this article publishes I’m on a plane to Seattle. I’ll be reporting on the game for Burgundy Wave from the pressbox. I’ll have all of you loyal supporters in my heart and all of you fanatical Burgundy Wave readers on my mind as we contend with the Rave Green Monster. Keep Fighting... till we bring home the cup!