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Backpass: Pride goes along with the fall

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The last Backpass of the year.

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MLS: Western Conference Championship-Seattle Sounders at Colorado Rapids Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

I know you saw the same thing as me. I know it hurt. It hurt bad.

Why did it hurt so bad?

Pre-season, did anyone really expect this? A run at Supporters’ Shield? A playoff-series win over the glamorous LA Galaxy? Coming up just short of going to the club’s third-ever MLS Cup Final? There wasn’t a single writer on this website that thought we’d be better than sixth. I thought we’d finish seventh. In January, before reeling in Jermaine Jones, Shkelzen Gashi, and Tim Howard, our editor and most of the staff were exceedingly pessimistic about the teams fortunes. This run, this season: it was all gravy. Or, as @TylerPlush put it:

We cared all season. There were lots of peaks, and not so many valleys. The team had a 15-game unbeaten streak from April 13 to July 23. The Colorado Rapids finished the year with an undefeated home record, becoming only the fifth team in MLS history to achieve the feat (Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo, DC United, and FC Dallas are the others). They led MLS in the Supporters’ Shield standings for almost two months. There were Gashi golazos and game-saving Sam Cronin tackles. Marlon Hairston and Jared Watts emerged as possible breakout stars in the league. Tim Howard put on a show in a penalty shootout to get the Rapids past LA. Snow Clasico II. Those valleys: losing Dillon Serna to a blown ACL; losing Rocky Mountain Cup to RSL; getting knocked out of the playoffs, only one game away from hosting MLS Cup at home for the first time.

On balance, it was a surprisingly good year.

And yet it hurt.

I think the improbability of the run fed into the belief that we were destined to go all the way to the Cup. If in March it was considered unbelieveable that we could make the playoffs, then in October it seemed entirely plausible that we would win the whole frikkin’ thing. Probability, when confounded, seems like it should evaporate.

But it doesn’t. Soccer is not controlled by vindictive gods or ancient curses or whether you wore your lucky socks. It is a game of physical ability, and skill, and tactics, and a little luck. And we had a little less of all four on Sunday against Seattle.

On that note, credit to the Seattle Sounders. They had an excellent run from August onward. They were excellent in the playoffs, blowing out FC Dallas at home and out-lasting and out-playing the Rapids. They played well on both sides of the ball. Their fans should be proud that they have their first-ever shot at MLS Cup.

So, for the last time until the February pre-season (crappy Facebook Live Streams permitting), let’s do a full autopsy of the game in Backpass.

To score a goal, it helps to put a shot on frame

The Rapids took 16 shots Sunday against Seattle. Nary a one hit the post, the crossbar, or the goalkeeper, let alone the back of the net.

It is neither productive nor logical to say ‘Hey, man, that happens.’ It is also pointless to blame the players on ‘finishing’, because it’s more complicated than that. Were they in good positions to shoot? Were they wasteful? Did good players have a bad game? Did bad shooters take all the shots?

The value of going micro-dissection here is that it allows us to spend some time on a thing I almost never look at: shot-selection and finishing. I take as a given that the Rapids were successful at creating chances in this game. In MLS this year, the average number of shots per game ranged from 10.53 for the LA Galaxy to 14.05 for Toronto FC. Colorado’s above-average 16 shots tells us that chance creation wasn’t the problem in this game.

Here, in painstaking gif-ification, are all 16 of those shots, with a little coda of analysis under each. I warn you: this might be a ‘trigger’ for some of you, inducing feelings of sadness, anger, maybe even misplaced hope. Like, maybe, you’ll sit there and watch Gashi fire that free kick into Roman Torres’ face over and over and over again for an hour, thinking... “This time, maybe this time...”

So, a warning. This is NOT to be used as some kind of Rapids snuff-film; to watch with the blinds drawn, sad and alone, in your darkest hour. Do not go full-on ‘Fever Pitch Bill Buckner’ with this material.

Watch it. Think about it. Feel crappy. Have a cookie and remember that the 2017 season opens in just a few more months, and that we still almost certainly retain the rights to every starting d-mid, fullback, and central defender on the 2016 Western Conference runners-up, along with Gashi and Howard and some other dudes. It’ll be ok, bubbeleh.

Shot one, two, and three- 0:15, 4:35, 5:02

0:15- Jermaine’s wind up and blast from 38 yards out seems impetuous, but, hey, it’s Jermaine. That’s his jam, yo. How else to explain him tweeting his excitement about free agency, 40 minutes after finishing the game with the Rapids? JJ can’t help it. He just does dumb s^&* sometimes.

He nearly bagged that shot. No player got as close to goal all game as Jermaine, except maybe, a few minutes from this shot... when Jermaine would get another good one near the frame.

4:35- Joevin Jones falls down and gifts an open shot to Shkëlzen Gashi, who blasts with his weak foot off Jones to draw a corner. Could he have juked inside with one more touch for a left-footed screamer? Maybe. But this shot was a pretty good idea.

5:02- Corner. Basically, no guile or trickery here. Just put it in the mixer for Axel. Ball comes up a couple feet short, Jermaine gets a head on it, and it goes wide. This was a pretty darn good chance that the Rapids don’t convert. However, the rate for any soccer team for converting corners is always pretty low: around 2-5%. The Rapids in particular weren’t that good at corners this season. Colorado had 131 Corner Kicks in 2016, the fewest in MLS. Including both corner kicks and free kicks, the Rapids scored a total of 8 goals on set piece attempts, good enough for only 14th in MLS.

Figuring out how to get to the end line more, earn more corners, and score more often on them (the Red Bulls had 20 set piece goals! Vancouver had 13!) should be an offseason priority, especially with a team that has the tallest player in MLS history on its roster.

Shot four, five, and six- 10:31, 11:20, 24:31

10:31- Sebastian LeToux finds Kevin Doyle in a little space in a fantastic spot atop the box, but Cristian Roldan drapes himself on Doyle in no time. Doyle fires a weak shot well wide. A bigger, better striker maybe makes a bigger, better shot of this.

11:20- Jermaine Jones picks Tyrone Mears’ pocket near midfield and races down the left side, firing a pinpoint cross to Doyle in the middle. It’s a hard ball to make a neat first touch on, but great pros settle those kinds of balls and bang in goals. Doyle does not settle that ball on the first touch. And on his second touch, with a bit of space to maybe make a move and run past Cristian Roldan, he tries to shoot and gets blocked. Upon many, many viewings, this might have been the best chance of the night for Colorado. I’ve said it all before. I’m not going over it again. I’m just going to leave this here. And this.

24:31- Before the video starts up, Stephen Frei receives a ball and is under pressure by several Rapids players, and has to panic-kick it away into section 101, earning Colorado their second corner. On the Gashi corner kick, Frei first catches, then spills the ball. Jermaine is there to rebound, and chooses to try and loop the ball up and over the Seattle defense. Maybe this was a really good chance, but it feels like a pretty tricky ball that just wasn’t easy to settle. I dunno.

Shot seven and eight- 31:25 and 35:48

31:25- Jermaine finds Gashi (the German-language connection!) running in behind the entire Seattle line, but the only one-time finish has to be a half-bicycle volley. Holy crap, if Gashi had hit this, he would have been sainted in Denver. We’d be hailing Albanian Messi our personal lord and savior. But alas... twas not to be...

35:48- This one is interesting. A loose ball falls to Dillon Powers, who chops at it right into big ass Chad Marshall. The ball pops free to Jermaine, who basically tries the same chipped-up pass to Gashi he did 4 minutes earlier. (Maybe somebody should mark Gashi?) It gets blocked, the ball is up in the air for either the hulking Roman Torres or the lithe Shkëlzen Gashi. Torres jumps, Gashi doesn’t, Torres falls, Gashi gets called for undercutting. It’s not entirely sure if Gashi was fallen on by Torres, who jumped too soon, or if Gashi knew he couldn’t get it, so he undercut Torres. Rapids fans saw a foul in the box and howled for a penalty. Referee Ricardo Salazar called it a foul on Gashi. I think I mostly agree with Salazar. Sorry guys.

But also, at this point, it’s like: hit the target, guys. Make the keeper move at least. Because, until now, Stephen Frei has touched the ball exactly once, and he screwed that up, and we STILL didn’t score on the play.

Shot nine, ten, and eleven- 40:22, 40:24, 40:26

40:22- Gashi Free Kick #1. Hey, they can’t all be goal of the year.

40:24- Second try is probably ill advised, since the wall is still all there. But, oh well.

40:26- Dillon Powers takes a shot, from a clear position, but can’t put it on frame. This should have been better, but Powers isn’t great shooter.

We’re looking at Expected Goals, or xG, a statistical measure based on thousands of shots in similar positions that calculates whether an average shot from a given position would go in or not, and how a specific player performs against those numbers. In the 2016 regular season, Dillon Powers had 1 goal. He had an xG of 2.9; i.e. on Powers 34 shots this season, he should have almost 3 goals. A -1.9 G-xG isn’t great. Powers does give the Rapids very good passing (38 Key Passes, 1.71 KP per 96 minutes) and maybe average defense, but his speed, his dribbling, and his shooting have never reached the point at which he could be an elite midfielder in MLS. A lot of players will be under scrutiny in the offseason in terms of whether they are in the Colorado Rapids plans for 2017. Powers will certainly be one of them.

Second Half; Shots twelve, thirteen, and fourteen- 63:30, 65:17, 77:08

63:30- Jermaine runs down a ball on the break. He has a really good look at goal from the right side, but decides to take a touch and cut inside. I’m not sure what he was thinking: he goes from having an open shot to having both Chad Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso right in front of him. This is a bummer, man.

If you watch the end, you’ll see the ball squirt loose to the right and Marlon Hairston run towards it. Joevin Jones gets there and tries to control it, but gets beat to the ball by a sliding Hairston, who pops up and crosses one across the face of goal, looking for Gashi on the far left. Stephen Frei snatches it out of the air. It doesn’t count as a shot, but it was a fantastic play by Marlon, which begs the question why he didn’t start in this game. We’ll get into that later.

65:17 Before the video starts, Jermaine dribbles through the midfield, pings one wide right to Marlon Hairston, who one-touch passes back to Jermaine and makes a run into the box. Jermaine nails a perfect pass to Kevin Doyle, who taps it to the on-rushing Marly.

Marly has an open shot with his left, but... takes a touch with his right, and another touch, and on the third, is snuffed out completely by a sliding Chad Marshall. Arrgh.

77:08- Gashi Free Kick # 2. Into the wall again! It just wasn’t clicking for him.

Shots fifteen and sixteen- 86:51 and 93:30

It’s academic at this point.

86:51- A funky rebound comes out to Marco Pappa, who fires a prayer. Nope.

93:30- Seattle is deeply bunkered, having subbed off Nelson Valdes to add Sounder original Zach Scott in a back five. Kevin Doyle gets one last header, and it goes 10 yards wide and 10 yards high of the goal.

The bigger offense picture

It was known coming into this game that the Rapids lacked offensive punch, having finished 18th in MLS in Goals Scored in the regular season with a paltry 39. That’s why, at 56’, when Jordan Morris scored, requiring the Rapids to now find two goals in just 35 minutes, fans were mortified. The immediate lizard brain’s response to Morris’ goal was: Seattle goal bad. Then, the cognitive brain and the memory banks in the minds of Rapids fans unspooled the deeper horror of: oh my God, we need two goals. And while the Rapids did put up 2 goals in the second half precisely 5 times in 2016 (not bad!) that did that predominantly against the bottom feeders of MLS: Houston, Vancouver, Seattle back in April when they were bad, and (the one outlier) Montreal. Against a playoff-tuned Seattle, scoring two goals was going to be a monumental effort. And thus, it wasn’t to be.

There were two problems I saw in these shots. First, we weren’t great on set pieces. Four set piece chances don’t always result in a goal, but the bigger picture mentioned above shows that the Rapids should get better on scoring set piece goals. And second, there were no shots taken on the break.

The Rapids never had a two-on-two or three-on-two or one-on-one break. That’s because the front four: Doyle, LeToux, Jones, and Gashi; offer a lot in terms of shooting and experience, but none is blisteringly fast. To add to that, you knew Seattle was going to be exploitable at the back because Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears love to push high. The Rapids two fastest players are Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston. Both started on the bench Sunday. And by the time Pablo did put Marly in, it was after Seattle had gone ahead 3-1 on aggregate, meaning, they were certain to bunker. Speed, a potential asset to start the game, was neutralized by the scoreline by the time it was introduced to the game.

The big picture in terms of finishing for the season is actually a bit of a surprise.

Overall on the team side, our team actually over-performed their expected goals expectations.

The team’s G-xG of +2.26 means they actually finished at a better-than-expected rate; only 5 teams in MLS had a better G-xG.

The team has only slightly improved on their teamwide xG number from 2015, which was 34.89. They only scored 33 goals in 2015. So, in short, the team got better at finishing, either through talent or by luck. But they also still need to generate more goal scoring opportunities in 2017, or some of the gains of this year might evaporate.

In this game, in a small sample size, we still see that that Rapids offense is still very much a work in progress.

Pablo Tactics: Right and Wrong

Pablo Mastroeni got a lot right on Sunday. His team produced a lot of shots and put a ton of pressure on Seattle early. Jermaine Jones was given the freedom to roam and the rest of the midfield filled in ably. The well-drilled defense didn’t lack for Sam Cronin too much, although if you watch Micheal Azira, he has a tendency to gather the ball and do a 270 degree spin, then make a backpass, rather than play the ball forward quickly, and that wasn’t helpful.

Mostly, as discussed previously, they were well drilled, well spaced, knew their roles, and difficult to break down, save for a poor clearance from Jared Watts that resulted in Seattle’s lone goal.

But not starting Marlon Hairston throughout the playoffs, and especially in this game, confounds me thoroughly. Your best speed asset, and a guy who was peaking late in the season, sits, in favor of a talented but no-longer-quick Sebastian Le Toux. Doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, you need his passing and his big-game experience. But you also have Doyle, and Jones, and Gashi, who could be described in the exact same terms. Without Hairston making devastating runs and pulling defenders away, everybody else’s job was harder.

I can see a reason to hold him back: let the starting XI tire out the Sounders, and when they’re wiped out, put on the fastest guy on the team and smash them. Except, if you wait until after Seattle is up 3-1, they are going to bunker, and speed becomes moot.

Back even before the WM

A last thought, but not a particularly important one. From roughly the 75th minute on, Colorado lined up in the old-school original football lineup of the 1900’s, a 2-3-5*. They put four or even five guys on the Seattle backline and just bashed forward. Seattle, of course, was bunkered in two banks of four, and then a 5-4-1 with Zach Scott** making it really hard to score.

I don’t really know a lot about desperation soccer tactics. But I wonder if there isn’t a better way to exploit a deeply conservative defense than putting 5 on the line against them. I did like that Pablo sent Axel Sjoberg up to the front for the last 10 minutes, replacing him at Center Back with Dillon Powers. But I can’t help but wonder if soccer, or the Rapids specifically, lack a well-drilled series of desperation plays, like football’s ‘hook and ladder’ or ‘hail mary’ plays. This isn’t me criticizing, just me pondering. I get that these situations don’t come about often, particularly in league play. But it also didn’t look fully comfortable, and maybe a little more rehearsal was needed.

Final Rapids Thuglife Moment of the Year

“Yes. You are perhaps twice my size and believe you can eat a Swiss-Albanian forward for breakfast. Also your arms are covered in Panamanian prison tattoos and your hair gives off the affect of a man that sticks forks in electrical sockets for amusement. However, in my country, bare-knuckle boxing is a hobby we begin in pre-school, and I once killed a man twice your size because I did not like his cologne. Eh, how you say? Step. De Fahk. Off.”

Till next year, Rapids fans.

— — — — — — — —

* The original original soccer lineup was a 1-3-6. Then soccer evolved to a 2-3-5, and then later a 3-2-2-3 (which if you wrote it on a piece of paper, would kinda look like an M with a W on top). If this fascinates you, buy ‘Inverting the Pyramid’.

** I don’t like the Sounders, but God bless Zach Scott for making football interesting.