It’s no secret that the Colorado Rapids’ defense has been one of the most difficult to break down in MLS. Allowing just 32 goals total in the 2016 regular season, not to mention 13 shutouts and an unbeaten record at home, the Rapids backline is tough to get through. Lots of fans feel like Colorado has been the underdog all year, like every one was just waiting for the other shoe to drop and the season to tank. But the Burgundy Boys kept pushing forward, kept fighting, and here we are, just days before the second leg of the Western Conference Semis.
But what’s the secret? How has the defense shut down team after team, all season long? While it’s surely a combination of players and goalkeepers, there’s one guy in particular that people outside of Colorado are starting to take notice of—an MLS Defender of the Year finalist, Axel Sjoberg.
It’s not like Axel was a slouch last season—he started 14 games, and played more minutes than any other Rapids rookie. If it wasn’t for a nagging knee injury, he would have been out there even more. But something changed. I asked Axel how he’s grown as a player since last year, and he told me about his main goal going into this season.
“I’ve become more comfortable with the tempo and the speed of play in MLS. You get a lot of different looks in this league as a center back – you get the small guys, the big guys, and I just think I’ve been able to weather that a little more this year.
What I’ve put as my main goal this year is to stay healthy, just so I can prove the kind of player I am. As a center back it’s about being really consistent a lot of the time, and that’s what I pride myself on. I couldn’t do that last year when I was injured, so for me that was the main goal going into the season.”
Besides his freak wrist break, Sjoberg has managed to stay pretty healthy this year, and Rapids fans have seen the Swede come into his own. He’s the third most popular player in MLS Fantasy (behind Sebastian Giovinco and Ignacio Piatti), and his own team recognized him as the Colorado Rapids Defender of the Year. I asked him if it meant more to him to earn the award for his team or MLS, and Axel said:
“For me, getting it from the team is more meaningful. But I think if I got it for the whole MLS, I think it goes to show how good we’ve been this year as a defensive unit. And obviously it would be a huge honor for myself as well.”
Last week, Rapids Rabbi argued against the critics that call the Rapids defense “slow”. As Pablo has mentioned time and again, people aren’t going to believe in this team until the very end, and I’m sure that only adds fuel to the #KeepFighting mentality for the team. I asked Axel for his thoughts on whether they actually are faster than people give them credit for, or if positioning really helps.
“I mean, people are always going to have opinions, but… we’re not the most physically fast backline, but you can be fast in many different ways. It’s not just physical, it’s mental, and I think positioning has been very good this year. The way we work as a team, as Rapids Rabbi has said, we haven’t really gotten played behind much at all this season.
If people want to call us slow, go ahead, but I think our record speaks for itself and our play speaks for itself—we’ve been anything but slow this season.”
And finally, what does the backline need to focus on this weekend against LA?
“Keeping the shutout.”