The LA Galaxy come to town to see if they can move on to the MLS Cup semi-finals. Any manner of draw or win and the Galaxy move on; a Rapids 1-0 win results in extra time and penalties; a 2-0 or 3-1 win and we’re through. Here’s a chart that makes it simpler, care of mlssoccer.com:
Here are my tactical keys going into this exciting match on Sunday.
1. Strike First
Colorado will be facing the second-best defense in MLS and a team that only conceded two goals to the Rapids in their three meetings of 2016. The traditional 2016 Rapids approach of ‘concede no goals, strike late’ is far too risky to employ in a ‘win or go home’ situation. Of the Rapids 38 goals scored, 71.1% of the goals have come in the second half, and the average timing of the Rapids first goal is at minute 57.18. That’s the lowest raw number of first half goals, the lowest percentage of first half goals, and the latest average first goal time among MLS teams this year.
I hate to mess with what’s worked. The Rapids have ridden the ‘strike late’ tactical approach to the playoffs. But down a goal, they can’t afford to kill off the first half. Every minute wasted playing defensive, cautious, risk averse soccer is a minute we no longer have to get our needed aggregate equalizer goal. If the tactical approach is defensive through minute 60, we’re counting on conjuring a goal late. Yes, we’ve scored 11 goals between minute 75 and 90, tenth-best in MLS, or right dead-smack in the middle of the league. But do you really want to count on that?
The need to score becomes ever much more so dire if we concede a goal. If we concede a goal to the Galaxy, we’ll need to score three goals. So the offense needs to be aggressive from the first whistle.
2. High Press Like Crazy
The Rapids generate a ton of chances off of an aggressive and physical high press, usually a funky one-man press that resembles a 4-3-3 or even 4-2-4 when the team is really coming fierce. One defender attacks the ball carrier, particularly at the wings, while the striker marks the space near the CB and the attacking midfielder looks to swoop in and intercept a pass or recover a sloppy first touch. Note that this is different a bit from Jurgen Klopp’s ‘Heavy Metal football’ of hunting in two or three man packs, and it isn’t entirely predicated on winning the ball back immediately after a turnover, AKA a ‘counter-press’. The Rapids press is what I would call (as a former basketball coach) a 2-1-2 zone press. Or, as I’ve heard soccer coaches call it, a simple ‘man-press’.
This also plays to some of the teams strengths: my favored starting lineup would include Dominique Badji, Shkëlzen Gashi, Jermaine Jones, and Marlon Hairston, and all are excellent defensive forwards, with Jermaine of course as MLS’ king of entropic chaos creation. JJ is Deimos, Greek God of terror. Clearly, I am on an ancient mythology kick this week. Nonetheless, this team is good at creation from chaos. So hey, Pablo, let’s do that.*
This has risks: the Rapids tend to concede an open-field run if that ball gets through, and the Galaxy in the open field are pretty damn good.
But this is the way we frequently win. The Rapids generate a lot of chances from turnovers in the opposing half: if I was a full-time professional stats and tactics geek, I’d break down the 38 goals by where they originate on the pitch. Suffice it to say that I submit the following three claims: 1) I watch a crap-ton of soccer; 2) I watch every Rapids game twice, and I have concluded: 3) the Rapids get a mess of goals from their high press. So please, Pablo, make it so.
3. Play for Overtime
We may be the higher seed, and that means that on paper, we’re the better team. But LA has devastating attacking weapons and a top-notch defense, anchored by either the best or second-best CB in MLS, Jelle Van Damme**. Paired with the hulking Hebrew from Pacific Palisades, Daniel Steres, along with two fantastic full backs in Ashley Cole and Robbie Rogers, this team will not be easy to break down. Tactically planning for a 2-0 or 3-1 win seems preposterous to me.
So get that early goal mentioned above, and then shut it down. The Rapids play denial-soccer better than any team in MLS. The team needs to get the 1-0 lead and then just hang on. It probably will be stressful as hell to watch, but it’s a better idea than trying to foolish go for the knockout punch. If a lucky bounce or a perfect long ball gives us a chance in the Galaxy end to finish them off, cool. But the Rapids need to keep possession roughly even and keep nine or ten men behind the ball after they grab an equalizer. In extra time, at altitude, the advantage shifts to the Rapids.
And in the event of a penalty shootout, even though I think highly of Brian Rowe as a keeper, I think Tim Howard has the advantage.
Yes, there’s a tremendous amount of risk in playing for a shootout, and it virtually admits that we are inferior to the Galaxy. If we had scored an away goal and came into DSGP 1-1 or even down 1-2 to LA, I doubt I’d suggest this conservative and somewhat risky approach to get a win. But we’re down 0-1. We don’t score a lot. The Galaxy are pretty good. So play for the aggregate draw, and roll the dice in a shootout.
In the event that this all transpires, you’ll recognize me at DSGP pretty easily on Sunday. I’ll be the guy wetting my pants and covering my eyes during the shootout.
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* This strong held belief may be the results on setting my itunes to ‘Punk’ and clicking shuffle. Mastodon and Bad Religion make a man think aggressive thoughts. Try it!
** I think Axel Sjoberg is the best CB in MLS and Van Damme is number 2. I might be a complete and total homer, though.