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Backpass: BOOM!

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The Rapids get past the LA Galaxy to advance to the MLS Cup semis. How’d they do that?

Boom.

We are a powder keg about to explode / I need someone like you to lighten the load. So?

I am not throwin’ away my shot! / I am not throwin’ away my shot! / Ayo, I’m just like my country, I’m young / Scrappy and hungry!

I am not throwing away my shot!

- Hamilton, “Right Hand Man”, Lin Manuel-Miranda

A long shot. A prayer. A speculative effort. A most unlikely outcome. A one-in-a-million chance.

These were the kinds of words uttered back in March about the odds of success for a Colorado Rapids team that had finished bottom-of-the-table in 2014, and once again bottom-of-the-table in 2015. No one, not the most diehard fan, gave the team that gathered on the artificial turf of Field 8 at the Dick’s Sporting Good’s Park Soccer Complex to begin training for the 2016 season much of a chance at making the playoffs in 2016. It would take a miracle for this unimpressive lot of misfits to form a sum greater than its mismatched parts.

Their captain was the same man, Sam Cronin, that headed up the losing effort the year before. Their left back, Marc Burch, had been benched through that horrid campaign. The right back and the defensive midfielder, Eric Miller and Micheal Azira, were scrap-heap finds that other MLS teams didn’t want. Their DP striker from Ireland was looking like a bust. Starting on the left wing was a tall Senegalese kid from the garbage-time selections of the 2015 MLS Superdraft: few of the others taken that late even made the roster at their clubs. The big offseason signing from Seattle had just been stabbed by his girlfriend. The other big signing was an Albanian from the Swiss Axpo Super League that even the most ardent soccer fans, EA FIFA addicts, and Football Manager video game nerds had never heard of.

But they were scrappy and hungry all season. And on a gorgeous fall day in Commerce City, with a shot to advance to the Western Conference finals, they showed just what a good long shot can do.

Shkëlzen Gashi did his best impersonation of a powder keg, detonating a 40 yard bomb off his favored left foot that turned right, whistled left, smacked the inside of the post, and leveled the aggregate score against the storied and glamorous LA Galaxy in the 36th minute. LA spent the rest of the day fending off the hungrier, scrappier, younger Rapids, but the Rapids kept fighting till the last penalty kick, and emerged victorious.

Shh-Boom! Boom! Goes the Cannon

You might live your whole natural soccer life and not see a bomb like that ever again; not in person at least. As sluggish and ineffective and invisible as Gashi had been in LA was as electric and effective he was in this critical game. Gashi was 15 of 18 on passes, with 5 of those completed passes in the final third. That all came in just the first half before he was taken off after a nasty collision right before half time with Ashley Cole.

Gashi was good all season, leading the Rapids with 9 goals and adding to that 4 assists, but for a team starved for goals, it still left a little to be desired. There were other players producing at nearly the same rate around MLS; Kevin Molino, Lamar Neagle, Patrick Mullins, Mike Grella; and not earning DP bucks.

But the Rapids Front Office knew that they had something special in Gashi, and that the fans had yet to see what the man was truly capable of. Here’s what Sporting Director Padraig Smith told me about Gashi back in August:

He was one of those that, straight away, he had the pedigree. When you watched him play, his goals were coming in lots of different ways. He was a real striker. He was lethal from inside the box, when he was following through, coming from the left-hand side. But when he played in the ten he would get on the ball, and he’s got a shot. They haven’t all necessarily gone in here as of yet, but I think the best is yet to come from Gashi, and he’s been a great addition.

Smith sounds virtually prophetic lo these three months later. Gashi sure has a shot, and the best really was to come.

Gashi took a long chance that is on the low end of the probability scale. On the video replay, you can see Marc Burch in the lower left hand corner throwing up his hands like ‘Dude? What are you even doing?’

Can’t argue with the series-tying goal, even if it felt like a lottery ticket. Somebody’s gotta win the lotto, man. As as long as you do that kind of thing sparingly or else you waste too many of your teams precious few ball possessions, it’s ok. Kinda like how you probably shouldn’t spend $50 in scratchers each week in lieu of a retirement plan. But I digress.

Attacking the weakest link

Gashi was replaced after the half with speedster Marlon Hairston, who played on his natural right side as Sebastian Le Toux moved to Left Midfield. Late into the half and continuing into extra time, it looked more and more like Galaxy Left Back Ashely Cole was out of gas. And the Rapids knew it. So they attacked, time and time again, down that right flank.

Here are the attacks by the Colorado Rapids for the first overtime frame, from the 91st minute to the 105th:

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And here are the passes from minute 106 to 120.

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All them arrows and so many of those little green squares are on or towards the right side. Everything’s being run to that right side, putting the pressure on not only Ashley Cole but also Sebastian Lletget and 76th minute sub Steven Gerrard, who is not renowned for his defense at this late stage in his career.

Here’s what Hairston attacking Cole looked like, in gif form:

It’s amazing that a team as stacked as the Galaxy had such a glaring weakness, but it’s a weakness we talked about back in February; this team is old. At altitude, and having played one more match than the Rapids (the knockout round), the greying heads of Jeff Larentowicz, Steven Gerrard, Landon Donovan, Mike Magee, Robbie Keane and especially Ashley Cole just didn’t look up to the challenge.

It was lucky the Galaxy didn’t crack in the overtime periods, but they eventually cracked when it went to penalty kicks. Exhaustion almost certainly played a role in those winded veterans not netting PK equalizers, as the final two shots from Cole and Larentowicz were parried by the squishy mitts of Tim Howard to win the game.

Manager Changes

At the half, both Bruce Arena and Pablo Mastroeni were pressed into necessary changes. Jeff Larentowicz, the Ginger Ninja, came on for a tired and mostly ineffective Landon Donovan, while Gashi looked to have sprained his ankle and was replaced by the aforementioned Marlon Hairston.

The next changes came from LA: Robbie Keane replaced Alan Gordon, and Steven Gerrard came on for Mike Magee. The theory, I suppose, is that the two offense-minded big-game cats might be able to conjure a little magic. Except: Gerrard had only started one game for the Galaxy in their last 11 weeks, due to various injuries, and Keane missed the last two games of the regular season and the first of the playoffs as well. Neither looked particularly sharp. Gerrard completed 19 of his 29 passes for a pretty abysmal 65% passing on the day, playing as a pinched-in winger that really hasn’t been his regular position on the field this year. Gerrard did have two key passes, but both were lottery tickets in their own rights. Both were whipped-in diagonals to the box, hoping to find the head of Keane or the chest of Dos Santos. This one, from Gerrard to Keane, might have been LA’s last best hope to not go to PKs.

Considering there was another 44 minutes of soccer after LA’s last sub, that seemed a bit risky by Arena. When Jelle Van Damme came up gimping in the first frame of extra time and the thought arose that LA might have to play a man down, those early subs looked really risky. I think in the end, going with veterans - DP millionaire veterans - in a critical spot, is probably the right call. But LA fans have to wonder whether the age of the team present at the kickoff as well as coming off the bench wasn’t a huge hinderance to LA. Emanuel Boateng was out with injury, as was Gyasi Zardes, and the speed of those two was sorely missed.

I have to wonder why some more young, fast, talented members of USL side LA Galaxy II (AKA Los Dos) weren’t on the playoff roster. Where were Raul Mendiola and Oscar Sorto and Bradford Jamieson IV and Ryo Fujii and Ariel Lassiter? Does Bruce regret loaning Jack McBean to League 1 side Coventry City? Another question is whether bringing Donovan or Gerrard off the bench for Larentowicz would have been the change LA needed late, instead of vice-versa.

In hindsight, I think Bruce mostly got this right, considering his options. His options without a healthy Gyasi Zardes or Ema Boateng and with a creaky and oldened lineup, however, really left LA looking like the weaker team on the day.

In comparison, Pablo Mastroeni’s other two switches looked like deft, well-timed maneuvers that put LA on their heels. The passing wizardry of Dillon Powers at the 83rd to relieve a tiring Jermaine Jones and the ball-handling skills and big-game finishing of Marco Pappa at the 112th were the right changes to the teams chemistry, and at the right time.

When Pappa came up and nailed the third and final PK to seal the Rapids playoff advance, it looked like pure genius.

Pablo Tactics and Arena Ball

Not that anyone was surprised by this, but the Rapids pretty much did what I and other MLS pundits expected of them in terms of strategy. Press. Score early. Defend fiercely. Take the game to PKs.

Colorado pressed in spots, but not as much as I’d have expected. That’s because, instead, the Rapids came charging out of the gate, trying to get that first goal with agressive attacking in the first five minutes. It almost worked.

And again...

LA held back, too. The Galaxy knew they didn’t have the legs to press, even in bursts, and so they retreated to the midfield. After Keane came on, he paired up top with Giovani Dos Santos, and the Galaxy dropped into a pretty old-school (and very Bruce Arena-y) 4-4-2, Sebastian Lletget and Gerrard on the wings, Baggio Husidic and Larentowicz playing deep in the middle. In fact, the formation played like an empty-bucket 4-4-2 with two d-mids, or even a 4-2-2-2, with both Lletget and Gerrard pinching in as attacking midfielders with Larentowicz and Husidic sitting behind them. The lack of speed and lack of numbers forward hampered LA, and Sam Cronin and Axel Sjoberg completely neutralized Dos Santos, who on any given day is LA’s best creative threat. Jermaine Jones picked up Gio a fair number of times too.

The Galaxy’s only truly impressive contributors on the day were Jelle Van Damme and Robbie Rogers, who really mucked things up for the Rapids attack. Pablo dealt with those two defenders by avoiding them. It almost worked at least a few times in the second half, including the above dribble by Hairston right at Ashley Cole, and this one below that Brian Rowe saved to keep LA alive.

Between the Rapids approach, their subs, and the simple fact that they came away with a win, I think Mastroeni out-managed the mighty Bruce Arena in this game. That’s certainly a hot take. Fight me in the comments.

What now for the LA Galaxy?

Here are the ages of the starting lineup of the Galaxy to begin the season.

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Here’s what I think the LA Galaxy roster will look like on December 12th.

Rowe

Kennedy

Rogers

Steres

Van Damme

Cole

Husidic

Lletget

Donovan

Dos Santos

Magee

Gordon

DeLaGarza

Romney

Garcia

Zardes

Boateng

Larentowicz

Gerrard

Keane

LA won’t be going through a ‘rebuilding’ year, since their academy is great, and the impending retirements or departures of Keane and Gerrard will open two big DP slots. I think Van Damme has a wink-and-nod deal to either occupy one of those or get a big contract with a TAM paydown. But with LAFC coming into the league in 2018, and being one of MLS’ most glamourous clubs, LA doesn’t have the luxury to rebuild. Expect a big international signing in the winter window, and another next summer. I’d guess LA will make a play for either the great MLS white whale that is Chicharito, or Club America superstar Oribe Peralta.

The other question is whether Bruce Arena is part of the plan in Carson. I think they’d be nuts to part with him, but stranger things have happened.

A younger LA is going to come back better in 2017. But let’s finish 2016 before we start thinking about that.

Oh yeah, also, Tim Howard was awesome

MLS: Playoffs-Los Angeles Galaxy at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

That’s all I have to say about that.

Rapids Thuglife Moment

Sam Cronin murders not one but TWO Galaxy defenders at once, and only picks up one card. That’s almost peak Thuglife.

On to Seattle! As my friend Emma said through tears of joy at the end of this game, “I love this stupid team.” Me too.