When you go holiday shopping, some years it’s big-money blockbuster electronics, and other years all you need is a warm sweater and a few Blu-Ray discs stuck in your stocking. I think, anyways: I’ve never had stockings over a mantle. Nor does our house have a mantle. I digress.
What might the Rapids Front Office be buying over the holidays? Or are they mostly selling? We covered the possibilities at defense and goal keeper Tuesday. Here now we turn our attention to the midfield. We’ll assume the Rapids will come out in a 4-2-3-1, looking at the defensive midfielders, the creative central mid, and finally the wings.
Position: Defensive Midfield
In 34 games this season, Colorado trotted out Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira 31 times. The other three times it was Cronin and Dillon Powers. It would be hard to argue that the Rapids should upgrade at defensive midfield, seeing as Sam Cronin was quietly one of the top three best defensive midfielders in MLS this season, and Micheal Azira played an effective Watson to Cronin’s Sherlock Holmes. Breaking up this dynamic duo is maybe a bad idea.
Still, let’s take a closer look at what Azira’s numbers might look like in comparison to other starting d-mids in the MLS Western Conference. Stats care of squawka.com.
I included two stats on passing that are helpful in understanding Azira, and two on defense. Pass length tells you a little about how Azira plays balls - longer, more threaten passes, or shorter and safer ones. ‘Duels’ is the percentage of times a player successfully reaches a ball when two players both go for it; either in the air or on the ground.
First, I was surprised to find that Soni Mustivar was a really good passer for Sporting KC, although that may owe to Sporting playing a 4-3-3 while all these other d-mids play in a 4-2-3-1. Second, I was surprised to see that Azira and Cronin’s play is truly complementary: Azira clogs the passing lanes and snags interceptions at a really high rate, while Sam harasses and tackles. How high is Azira’s interception rate? Best in MLS among midfielders. And it isn’t even close. (This stat is taken from MLS’ fantasy site, hence the weird stats like Selection % and Form).
By comparison, Sam Cronin’s passing length is better, his tackling duel numbers are about equal to other MLS d-mids, and his interception numbers are worse. So are the interception numbers of, literally, every other midfielder in MLS in comparison to Azira.
So, after much analysis, do you tinker with this d-mid combo? No. No you do not. There is no strong contender in MLS or beyond that can be guaranteed to do what Cronin and Azira did in 2016, at least not among realistic acquisition targets. Your 2017 starting defensive midfield should be Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira, and you should be really happy about that.
The Rapids had Jermaine Jones and Dillon Powers on the roster, generally playing as the more advanced attacking midfielder, but able to fill in a d-mid if needed, as the Rapids did in the final game of the season when Sam Cronin was suspended. JJ is gone, so you need a backup d-mid. Powers might be gone too, but we’ll think about that when we talk attacking mids.
Buy or Sell?
We already sold the rights to Jermaine Jones to LA in exchange for a first round SuperDraft pick in 2017 and a second round SuperDraft pick in 2018. Now we’ll need to buy a replacement.
Who? Luxury Shopping
Only UEFA Champions League teams pay eight-figure transfer fees for ‘break-glass-in’case-of-emergency’ d-mids. The rest of us make do.
Will Johnson would have been the best option inside MLS, but he signed Thursday with Orlando City SC, which is great move for them. He’ll start for them, and for the Rapids he’d likely be fighting for a spot or rotating, and he likely signed for north of his current salary of $395,000. I can’t see spending that kind of dough for a sometime-player. But it’s an option.
Who? Bargain Shopping
Your options among MLS free agents at d-mid have been basically Nick LaBrocca (been there), Nathan Sturgis (been there), and the aforementioned, no-longer-available Will Johnson. John Stertzer and Razvan Cocis are available via Stage 2 of the Re-Entry. Sterzter is young (26) and cheap ($75K). Cocis is older (33) and more pricey ($160K). Both are fine options if you want 5-10 games a year with only moderate drop-off compared to your starters.
The cheaper way to go is... of course, the MLS SuperDraft, or to sign a homegrown. Last year, the Rapids used their first round pick to snag d-mid Emmanuel Appiah of the University of Cincinnati, but he was waived midseason. Try again?
Another cheap option not discussed in part one is reaching down to USL and grabbing a talented and unattached player, either from the reserves of an MLS team or an independent USL team. I’m only familiar with the rosters at Colorado Springs and Charlotte, and neither has a player that strikes me as MLS ready at d-mid.
Position: Wide Midfield
Shkelzen Gashi’s first full season in MLS was, by most accounts, a rousing success. Gashi scored 9 goals and bagged 4 assists in 26 regular season games, plus nabbed the equalizer against the LA Galaxy at home in playoffs to force the game to PKs and eventually push the team through to the MLS Semi-Finals. Gash also won Goal of the Year for a picture-perfect free kick. This is how you DP.
The left-footed Gashi started on the left side, and looks to have that position locked down for 2017.
Meanwhile Marlon Hairston became a key cog that powered the team to the top of the Western Conference late into the season. Marly exploded for 3 goals and 2 assists in a five-game stretch beginning in mid-July against Sporting KC. Although Mastroeni put Hairston back on the bench for the playoffs, he walks into camp in February as the presumptive starter at right midfield.
Dillon Serna was on his way to another year playing as the Rapids ‘spark-off-the-bench’, getting minutes here and there, and getting 3 starts. Then in a US Open Cup game against FC Dallas on June 29, Dallas defender Augustin Jara slide-tackled Serna awkwardly, tearing Serna’s ACL. Serna might be ready to go to start the season, or might take until mid-summer to step on the field.
The Rapids parted ways with Sebastien Le Toux and Marco Pappa at the end of 2016, so you’re looking at needing at least two wide midfielders that can defend front-to-back, offer speed, and/or serve a ball from the wide position well. It could be that Dominique Badji is the depth at that position, but I think he’s a more natural lone striker. So for starters, the team needs a few more players out wide.
Buy or Sell?
Buy. Backups/spot starters. Probably two.
Who? Luxury Shopping
We should get Carlos Vela. We should get Alan Pulido. OK, so maybe we should stop chasing awesome Mexican internationals that play wide midfield for top European teams for a while.
But let’s say we don’t stop. Let’s say we make one more run at a top level Mexican international. Who are the best young Mexican wingers? Three of them are Jesus ‘Tecatito’ Corona, Hirving Lozano, and Jurgen Damm. Two are still playing in Liga MX, and one (Tecatito) is over at FC Porto. They are all young, fast, dribbly, technical, and ply for El Tri. Lozano played for the Mexico U23s in the CONCACAF U23 Championships in 2015, and played a game here in Colorado at DSGP, earning an award in that tournament as one of the ‘Best XI’ of the competition. Maybe he liked what he saw here in Colorado.
Transfermarkt puts the fee on all of those guys from $4 million to $10 million. We probably won’t want to pay that much, and their teams probably don’t want to sell them, and they likely have no strong reason to come to Colorado. Still, I’m positive that Paul Bravo has the agents of those players in his cell phone. Under ‘Favorites’.
Federico Carrizo for Boca Juniors is a diminutive 5’7” speed demon. He’d be awesome. I have him on my team in FIFA17. I promise not to talk about awesome FIFA players again this article.
Still, this is not likely the place the Rapids drop coin. They may buy a fancy European transfer, but he’s likely from a team in Belgium, Sweden, or Austria that sounds vaguely familiar because you got lost there while backpacking in Europe. The Rapids are look at him because some proprietary algorithm on Padraig Smith’s computer spit out his name with the words ‘Buy now’ next to it.
Who? Bargain Shopping
Twenty-three year old Connor Hallisey was waived by Sporting Kansas City, and played both right and left wing last season in light duty. He’s fine, and might
Another idea that is probably ridiculous and bad is to make a play for Innocent Emeghara, who lumped through two injury-plagued seasons for San Jose before being waived at the end of the season. In 13 games he scored one measly goal. While playing as the Quakes striker. Yeesh.
On top of that, at his previous salary of $1.4 million, he’s totally, completely untouchable.
As a reclamation project for, say, $100K, he might be worth a try. When he was healthy, he looked like a mirror image of David Accam, a player every team in MLS would love to have.
After that, you look to MLS SuperDraft. We’ll know a little more after the MLS combine in Los Angeles, being held the second week in January.
That’s it for most of the Rapids midfield. In a few days, we’ll look at possibly the most important area the Rapids need to address in 2017: the central attacking midfield position.