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Advanced theories in roster dynamics for 2017

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As soon as the playoffs ended for the Rapids, the front office turned its attention to 2017. What might the team be thinking of doing?

MLS: Western Conference Championship-Seattle Sounders at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Much like most other American sports, there is very little pause in the action for MLS teams when they finish their final playoff game. The action simply shifts from the soccer field to the office suite.

Colorado’s last game was on November 27. MLS Cup, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, takes place December 10. On December 13 MLS will hold the Expansion Draft, giving Atlanta United and Minnesota United a chance to each pick 5 players left exposed from MLS rosters, with no team able to lose more than one player. On December 16 and again on December 22, any current MLS player not signed to contract by their club is eligible to be scooped up by another league club via the two-stage ‘Re-entry Draft’. After that time, MLS players age 28 and older, with 8 or more years of service in MLS, are eligible for the league’s limited version of Free Agency.

In other words, the Rapids front office have already started the process of building the 2017 roster. They are extending offers to out-of-contract players, and notifying other players that they aren’t in the clubs plans for 2017.

For starters, here’s a look at our roster as it looks regarding the expansion draft. Our fearless editor Abbie will be riffing on how the expansion draft might play out later this week.

Who gets an offer and who doesn’t really depends on how the Rapids see the offseason. Here are a few theoretical approaches that the Rapids may be operating under.*

Offseason Theory 1: We’re all fine here. How about you?

The Rapids may feel regarding the roster: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That means that they will attempt to retain the vast majority of the roster, with only a few peripheral changes.

Several players are already reported as having multi-year deals that go through 2017 or 2018. Tim Howard, Shkëlzen Gashi, and Kevin Doyle would all be back.

The back six: Marc Burch, Axel Sjöberg, Jared Watts, Eric Miller, Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira would also be getting renewal deals.

And the team will, against Jermaine Jones’ twitter wishes, try to retain him.

Under this theory, only a few players would potentially be packing their bags in the offseason for a new club. Sean St Ledger is probably not coming back under any circumstances, since he spent the entire season injured. Bobby Burling, Marco Pappa, and/or Sebastien Le Toux might depart, based on the teams desires or their own. Dillon Powers and Zac MacMath, unless the team gets a big cash offer for either one, will be back.

The team would then try and sign a few more players to round out the roster, maybe grab a few bench pieces. Perhaps they’ll go after an upgrade at striker, and install Kevin Doyle permanently as the number 10, or vice versa.

This theoretical approach isn’t my favorite, for two reasons.

For one, the team has some pretty obvious offensive deficiencies. The Rapids scored 38 goals, 18th best in MLS. Their expected goals rate was even worse, at 35.74, worst in MLS. This means, potentially, that the teams should have been two or three wins worse than they were. Based on this read of the team, holding pat and not upgrading the offense is probably a bad idea.

The other reason is that assuming your team will stay the same if you keep the roster the same is a bad idea. The players on your team will all be a little bit older, meaning some will mature and improve, but others will start to age and lose a step. Every other team in the league, meanwhile, is getting better, while you stay the same. So I really hope the Rapids are a little more aggressive with their roster construction than this.

Offseason Theory 2: Who you calling scruffy looking?

This theory is that the core is good, but there are some scruffy looking aspects to the 2016 club that need to be shed.

Certainly the lack of production at both striker and attacking midfielder means the team will go out on the market to upgrade at both spots. In addition, players like Sebastien Le Toux, Dillon Powers, and Micheal Azira, while serviceable, could be due for an upgrade. That means all of those players could be expendable, and players with significant value in transfer or trade could be on the block, too. The aforementioned Powers and Zac MacMath fit that bill. Younger players that might ‘sell high’, like Zac Pfeffer, Dillon Serna, or Dominique Badji, could be sold if it helps the club to sign a bigger, better player in exchange.

The club might want an upgrade at striker, considering Kevin Doyle has only 12 goals in 50 MLS matches. To do that, the best thing would be to sell Kevin Doyle. That might be hard. Doyle has a contract through the end of the 2017 season that pays him $1.1 million per year. If the Rapids can move that contract, for even a cut-rate return, it would be worth it. Nevertheless, a source informed me that the team no longer has Doyle as a Designated Player, instead paying down his contract to below $457,000 with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). MLS’ official DP list confirms this.

That all means that if the Rapids want to make a big upgrade at attacking midfield or striker by spending big on a Designated Player, they can. If they want to grab a talented South American like Nicolas Lodeiro, who costs $1.7 million a year for Seattle, or find a European League castoff like former EPL striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, on a salary of $715,000, then that’s an option for them.

I think this is the way to go. I also think that in 2017, to be competitive in MLS, you need to spend adequately. That means having three high-production DP players plus a quality player earning $500K to $1 million, paid down with TAM. If the Rapids go into 2017 without adding another bona fide DP, it might be difficult to make another run at the playoffs.

Offseason Theory 3:

“What about that ship?” “That one's garbage”

This approach to the roster is essentially the January 2016 approach, i.e., blow it up, let’s start again.

I’d say that this is unlikely to be the Front Office’s MO after such a successful 2016 season. Still, it’s worth exploring.

You keep all the pieces that are obviously clicking and have locked-in contracts, and everything else is dispensable. That means you can guarantee that Tim Howard, Axel Sjöberg, Marlon Hairston, and Sam Cronin are all coming back. Jared Watts and Shkëlzen are likely to be on here too, but not if someone offers enough cash for them. Everyone of value is getting sold. The younger, unproven guys, like Dennis Castillo, Zac Pfeffer, and Conor Doyle, might be handed starting jobs in 2017.

Odds of this are really low, so I’m not going to bother trying to explain the logic of it. Still, just by asking the question ‘what if?’, we arrive at who on the roster is the core that this team likely builds around. You might say ‘yeah, right, rabbi, this is ridiculous.’ Yeah. A year ago, the Rapids were planning to play Marlon Hairston at right back, and Tim Howard was happily swatting balls from Diego Costa and Mesut Özil with Everton, and Shkëlzen Gashi was the best player in the Swiss Axpo Super League. Weird stuff happens.

Offseason Theory 4:

Patience you must have my young padawan

The Rapids average age on opening day, if the kept every current player on the roster, would average 27.3 years old; not too old, and not too young, either. There is always possibility the Rapids decide to begin a youth movement, and although this roster doesn’t look like a likely candidate to have its elders replaced with kittens, you never know. It’s still a good idea to take a look at whether offseason moves are more likely to come via the draft and the academy or transfers and inter-MLS trades.

The Rapids dealt many of their 2016 and 2017 draft picks in the whirlwind of trades necessary to secure the cash needed to sign Jermaine Jones, Shkëlzen Gashi, and Tim Howard. That leaves the Rapids with only two picks: a first round pick that will either be the 21st or 22nd pick of the round, and a fourth round pick that will be the third-to-last of the entire draft.** The Rapids might still make some moves to get some additional draft picks. Or they could unload their picks and skip the draft entirely.

It’s impossible to predict who the Rapids will take, but it is likely that both picks will have long odds to make the team. Only one of the Rapids 2016 Superdraft picks, second round pick Dennis Castillo, is still with the team.

Colorado has a number of youngsters on its current roster. Eric Miller, Dom Badji, Dillon Serna, Zach Pfeffer, Caleb Calvert, Joseph Greenspan, Marlon Hairston, and Dennis Castillo are all 24 years old or young. That young core forms a base the team can grow off of for years to come.

The Rapids Academy hasn’t produced a Senior team signing since 2012, when the club signed Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna, but a youth player might get called into the Senior club this year. Rapids youth player Ricardo Perez graduates in May from Creighton University after starting nearly every game in midfield. Top Drawer Soccer ranked him the 97th best player in college soccer this year. Highly regarded defender Kortne Ford has helped lead Denver University all the way to the College Cup Final Four, but will likely return to DU in 2017 for his Senior year. Other academy players like Quentin Pearson, Alex Braman, Rhys De Sota, and Bryan Windsor might also make the jump from DSGP Complex Field 8 or 21 to opening day in front of 18,000 fans inside Dick’s Sport Goods Park.

None of these players is as highly touted as FC Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal, or Atlanta United’s Andrew Carleton, and the Rapids may go yet another year without calling up an academy player to the senior team. That may tell us that any players left unsigned on December 16 will be replaced via free agency and the January transfer window, not the Superdraft or the academy.

...

That’s a bit of free-associating on my part about potential directions the Rapids might take heading into the offseason. Tell me what moves you think the club absolutely needs to make between now and opening day in order to make a run at the Cup for next year.

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* Yes, these are all lines from Star Wars. Yes, I’m a dork.

** The Rapids traded their second round pick to Philadelphia for Zac MacMath, and their third round pick to DC United for Conor Doyle.