I'm not going to lie to you, this Gashi signing has me feeling a bit strange. It's a cautious optimism with which I am not comfortable. It's an uncomfortable feeling of hope. Not hope, mind you, that this coming season is going to be anything other than a complete disaster. No, that hope would be too far fetched.
But the hope would be that this new signing could mean a return to attacking soccer for the Rapids. The possession based, attacking soccer that they've promised but failed to deliver on for every season since the departure of Oscar Pareja to Dallas.
It's clear what the problem is: Pablo Mastroeni is a defensive-oriented coach. He plays his teams as tough, gritty, hard to break down units that smother attacks in the middle of the field and have stay-at-home fullbacks. Offense comes from a long ball over the top and a lucky break from one or two forward players, or a break quickly down the sideline from a full running wide midfielder who puts in a cross to someone hopefully crashing into the box.
Now, that method of offense isn't necessarily ineffective. Oscar Pareja ran a similar style of offense as well with an emphasis on getting behind the defense and utilizing crosses from the wing. Except he counted on Dillon Powers (or Martin Rivero) to be the offensive hub in the middle of the field, to connect passes and do one-two combinations with either an overlapping fullback like Chris Klute or a forward running off the shoulder of his defender like Deshorn Brown.
The differences sound subtle, but in effect they make two completely different teams. Mastroeni preferring the gutty, 1v1 battles between forwards and defenders--smashing two forces together until one wears the other down. Pareja opting for an approach where the defense is dissected by precise and frequent passing, run into the ground by having to chase down the ball, and left exposed to surprise breaks by runners at full stride.
Does Shkelzen Gashi mean that the Rapids are on their way back to 2013 in terms of playing style?
Well, that all depends. And it doesn't depend on Gashi. It depends on how Mastroeni and Spencer figure the midfield and the fullbacks. Ultimately: it all depends on how they play Dillon Powers.
Marco Pappa is the midfielder that Pablo's system desperately needed. He's an adept wide player with an excellent cross. There's very little doubt to me as to where a guy like that fits into the Mastronaccio. He's the guy who breaks on the counter and speeds down the touchline to put in a cross. That's the role Vicente Sanchez played on the right and that Gaby Torres and Juan Ramirez were supposed to play on the left. If you remember, under Pareja, that was what Chris Klute would do. Under the Mastronaccio: the fullbacks stay "at home." Since Pappa is a like for like replacement (admittedly, with upgrades if all goes well), that's not going to change the style of play.
There's also very little double as to where Sam Cronin and guys like him play. They are the midfield bulldogs. The anchor men. The snuffers of attacks. The winners of the ball. These are the tough, gritty players who make games difficult. It remains to be seen whether Mastroeni believes Cronin is better as a man-to-man aggressive player, or more of a "lane clogging" player--whether he closes down the man himself or he plays into the space. But either way, Cronin and players like him will be in the middle of the park. That's not going to change the style of play at all.
Gashi as well seems to have his role set. If you look at how he has played in the past, and who he's going to be playing with in the future. He's a forward built not as a number 9 (that's Kevin Doyle), but as a supporting player, a gate crasher, a late comer, a far-post runner. This provides a good foil to Doyle. And if MLS has taught us anything, it's that a forward pair worth their salt can tear the league apart. Casey/Cummings, Donovan/Keane, Dempsey/Martins. This has the potential to be another one of those kinds of partnerships. Potentially. But that doesn't mean we will see attractive, attacking soccer. It just means we may see more goals. Which could be good. You know, yay goals!
And here's another good thing I noticed about Gashi, and this comes in a bit later, is that he is a very technically gifted player. If you watch footage of him, you see he's got good vision and an excellent touch on the ball. He's a technically-oriented forward. That's why he's a good forward to pair with a guy like Doyle.
But here's the thing: I don't quite know how Mastroeni is going to play Dillon Powers and that's frustrating. Because it makes or breaks how the season is going to go in terms of style. For all the talks of Tim Howard signing, it doesn't excite me in the least bit because it doesn't change at all how the team is going to play. You know where a goalkeeper plays and you know how a goalkeeper plays. I'm honestly more intrigued at the possibility of Macmath, since he's vaunted as a guy who can play with the ball at his feet and start play from the back better than Clint Irwin. OK. Sure. But what about a guy like Dillon Powers?
Powers isn't built like your prototypical American midfielder. Look at Landon Donovan, look at Wells Thompson. These are the guys who have a motor on them that never gets tired. They run up and down the pitch all day and couldn't be happier. Powers isn't built that way. Powers uses his vision and not his speed to break defenses down. He's a two-way player. Not in the American sense of the run-all-day midfielder. He's one of those rare technically oriented players who instead of using his physical attributes of speed or strength, he uses his brain and his vision to pick out the right pass at the right time to get the offense started.
The problem is: the Mastronaccio has no place for such things. The Mastronaccio favors physical, tough midfielders who run all day. Who grind it out against teams in that 1v1 struggle I mentioned before. Also, a Powers-centric approach would encourage fullbacks to get into the offense so that Powers (or some central hub like him) has as many options at his disposal as possible to break down a defense quickly. If Powers is instructed to run with the ball, to play with it at his feet and go at players and take them on 1-v-1, then the team is only going to be as fast as Powers himself, which is not fast. However, if Powers is instructed to play the smart passing game, and fullbacks are encouraged to overlap and play into the attack? That's where you'll start seeing a different Rapids team, and a team that is able to play faster than it would if it were focused on 1v1 take-ons and getting forwards in isolation against favorably matched defenders.
As it stands, the soul of the Colorado Rapids, so to speak, rests with Dillon Powers and players like Powers who have the technical gifts of vision and soccer-intelligence. None of this "bring your lunchpail to work" nonsense which plays right into the "run run run" midfield that dominates the American mentality of "how to midfield good".
Mastroeni is set up very nicely to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. Both require a few more signings in order to work out right. The team is desperately thin right now, and 1-2 more signings isn't going to cut it. 1-2 big signings are a good thing, but the need to be in camp now, and the clock is ticking.
Mastroeni is also set up to either play the same kind of team he played last year, or embrace a new paradigm. That's where Gashi comes in. Gashi can either provide an upgrade to the Mastronaccio, but he can't blow it up. Dillon Powers, or a player like Powers, with the technical gifts and passing vision in midfield, are kinds of players who can change that paradigm.
Right now, I'm hopeful that the Gashi signing signals a return to favoring the technical player and a flowing offense over the brutal and gritty Mastronaccio. One, because it's what the Colorado Rapids said they were about. Two, because the Mastronaccio is a failure on the field. It's abysmal to watch and it doesn't win games. And if the Front Office and technical staff think that this is just a matter of winning just a few more games, and not a matter that goes deep to the heart of the problems the team has, then they've missed the point, and whatever hope came with this signing out to be consigned to the dustbin of soccer history along with the 2016 season.