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Backpass: Bennyball meets Pabloball

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So, on the one hand, that was some bad soccer right there, dab gummit. On the other hand, that's pretty much what we expected.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you were a novice MLS fan; if your university had been unceremoniously dumped from the NCAA tournament and you couldn't bear to watch anymore college basketball games; if you were hiding from your wife in a bar and watching ESPN2, and flipped on the MLS national game of week, DC United vs the Colorado Rapids of America, this match would not likely sell you on the sports appeal. Or, as Sport Illustrateds Grant Wahl put it:
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Aficionados of Major League Soccer knew that, though. Ben Olsen and Pablo Mastroeni have similar philosophies on how to win in Major League Soccer: gum up the works, stomp out the attacker on the ball, keep the middle packed, deny obvious passing lanes.

What that meant for this game was two teams popping 25 yards passes through the air on the hope that it would land. This was two teams that both wanted to draw their line in the sand about 20 yards behind midfield in their own end. That's why you saw exchanges like this. A lot. Especially in the first half.
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So, on the one hand, that's some bad soccer right there, dab gummit. Nobody buys the full MLS Live package to watch six turnovers in a row, none in a threatening position. On the other hand, that's pretty much what we expected. Pablo and Benny's DC v COL was the opposite of NYRB v HOU's 4-3 defense-optional barn burner, where the midfield was wide open from end to end.

But there were still some oddities to unpack. Note that I'm not gonna talk much about our offensive plan, because, well, there really wasn't one. Roughly it was- Powers picks out long passes, let Pappa create, and the offensive front 4 needed to alternately drop deep to pick up the ball or the wings needed to launch it for a runner over the top. But none of that really worked, so it was set piece mayhem. Now let's talk defense.

Jared Watts It Is, Regrettably

I've argued that Jared Watts is in the lineup because he's the best distributor out of the back,  brings mobility, and can still do the defensive job well. A lot of people have been skeptical of this view, because Jared Watts has been prone to big errors and off games. For at least this game, a lot of people happened to be right - Watts didn't quiet his critics. He probably multiplied them. Here's Watts clearing (passing?) to no one in particular. This ball led to one of DC's best first half chances - a couple of shots that ultimately end in MacMath's gloves.

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Here's Watts drawing yellow for failing to stop Lamar Neagle on the run, so he just murders him instead. We're probably lucky this one didn't go to red.

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Part of the reason Watts is called upon to make that tackle, way out of his assigned position of center back, is that Mekeil Williams is still way upfield on the offensive end, but I'll talk about that later.

Watts had some non-clearances, some bad passes, and some bum tackles in this one. And of course, going yellow early means you've got to be a little more cautious all game, which hurts your ability to be physical. As a result, MacMath and Sjoberg bailed him out a couple times. Watts defensive stats were not good. Here is:

Number          Name                Total Tackles         Interceptions      Clearances     Blked Shts   Fouls    Rating
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Compared to his fellow defenders, he was the weak link.

Sean St. Ledger will probably come back into his spot as soon as he's healthy, but he didn't even make the trip to Washington. The Rapids don't play for another two weeks, so hopefully St. Ledger can step in for Watts. I wanted Jared Watts to have become the young guy that steps into a spot and be the guy in the worst way, but he looked weak. If he can't close down Lamar Neagle, we're in big trouble when he's staring down Robbie Keane, Fanendo Adi or Fabian Castillo. It might even be worthwhile to plug in Bobby Burling, or Sam Cronin back there in the meanwhile. Watts might get another chance, and this might have been an off game for him. Or maybe Jared Watts is a known quantity at this point: a defender you plug in for 500 minutes a season. Any more than that, and you're asking for trouble.

Mekeil Williams: First Half Agent of Chaos, Not in a Good Way

Here's the first half map of defensive actions for the Rapids defensive midfielders, Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira. What do you notice?
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"Gee, Rabbi, they sure did a lot on the right side", you'd say. "Why is that?" The Rapids right back, Mekeil Williams, was doing a lot of work moving the ball upfield in attack and creating width. He was also upfield in DEFENSE: the roaming right side destroyer. Here's Williams defensive actions map, with Watts in there too just for fun.
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It's like the Rapids were playing a high press, but really with just one guy. That created shape problems that caused the Rapids to do a lot of scrambling on defense in the first half. In the second half, the Azira, Cronin, and Williams maps looked more normal - centered, and spread evenly through their own half. So they adjusted, which is good. But spending 45 minutes with your whole defense outta wack to one side isn't ideal, and it led to things like that Watts horror-tackle above.

Let's not take anything away from DC, too. The Rapids had to stop an effective and dangerous bunch of attackers overloading that left side- Neagle and Chris Rolfe, with Taylor Kemp frequently coming on the overlap. But it caused the  defensive shape to break more than a few times: those six red triangles are missed tackles. The second half was much better for the Rapids, as they did a better job with defensive shape and use the attackers to attack, taking the load off Williams. I'm all for getting fullbacks forward in attack, but bad things happen when everybody's out of position and you're caught with your pants down.

Powers and Pappa: Hot. Doyle and Badji: Not.

For the third week in a row, Dillon Powers was the straw that stirred the drink. He was 4/6 on long ball passes, which is incredibly high (Marc Burch was 4/9. Jared Watts was 2/13 - yikes.) He had this one into the box, which Doyle whiffed on.
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DP was pretty sweet from the left side on corners and on set crosses into the box. Powers also got his head on that corner that gave the Rapids the brief 1-0 lead. It was Pappa that launched that corner, and also had two other key passes and a nice through ball. Despite a few nice passes, Marco Pappa only had one shot,  and I think we only saw flashes of him at his best, as he was generally quite and not often active in the most dangerous spots , the 18 yard box. Which might happen when all the Rapids best pieces are on the field at once. I CAN. NOT. WAIT. to see Gashi-Powers-Pappa. Soon, my pet.

Meanwhile. The Not.


Badji and Doyle combined for: 3 shots, 0 key passes, 0 successful passes in the offensive third. 0 goals, 0 assists. That headed whiff from Doyle in the gif up above was repeated 10 minutes later with an identical whiff. Badji coughed up a pass at his feet in the box that he should've finished. Badji may be on to be the big, fast, physical counterweight that occupies defenders for others to work their magic. But in all sports, you know when there's that guy that the other teams says ‘don't worry about guarding him too close, he can't score anyways' ? Right now, that looks like the case with two of our starting three forwards.

Muscled

If I had time, and if MLS didn't blackout full replays for national games for 48 hours, I'd go through and make a super cut of Rapids players getting pushed off the ball. There were a lot of plays where the Rapids went into a 50-50, and the bad guys came away with the ball. The early yellow cards were likely a factor: if you're sitting on a yellow, then you are a bit reticent to give a shove back to DeLeon or Sarvas to stay on the ball.

Mastroeni teams are usually tough and physical, and on this day, they got out-physical-ed by DC United. Hopefully, that's a blip - few teams are as tough as DC in MLS.

Pablo Uses One Sub? Pablo Uses One Sub

The Rapids subbed off Pappa for Solignac in the 72nd, and then... crickets. The bench had Dillon Serna, Marlon Hairston, and Conor Doyle, but Pablo kept those fresh legs on the bench. Why? To give the team a better workout? Maybe because the defensive midfield options weren't so great (there were none), and the team was digging for the tie? I kinda see some logic here with not making a 2nd or 3rd change, but mostly not. If you want to go more defensive- take off Badji for Hairston and then play him like a wingback, with the team going to kind of a 5-3-2. Or swap Badji for Serna, like for like, and give Serna a chance to get something going on the attack. He's conjured magic in DC before.

Dillon Serna isn't getting minutes, and nobody knows why. Maybe he's not 100% back from injury, and Pablo's saving him. But he didn't get the minutes we expected last year either, and he was mostly healthy. He must be grossly out of shape, or really in Pablo's doghouse if he's below Badji and Luis Solignac on the winger depth chart. Maybe we need to buy him a lunchpail.  Maybe we need to bring back the hashtag #FreeSerna.

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All in all, ugly, with some promise. Especially if you think about a defensive midfield with Jermaine Jones and Dillon Powers. Still, those old fears about offense that we felt at this time last year are still there. Last year at this time, we had 3 points with 0 goals. Today, we've got 4 points with 2 goals. It's nice to see progress, however incremental it may be, but it ain't gonna get us into the playoffs.