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2016 Season Preview of the Colorado Rapids

I've previewed every other team in the Western Conference. I'm dissected their transactions and tactics; broke down their stats and kicked the tires on their coaches. Now I'll do the same for our beloved Colorado Rapids.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Rapids

2015 Record:

9-10-15 (W-T-L), 37 points, 10th in the Western Conference

2015 Goals For:

33, 20th in MLS

2015 Goals Against:

43, 6th in MLS

2015 Key Statistic:

Team xGF per game (Expected Goals For) = 1.00, worst in MLS

Team GF per game = 0.96

Key Additions:

Marco Pappa, Micheal Azira, Zach Pfeffer, Shkelzen Gashi, Mekeil Williams, Eric Miller, Tim Howard?

Key Subtractions:

Drew Moor, Lucas Pittinari, Vicente Sanchez, Gabriel Torres, Clint Irwin, Maynor Figueroa, Marcelo Sarvas

Previewing the Defense:

Since this is the Rapids preview, we're going to take our time and dissect things bit by bit.

The Rapids defense was good in 2015 - 6th in Goals Allowed. It might have been even better than that, except for a late season hemorrhaging of goals that may or may not be related to the additions of Maynor Figueroa, Sean St Ledger, and the re-positioning of Drew Moor from center back to right back. Did you know that the Rapids surrendered a league-worst 62 goals in 2014? Yes. Yes you did. But you psychologically repressed that trauma until I said it. I'm so sorry.
The back line will be a little different, especially with the departure of Drew Moor, but also with the releases or trades of Maynor Figueroa, James Riley, and Michael Harrington. It looks as though Bobby Burling and Axel Sjoberg will start at center back in the middle, while Sean St Ledger is still getting back into shape after an off season knee surgery.

And that's great. Both are able defenders, if a little bit more reliant on their physical gifts than their abilities to read. Sjoberg had a propensity to clear the ball first, ask questions later, but in preseason he seems to have taken to distributing out of the back more often.

At fullback, the team fired pretty much everyone except Marc Burch after 2015, which is fine, because Figueroa and Riley weren't great. The guys they went out and got to replace them look pretty good. The Rapids have former Montreal Impact defender Eric Miller at right back, with 2016 SuperDraft 2nd round Dennis Castillo making a pretty convincing bid in his preseason matches that he might even be the better player there. Mekiel Williams comes in from Antigua in Guatemala and the Trinidad and Tobago. Whether the experiment to convert Marlon Hairston to a right back is continued or not remains to be seen, although he got minutes in the last preseason game at defensive mid, strangely.

Will this defense be as good in 2016 as last year? I'd venture to say no, but just barely. Drew Moor was not replaced, and I'm not sure from what I saw that Williams might not be as strong as Figueroa or Harrington. But a full season of a healthy Sjoberg - a more experienced Sjoberg - should give this team a confident back line. And all three of the team's potential right backs will likely be better than James Riley, who conceded a fair amount of goals by failing to close down shooters.
One other thing: the Rapids have a bunch of big guys here that should be able to score headers on corner kicks. Burling had two headed goals in 2015, but Sjoberg had zero. A little more contribution in 2016 should help win games.

The team might also add Stephen Keel and AJ Cochran for depth and experience, but as of right now, the two were still listed as trialists by the Rapids.

What's Good about the Defense

Between Sjoberg, St Ledger and Burling, you've got depth and talent. Eric Miller is probably a solid upgrade at right back.

What's Troubling about the Defense

Without Drew Moor, there may not be the same speed or ability to pass out of the back that there once was.

Better, Worse or Equal to 2015?

Better at fullback, worse at center back. Overall, equal to 2015.

Previewing the Midfield

With Pablo Mastroeni preferring the 4-2-3-1, midfielders will be called upon to do much of the key work on this team. This team was quite often befuddled in the attack last year. There were passing problems and circulation problems and off-ball movement problems and problems getting the ball into dangerous scoring spots and problems playing efficient long balls and problems playing too many long balls. Dillon Powers couldn't establish a rhythm with wingers or get into scoring spots. Juan Ramirez couldn't pass or shoot. Vicente Sanchez was often all alone on the right. Gaby Torres had one nice cheeky heel flick assist and spent the rest of the season mildly jogging while everybody else ran. Dillon Serna was never able to earn a sure spot in the starting XI. There are rumors of a player named Luis Solignac as well, but his offensive invisibility to the team makes it possible that ‘a man that plays soccer for the Rapids named Solignac' is no more real than the Yeti, a unicorn, or a talented Kardashian.

The defensive midfield was alright at defense, but their passing and positioning were often suspect. Only Pittinari came up in attack, but often sprayed bad passes as a result. Marcelo Sarvas, when healthy, stayed pinned deep, whether on his own volition or due to an edict of Pablo. Cronin was the team's only effective passer and defender, although in a workaday kind of way, not in a game-changing kind of way. Things had to change.

Powers, Cronin, and Serna are still here, but they're all going to have to fight to grab a starting spot, what with all the new faces, all of whom have impressive qualities. If the Rapids went with their most effective pre-season players, we might see an opening day midfield of Azira, Watts; Gashi, Pappa & Badji. If they go with what's known, it'll be Cronin & Powers; Gashi, Pappa, and Serna. Zach Pfeffer is also in the mix to maybe get a shot to start in the attacking midfield. He showed much promise in Philly, and if Pappa takes a while to recover or Serna can't establish himself as a consistent threat on the right side, Pfeffer might get a surprise shot to lead this club.

There's three big questions this midfield faces. These three questions are, to me, the whole ball of wax for the Rapids season: if all three don't come together, this team is doomed to repeat a 2016 as hapless as the past two seasons.

1) Can Shkelzen Gashi be the creative genius to seriously increase the number of goals this team scores in 2016?

2) Can Marco Pappa move to the middle of the park and be as good or better than he was as a winger?

3)  Who is going to be the defensive anchor and key passing link at defensive midfield?

I was pretty vocal in the off season that the team needed two things more than anything else: a creative player to be the number 10, and a defensive midfielder that could do a little of everything.

They went and got Marco Pappa and Shkelzen Gashi, who are both creative and could both potentially be the number 10, or the wide player, sometimes in the same game. But they never got that defensive mid. On ExtraTime radio, Pablo Mastroeni spoke of the plan to move Dillon Powers back to play deep as a CDM. Then in the preseason, he played... center attacking mid, just like he did almost all of 2015. That may have been because Marco Pappa was out. And he did sit deep in that last game against FC Tucson, but only after the Rapids went up 3-0, and then in a kind of 4-3-2-1, not in the team's likely format of a 4-2-3-1 But still, I'm confused. Cronin might be your other d-mid. But Azira looked very convincing in pre-season, mostly as the stay-at-home guy (sometimes designated as the ‘number 6'). Jared Watts was the more free roamer (sometimes designated as the ‘number 8'). In the last game, Pablo even dropped Marlon Hairston in there as the d-mid. In other words, the team will turn internally to fill that slot. Whether that works or not is one of the biggest questions going into 2016.

What's Good about the Midfield

Shkelzen Gashi will be a big offensive upgrade in the attack. Perhaps playing Dillon Powers deeper will unlock his potential as a game-changing regista. Sam Cronin is reliable both to defend, cover ground, and play the sure pass.

What's Troubling about the Midfield

We aren't really sure who will be the defensive midfielders on day 1: all possible options available are (probably?) good, but none are truly great. It's unclear who is going to be the opening day right attacking mid- Badji and Serna are the leading candidates, but neither has ever really been a regular right sided attacker; Badji played at center forward in 2015, Serna played only 8 games in 2015, both on the left and on the right, and played exclusively on the left in 2014. Marco Pappa has been a winger with Seattle for the last two years, so moving into the middle is another unknown.

Better, Worse or Equal to 2015?

Better. Gashi is an upgrade on Sanchez. Pappa is an upgrade on Gabriel Torres. And maybe those two changes bring Serna and Powers alive like never before.

Previewing the Forwards

Kevin Doyle joined the Rapids in his first game on May 23rd, 2015, as the team's first millionaire Designated Player. He went on to score an underwhelming five goals in 20 games. To be fair, he had the dual challenges of shaking off buckets of rust from a lack of use over two years with Wolverhampton, and getting much less service than your average MLS forward - he took 34 shots; 77th in the league - fewer than Dillon Powers, Gaby Torres, and Vicente Sanchez.

Still, Doyle's got to score in 2016. The team often had him dropping deep and getting smothered; or launched the ball long to him, alone. One big problem was that he was frequently given the ball while facing back-to-goal, then needed to turn to face up. He's a quick and crafty forward, not a burly holdup man- the team needs to get the ball to him on the move, facing forward. Perhaps with Gashi and Pappa in support, Doyle with find that rhythm to pace the Rapids with double digit goals.

For depth here the Rapids have Conor Doyle, Dominique Badji, Caleb Calvert, and perhaps Luis Solignac. None has really distinguished himself at the position, but at least C. Doyle, Calvert and Badji are young and on an upward trajectory. Additionally, Gashi has played at forward in his career, too, although he's not really a lone forward type of guy. All of that means that if Kevin Doyle runs into injury troubles, it might be time to panic.
Some have said that the Rapids problem in 2015 was finishing. That's pretty much objectively false. Here are the Rapids numbers for xG, expected goals; the measure of how many shots that SHOULD be goals WERE ACTUALLY goals.



The difference in goals to expected goals is only off 0.04. In teams where there are finishing problems, that number is much higher: Portland's differential is 0.17. And they still hold the MLS Cup.

Mostly, the Rapids didn't miss terribly. They didn't take enough shots, or enough higher probability shots to begin with. It's not the finishing. It the last pass, and the second to last pass, and the last run, and clever movement, and brilliant feint, and the box-clearing dummy. That's the problem. The team needs to take more shots, in better places, more often. It's not all on Doyle to do that. But he'll also be at least partially responsible if the team's xG number isn't better in 2016. This was a problem at the beginning of the season, and we talked about it. It didn't get any better. It'll need to in 2016.

What's Good about the Forwards

Doyle is back with better supporting players behind him, and a full year under his belt in MLS to help him.

What's troubling about the Forwards

Kevin Doyle is a 32 year old million-dollar DP who last scored double digit goals for his club team in 2008/09, at Reading. Which is in the English Championship - not a shabby league, but also not an elite league either. He *might* not be the automatic goal-scoring machine the Rapids touted him as when they signed him. And there's really nobody else behind him if that doesn't work out.

Better, Worse or Equal to 2015?

Better? I'd guess that a healthy Doyle gets you at least 8 goals. He kind of needs too, considering the hype and the cost.

Previewing the Goalkeepers

The Rapids start the season with Zac MacMath, a talented player who has been waiting patiently on the bench for his shot. In 2013 while with Philadelphia, he finished the season 3rd in MLS in Shutouts for a mediocre Union team, and is the youngest goalkeeper in MLS history to have 100 starts.

Of course, Zac's almost certain to lose his job to Tim Howard when the ‘Secretary of Defense' arrives from Everton in July. It's really hard to make heads or tails of the situation and what to expect: Howard has lost his starting gig with Everton Football Club in the English Premier League, but hey, so did Petr Cech last year, and he looks fantastic for Arsenal this year. Being ‘out of favor' with your club's manager isn't a sure-fire indication of anything. Howard will certainly be a good goalkeeper. Will he still be a great goalkeeper? Unknown. Will he be the difference-maker that gets this club into the playoffs? Tall order for a guy at a position like that.

Howard does give the Rapids the ability to turn MacMath's first four months with the club into a potential audition for another team, with the Rapids able to sell on a valued and tested commodity to a higher bidder. Remember when the Galaxy lost Jaime Penedo to a contract dispute in the late summer last year? Remember when they could only get Donovan Ricketts, and that his shoddy goalkeeping basically singlehandedly knocked them out of the playoffs? Yeah, having an extra goalkeeper for sale can be a pretty good thing.

John Berner and Chris Froeschaer are both possible 3rd string backups. Your guess is as good as mine if either is any good. Current evidence is somewhere between ‘Data Set Incomplete' and ‘Not Very Good' as of now.

Better, Worse or Equal to 2015?

Unknown. Clint Irwin was often great. He only had one clunker of a game and maybe gave up two soft goals all year. It'll be tough to beat that. But the Rapids just bet $8 million over four years plus a $700,000 transfer fee that Howard will either be the key player the team needs, or is simply a big enough star to sell jerseys and spin the turnstiles.

I hope both.

Previewing the Coaching

It's no secret that Pablo Mastroeni starts the year on the hot seat, what with the team being terrible for the entire duration of his managerial career. The team was 9-10-15 (W-T-L) in 2015, and 8-8-18 in 2014, for a grand total of 17 wins, 18 draws, and 33 losses in two years of the Mastronaccio, the Pablostache, the Life of Pablo, whatever stupid meme-ified mashup we want to call this era.

I feel legitimately bad for Pablo. Not because he's gotten a bad rap. He hasn't; he's been treated like any professional coach with a losing record, maybe better, since he didn't actually get fired despite his lack of success. No, I feel bad because the pressure for the first 8-12 games is so high, and so unrealistic, that it's virtually impossible to see a world where he makes it through the season. As a working schlub like the rest of y'all, with managers and bosses throughout my life that have sometimes been lovely and generous and other times been overly demanding and unrealistic, I can relate. I hope Pablo succeeds, and can earn himself a full season of soccer with the Rapids, not only because I think he's genuinely trying to be a good coach, but also more obviously because, as a fan, I want the team to succeed, and I can't bear the thought of starting the season floundering about and being starved for goals, like we did so often last year.

Pablo will play the 4-2-3-1, and that's fine. He's spent two years trying to get the right guys to play in that system together. The 4-2-3-1 is the dominant system in world football today. It is fairly pliable - in attack it can be morphed into more of a 4-3-3, or almost a 4-2-4, if players are allowed to take a ‘Total Football' approach to position. In defense, it can be more of a 4-3-2-1 if need be. The heavy number of midfielders allows teams to control the center of the park, and the team can use it's fullbacks for width. One thing I've seen more of in the pre-season is Pablo flipping the wings; Gashi and Badji, Serna and Solignac have swapped sides for 10 minute stretches. It's a nice trick, and maybe part of the influence of John Spencer's addition to the coaching staff.

A criticism of Pablo that fans will pay close attention to is the tendency to be too defensive- to send forward only four players in attack, or to send the ball up the wings or to play the ball long and over the top too often. I don't know if that's entirely warranted- it's true the Rapids played of long balls early in 2015, but as the season wore on, their length of pass averages were in-line with most other teams in the league. We'll watch and see.

Better, Worse or Equal to 2015?

The coaching staff added John Spencer, but his reputation is, mmm, debatable.

Pablo has another year of MLS experience. But many people feel that a change is needed. Let's hope the staff is ‘better', but not be surprised if it is only ‘equal' to 2015. Which would almost certainly mean a pink slip for Pablo by June.

Start to the Season - Rabbi Predictions

3/6/16 - Rapids at San Jose - Loss

3/12/16 - Rapids vs LA Galaxy - Loss

3/20/16 - Rapids at DC United - Win

4/2/16 - Rapids vs Toronto FC - Draw

4/9/16 - Rapids at RSL - Win

2016 Forecast:

The Rapids have a lot of question marks, considering the team will likely roll out 7 starters that were not with the team at the start of 2015. If all goes right, perhaps this team is a playoff contender. I think they start slow, but have a good run mid season, only to miss the playoffs just barely. 7th place.