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Backpass: Find Our Swagger

The Rapids took on RSL for the first leg of the Rocky Mountain Cup. After a promising first half, the team came out a bit more tentative in the second, and then imploded. What happened?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

As much as nerds want to establish mathematical or tactical reasons for wins, losses, and draws, sports is not merely the deployment of players in logical patterns that are better arranged than another team's logical patterns. Nor is sport the cultivating of human bodies to perform better than the bodies of your opponent. There is an element of the psychological and the emotional that dictates the nature of a game as well.

I don't have high level coaching experience by any means: three years of varsity and middle school basketball. And kids (or really, any non-professional athletes) are really very different than pros. But I've seen kids get psyched out year after year. Almost invariably, when we have a game, the other team comes into the gym, and my boys or girls will exclaim "Whoa. They're waaaay bigger than us."

Now, this is a factually accurate statement. As a coach/rabbi at a Jewish school, my players are the stock of Abraham. My kids are almost all descended from Eastern European Jews whose genetic lineages tend toward the smaller side.

Usually, it doesn't matter. We start a four guard lineup, rotate and pass well, and we've always got one kid who can drain it from outside. But the fear of a bigger team changes the way kids play. Fear of a strange gym, or the daze of a long bus ride, can also have an effect.

And then, there's the fear of a choke, which seems pretty relevant this morning after reading about Justin Spieth's Greg Norman-esque collapse Sunday at Augusta. A few years ago, my team was up 25 points with 10 minutes to go against a big public school south of San Francisco. The opponent put on a full-court press, and our kids turned it over... once, twice, three times, four times, and more. The coach called timeout after time out and drew up an escape play, but the kids kept coughing it up. When the lead had drained to 3, we knew it wasn't the play. It was confidence- everyone had that look in their eye like "We're gonna lose." One kid stepped up and said: "Give me the ball." They did. We rattled off 8 straight points. They came out of the press. Win, Jewish Day School.

The Rapids problems Sunday weren't major. They weren't out hustled. They didn't have a bad approach to the game. They weren't the less talented team on the field: RSL started Luke Mulholland as the creative attacking midfielder. Luke Mulholland is a perfectly serviceable midfielder, like Mehdi Ballouchy or Baggio Husidic. He is not Benny Feilhaber.

The Rapids, especially in the second half, lacked confidence. It showed on their passing, where too many passes were skittishly popped up in the air: most were so bad I couldn't tell if they were aerial passes or anxious clearances. The lack of confidence showed on that defensive/goalkeeping miscue, when nobody yelled and nobody did the right thing as Joao Plata ended up with a free goal. The lack of confidence showed in the finishing, as the Rapids (especially Gashi) took shots from low percentage angles instead of putting on a move in the box to create a better play.

Maybe you don't buy this argument. Maybe the players weren't good enough, or the tactics weren't right, or the coaching is suspect. That's all possible. But one thing is true, and that's that the distance between the ability levels of elite athletes isn't particularly far. As much as we might tease Mehdi Ballouchy for not being Lionel Messi, the two of them are far closer together than, say, me and Mehdi Ballouchy. When the differences in fitness and skill are tiny, confidence and swagger have a big impact on the game.

The Rapids are coming off two bad seasons, and the 2016 season is still an open question if it'll be a confident resurgence to winning, or a disappointing slog. Let's hope someone can come in with some swagger and charge up this club.

Number 10 Gotta Number 10

Howler's latest issue, and their latest podcast, was dedicated to the number 10; the bests, its history, and its meaning. Both are worth checking out right here.

One simple thing I took away from the podcast was the enshrinement of that mythic number by one of the greatest to play the game: Pele. Before Pele, kids wanted whatever number, and the number didn't necessarily correspond to meaning ‘skilled midfield playmaker'. In fact, Pele himself was a forward. But top players started wanting to be like Pele, and they picked the number 10. And over time, that ‘best player on the team' went from a pure scorer up top to a skilled creative playmaker at the center of the pitch.

That guy that commands the entire field and dishes perfect passes and plays with flair and can score a fair number of goals is recognized in today's football game by wearing the number 10. So when a player comes to a team and says ‘I want to wear the number 10', there had better be a damn good reason to give it to him.

The Rapids handed the number 10 to Marco Pappa in the offseason to be their creator-in-chief, then signed another guy a month and a half later who also had the skill-player/master-creator tool kit: Shkelzen Gashi. Gashi picked the number 11; presumably because 10 was taken. In essence, this team has two number 10s. Each plays on the wing, but both pinch in with regularity.*

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. You want to be the number 10? You gotta earn it - to your fellow players, to the FO that pays a premium for those creative skills, and to the fans.

Gashi and Pappa were pretty good in the first half. The best chance in whole game came at 43', when Marc Burch put a long pass into the box for Sam Cronin, who fed Shkelzen Gashi. With basically the whole net exposed Gashi's shot unfortunately (inexplicably?) found the top of Aaron Maund's head.



And Gashi and Pappa's overall numbers were ok: not DP-like, but not terrible either. Observe:



Two key passes, two shots on target for each. Not bad. The thing is, almost all of those passes and shots occurred in the first half. In the second half, the two Rapids creators had a passing map that looked like this:



That's 24/40 passing for the two of them, or 60%. That's awful. Only two of those completed passes are in the final third during the run of play. These guys are supposed to be your key creators.

You can credit RSL's half time adjustments, I suppose, or maybe you can credit the Rapids second half conservatism, as Powers and Azira sat deeper and deeper as the game went on. But at the end of the day, if you put the ball at the feet of a number 10 and give him targets, he should produce more than the one shot and two passes that resulted.

It's still early, and both players are still settling in, learning team tendencies, getting acclimated, etc. So, no need to panic yet. But as a pair of number 10s*, the expectations are higher, and 60% passing and one shot in 45 minutes isn't the kind of performance that will lead this team out of mediocrity.

That Gaffe

Nobody was entirely sure whether Zac MacMath was ready to replace Clint Irwin and be the number 1 GK for the Rapids when the season began. MacMath was pretty solid through pre-season and the first three games, and he earned himself a save of the week nomination last week.



But then, well, this train wreck happened, and it pretty much killed the Rapids, since the second half offense, as mentioned, never really got going.



There were two mistakes here, to my mind. The first was MacMath coming waaaaay off his line after this ball, which he doesn't get to in time. He misjudged it... badly. The second is Axel Sjoberg hitting it up in the air to the spot where MacMath would have been had he not come off his line: Sjoberg could have cleared him strong, but instead he did... that. I'm not sure why. If MacMath doesn't come out or Sjoberg doesn't gift him the lob, maybe the talented Plata still slots it home, but with the way the Rapids made a hash of it, it might go down as Plata's easiest goal of 2016, and it's only April.

Those things are going to happen from time to time. You can minimize the occasional boner play by scoring some goals at the other end. Also, as awful as giving up that goal was, there's no good reason the Rapids shouldn't have lost 2-0, since Yura Movsisyan's perfect run in the 83rd minute was incorrectly called back as offside.

Still, defenses and keepers are valued, first and foremost, for playing error-free soccer. And MacMath knows that's if he wants to be starting between the pipes for an MLS team, he's only got two more months to impress the suits in all the other MLS front offices into making a deal, since Timmy Howard is on a plane from Heathrow to DIA in about 10 weeks.

Did Luis Solignac Do Anything of Note this Game?


He's probably still the odds on favorite to start against SKC on Wednesday.

Quick Hits:

Pablo, for the second game in a row, used only one sub. Why? No idea. Maybe Pablo thinks the guys on the field a little tired are still better than the bench is fully rested. Maybe he's trying to use the early season to build fitness in the starters for a full 90. Maybe he's thinking ahead to the mid-week fixture with Sporting Kansas City and wants to rest his bench for their starts Wednesday. Maybe he forgot he had more subs...

On top of that, the Rapids only had five players on the bench to start this one: Froeschaer, Serna, Badji, Pfeffer and C. Doyle. St. Ledger and Watts are out with injury. Mekeil Williams was having visa trouble that Daniel Boniface reported had been cleared up, but I guess not. Caleb Calvert and Emmanuel Appiah are in Charlotte with the USL club, and John Berner was reportedly sent there on Monday.

Rumor has it that fullback Dennis Castillo has been training with the team, but remains unsigned. And Marlon Hairston? I have no idea why he's not on the bench...

Marc Burch and Eric Miller notched another solid match for the Rapids. Although neither has blazing speed, both have played excellent, error-less soccer, and both provide good service from wide on the attack. I was pretty skeptical of Burch when he made the starting XI in the Rapids second game (he had a lot of shaky passing last year, and I can't say I care for that hairstyle) but I've been somewhat impressed...

I watched that LA Galaxy - Portland Timbers match last night, and whooo boy did the twitterverse blow its mind with that Nigel De Jong ankle stamp. Since everybody else on God's green earth has weighed in, I guess I should too. It was a bad tackle. It deserves a red card, and he's liable to get 3 or 4 games suspension. I re-tweeted something Steve Zakuani said, and I got a lot of nasty responses, which taught me that when your twitter profile is bedecked in burgundy, folks make assumptions about what you think. Apparently some folks might think all Rapids fans approve of Brian Mullan's poor tackle back in 2011 that ended Zakuani's career.** I don't at all approve. Soccer is about putting the ball in the net. Defending is about taking the ball away before it goes in the net. Knocking guys down like a moron is for cro-magnins and throwballers.

* If you want to call Gashi a 9, a false 9, or a winger, fine. But he's a creative player that has played the 10 in Switzerland, and he plays the left wing as a creative drifting forward. Lionel Messi does the exact same kind of thing for Barcelona on the right side. The number on his back is 10.

** Note that in April 2011, I was still living in San Francisco, and if a million dollars depended on it, I couldn't name a single player on the Colorado Rapids. Today, if a pint of warm Coors Light depended on it, I could name the entire Rapids roster, 7 guys that play for Charlotte, and four academy players. Life's weird that way.