Whew. That was some game. And it wasn't at all what I think we imagined it would be.
When the Rapids took the field last night against Sporting Kansas City with Dillon Serna at Right Back, Eric Miller at Center Back, Dillon Powers in street clothes, and only three outfield players available to sub in, there was a certain amount of fear that gripped me. On the other side of the ball, though, SKC fielded something of a ‘B' team, with the core of their creative players; Feilhaber, Davis, and Dwyer; parked on the bench.
A somewhat sloppy first half with a bevy of turnovers broke the Rapids way, though, when Marco Pappa cleaned up a midfield turnover and flicked it over the top to Lucho Solignac for his second goal of the season; a goal that looked a lot like his first goal against DC United in that it was a perfectly timed run through the backline, lashed home with vigor into the net.
I enjoyed this game at the Three Lions Pub, so forgive me if the tactical recap is a bit hazy. For one, this Rapids match had a funny feel to it, as it morphed into different shapes as the game progressed. The first half showed both teams trying to hold possession, with the Rapids superior Marco Pappa out-dribbling the SKC middies. In the early second half, SKC threw men forward recklessly, allowing the Rapids a few exciting open field attacks on the counter, led by... Marco Pappa. SKC had the Rapids under their thumb for a 20 minute stretch that culminated in that Dom Dwyer goal. And then suddenly...
Serna does a very Serna thing: a long shot that nearly connects (Remember DC United in 2014? FC Dallas in 2015? Serna digs the long ball.) Shkelzen Gashi volleys. Three unlikely points on the road for the Colorado Rapids. Three points against the conference leaders that put the Rapids 5th in the Western Conference on 10 points. I didn't see that coming. Did you?
Swagger Mode: Unlocked
It's early, and there's a lot of season to go. But the other day I wrote about the team needing swagger. And about the team needing their midfield creative number 10s, Pappa and Gashi, to deliver.
And they did. With swagger.
Gashi had 3 shots, 3 key passes, 1 goal and 76.2% passing. Pappa had 3 shots, 2 key passes, 1 assist and 62.5% passing. Moreover, both received the ball in dangerous spots while the game was at full pace and forced Kansas City to respond and cover, leaving Luis Solignac space to work. Lucho's numbers are the most surprising of all: 4 shots, 3 on target, 3 key passes, 77.8% passing.
All that offensive work from those three meant that Dom Badji played ‘safety' for Pappa, a role Dillon Powers had been playing so far. Badji played deeper and defended, especially when Pappa was playing a high line or was hanging around high up near Solignac for the counter. He wasn't particularly effective; he didn't have a ton of defensive actions but also didn't get into the offense much, recording his first pass into the final third of the field at the 92nd minute. The rest of his passes were short sideline dishes or re-circulations at midfield. So that could stand improvement.
MacMath Causing Heart Attacks
I counted 3 or 4 times Zac MacMath misplayed a ball or didn't have sure hands. Here's one of them.
On that one, Williams is playing his defender, and seems to have the line to get the ball out. But MacMath rushes out - leaving him high and dry in case SKC can play a rebound. Thankfully, Graham Zusi (I think?) blows the volley over the bar.
Coming off of an RSL game that essentially was lost on a GK mistake, MacMath needed a solid rebound match, and instead, he was shaky again. MacMath is certainly paving the way for Tim Howard's arrival to be non-contentious, to say the least. Take a moment to consider this question: who would you rather have in goal, Zac MacMath or Clint Irwin? Zac MacMath or Matt Pickens? Zac MacMath or Stewart Ceus? Right. That's not great. None of the errors turned into goals, but I think that was a bit of luck on our part, as Sporting hit the crossbar twice and blew a couple open shots too- some that MacMath could have commanded.
Over the next two months, there will be a lot of important games decided. MacMath's ability to play a simple and tidy game might be the deciding factor in those games, and perhaps, in the season itself.
Game Style: Very UnRapids-y
Unlike Rapids game's we've become accustomed to, this game, especially in the second half, was quite open and attacking (better: counter-attacking), and the Rapids responded well to that shift. The Rapids formation often played like a 4-3-3, with the deep lying players getting the ball out to Pappa or Solignac or Gashi before the SKC defenders could get back to their posts. Here's one of those:
That one came on a long pass and quick counter after a perfect block from Marc Burch and clearance from Dillon Serna was misplayed by Roger Espinosa, straight to Solignac.
In most games the past two years, the Rapids would have Kevin Doyle out there, all by himself, and he'd have to dribble the defense by himself, or wait for a few Rapids to come up and join him. But last night, Pappa was stationed alongside Lucho, and the Rapids were able to threaten the goal with an actually threaten counter-attack. That's a shift that should be lauded. Good job, Mastroeni and Pappa.
That shows tactical growth- this team does not simply bunker with a lead, but found, at least on this night, effective ways of creative threats while protecting their own net. It's a step in the right direction from a team that, too often in the last year, played it safe with a 1-0 lead and kept 10 players behind the ball.
Defense in a Scrappy Game was... Scrappy. Also... Lucky.
The backline had to react to a lot of SKC pressure, and did an ok job. Sporting took 17 shots, which is a lot, but only 3 on target, which is really poor. On another night, the Rapids give up a few goals here. The Rapids were pretty lucky not to.
The Rapids were out-possessed 65-35 in this game, and were absolutely dominated on the ball in the second half - they did not hold an edge in possession for any stretch of 5 minutes in the second half.
Being out-possessed is not inherently bad, but as Marcelo Balboa said on the broadcast, for stretches the Rapids had 8 players back defending the 18 yard box. That's waaaay too deep, and explains all the shots. SKC shot poorly; nobody creates xG maps for MLS games like Michael Caley does with Champions League and EPL (I wish they did), but I would guess that SKC's xG map would indicate that they were very poor in front of goal. The Rapids are going to need to cut down on shots by opponent, and that involves the defensive mids and one attacker shielding the area 20 to 30 yards out better.
Nevertheless, the Rapids D did a good job. Burling and Miller were errorless at CB, except on Dwyer's goal, where Burling should have caught Dwyer slipping in (but hey, Dwyer pretty much does that. He's hard to stop). Burch had two game-saving blocks in front of goal and was constantly in the right place. And Dillon Serna was great at Right Back.
What if Dillon Serna is actually a Right Back?
At first I thought Serna looked a little skittish on D. After a while, I realized THAT I WAS SKITTISH about Serna being on D. Serna was buzzing around harassing Graham Zusi.
Interesting comment from the SKC broadcast team- they noted that Pablo Mastroeni spent a good portion of the game yelling instructions to Serna from the sideline; when to go, when to stay back, when to push up, when to close out, when to clear. Kind of funny. Also, it worked. Hopefully over time Serna develops those instincts over time at his chosen position. Serna, in post-game comments, stated that he knew right back "was not his position", but maybe he'll consider it as a possibility for the future.
Fans have been suggesting Serna move to fullback permanently ever since he auditioned at the position last year for the USMNT U-23 team. I think its a really good idea, although there is something of a logjam at right back. As long as everyone is healthy, which yesterday, they weren't. Also, Serna's blast that led to Gashi's goal happened only after Williams took over at RB and Serna moved up to the attack. So don't think he can do everything everywhere. He can't. But he can play multiple positions well. Which means he really needs to be on the field, in some capacity.
Right back might be best right now. Hairston is out hurt, and so is Sjoberg. Putting Eric Miller at CB gives you dependability, mobility, and distribution. Williams is probably a better fit to keep competing with Burch at LB. Anyhow, TL;DR, we should play Serna more.