With Jermaine Jones coming back, the Colorado Rapids will be making some changes to the lineup in order to fit him in in the best possible arrangement. There are at least three ways I could see that happen. Note that Pablo Mastroeni occasionally defies explanation when making certain choices - twice this season, he's only used one sub. On the other hand, his lineups for the second half of 2015 and all of 2016 have been pretty consistent. So, big grains of salt here.
Also, as much as I'd like to see something wacky, like a 5-3-2 or Patrick Viera's 3-4-3, I resisted the urge to dabble in eccentricities. These are all kinda more likely.
Lineup 1 - No Fuss, No Muss
The least creative and the most likely lineup. Micheal Azira, who is a dependable tackler and a solid d-mid, is replaced with JJ. Jermaine takes over as a more free-floating destroyer, a role that usually Sam Cronin plays, although the Rapids this season have let either d-mid roam based on the position of the ball, while the other d-mid rotates back to provide cover. I can't imagine JJ will do much 'stay-at-home' defending; it's not in his nature. This season, Dillon Powers has already done some 'total football' type switching in order to cover deep for Sam Cronin when he pushes high. Solignac in this lineup is probably a temporary fix until Kevin Doyle returns. I'm also assuming that Williams will, soon, replace Burch at LB, although Burch has been just fine up till now.
Lineup 2 - The Long Awaited Move For Dillon Powers to His Best Spot
If you're bored some night, ask Rapids twitter where Dillon Powers' best position is. Whoo boy, that's always a fun argument.
Most fans and pundits think his best position is the deep lying regista - think of Andrea Pirlo. Powers' long ball and dead ball accuracy is pretty fantastic. Letting him feed grounders and fly balls up to the attacking players from deep could single handedly change everything we've ever known about this team. Mastroeni, in a pre-season interview with Extra-Time Radio, actually said Powers would play deep, but in practice he's only spent about 10 full minutes pushed back there, at the end of a game when Dillon Serna came on in attack.
This is my favorite lineup, but it creates a few questions. First, can JJ do the defensive work without getting too itchy to get up the field on attack? Because Powers, in this system, is meant to be the more mobile, and JJ's more needed to shield the back line. That's not really Jermaine Jone's thing. Will Pablo put two d-mids on the field who are offensively minded? Can Powers provide the defensive chops he'd need to be effective while playing that deep?
And then, maybe most importantly, if Powers and JJ are to play deep, does that mean Serna or Badji will get to start on the right? This lineup is predicated on the belief that the best Rapids midfielders are JJ and Powers, Gashi Pappa and Serna. That assumes that Pablo thinks what I think: your best Rapids team has Serna on the field and Cronin on the bench. That's a leap I can't say with confidence Pablo is going to make.
Lastly, I put Badji up top here because I think his back to goal and hold-up work is better than Solignacs, marginally. Those are skills very valuable to a pacy little guy like Serna, and Serna-Badji is a partnership I think the Rapids should explore more. The two have complementary skills that I think might make both better players.
Lineup 3 - Gashi in his best position, Powers off the Bench
This one's unlikely, but interesting as a thought experiment (I couldn't help myself). Gashi is, so far, struggling to establish himself on the left side for the Rapids. He won the golden boot in the Swiss Axpo Super League in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but only just tallied once for his first time in the match against SKC.
In Switzerland, he played as a striker or central attacker, so I can't help but wonder if his inability to tickle the old onion bag isn't related to his place on the field. So - crazy idea - lets re-organize the offense around our new DP.
Pappa drifts inside frequently, so put him inside. Gashi's too small to play up top by himself, , so have him play underneath a bigger holdup forward as a Center Forward. Let Jermaine be Jermaine - task him with being the shield behind Pappa, but let him roam forward and put pressure on the defenders. The 4-4-1-1 is an offense that creates width and maximizes the importance of speed on the wings, so bring Serna and Hairston on as your speedsters.
It forces teams to tactically adjust to our game play. It also requires them to make a difficult choice: either pack the middle and defend Pappa, Gashi, and JJ, or spread out and match up against the wings - a team can't do both. I think that's smart, tactically, if only because currently, every team in league knows exactly what they're going to get when they face the Rapids, and they can prepare accordingly. We need to create some surprises; throw a wrench at other teams; be unpredictable.
This means Dillon Powers goes to the bench. Powers lack of speed makes him a liability outside, and inside, he's neither the dribble-drive threat that Pappa is, nor is he as physically imposing as a defender as Jermaine Jones. So here's what he does: if the team is winning after 65', take Pappa off and put on the more physical Powers. If the team is losing at 65', take off Jermaine Jones and put Powers on to play, since Powers' set-piece skills and overall shooting are an addition when needed. Hairston and Serna are probably not as good as Powers, overall, but they are better players wide. And sometimes sports isn't about playing your best players, its about playing the best players in their best positions.
One last thing: this formation changes the roles of the defenders. Fullbacks in a 4-4-1-1 are meant to stay deep. They've got to protect against the counter attack, since your central midfield is likely to be committed high up the field in attack. That's why I put the more defensively-minded Burch back on over Williams, but either are probably fine here, and the occasional overlap on attack has value as well.
That's it Rapids fans. If you were coaching the Rapids, which of these would you prefer?