An hour before kickoff, I'm at the Stout Street Bulldog tailgate, and the lady in front of me waiting to refill her frosted beverage has a Toronto FC jersey, signed by Jozy Altidore. I ask her if she came from Canada, and how she likes Denver, and if everyone is treating her alright. She DID come all the way from Canada, and she had the nicest things to say about how Rapids fans have treated her and the other travelling fans. "Much better than in Montreal", she said with a laugh.
Ten minutes before the game, I got a tweet from a guy I follow on twitter that he's at DSGP, and I tell him to stop by and say hey. Chris was by himself, so I invited him to sit with my son and I for the game. He's a Union fan, living in Austin, Texas, in town for work. He had Uber'ed to the game, so I gave him a lift back afterwards to his hotel. He was super thankful, and it was nice to connect with a fan from across the country, with a shared mutual love of the beautiful game and former Union soccer players named ‘Zac'.
This isn't really news, or a surprise. This is MLS. Being an MLS fan is a special clique that extends privileges and camaraderie between supporters all across this country. In Europe, supporters brawl and hooligan (is that a verb even?) all the time. In the NFL, a Raider fan risks their life going into Mile High donned in the black and silver.
But American soccer fans are a different breed. We support our club, and although we might razz the opposition with fervor in a match, at the end of the day, we have a mutual respect and brotherhood of like-minded folks that are also illogically obsessed with our funny little domestic league. And I think that's nice.
On to nerding out on stats and charts and gifs.
Pappa Makes Things Happen
There are a lot of ways to make a 4-2-3-1 work, or any offense, really. Soccer isn't foosball- the players have to move back and forth, alternating between dribbling, passing, and running off the ball in order to create the angles and shapes that allow the ball to progress forward without being impeded by the defending team.
Last year, a major problem the Rapids experienced was an inability to advance the ball through the center of the pitch. The wings were often available, due to the speed of Ramirez and Sanchez, but they often dead ended in wayward crosses or got trapped in the corners. It would take a week of tape watching and tracking to tell you this objectively, but by my estimation, something like 80% of Rapids possessions in 2015 including one of the two following scenarios: Version A) Centerbacks push the ball out to the wings. Wings advance the ball near half-way and pass into Cronin or Sarvas. Middle is choked off. Ball goes back to the wings or into the corners. Or version B) Ball goes out to the fullback. All lanes are clogged. Long ball over the top or diagonally. The disjointedness and sheer inability to advance the ball through the midfield, in this writer's humble opinion, was the most crippling aspect of the 2015 Rapids.
That's why Marco Pappa has been such a lift for this team. He drops back to receive the ball deep quite often, and can be relied upon to bring it back up effectively. Sure, Powers and Sarvas and even Doyle would come back deep for the ball last year. But not, you know, effectively. Observe below:
Pappa got that ball deep, slashes into the heart of the defense, and catches Solignac almost perfectly timed ( he *might* have been a smidge offside). Solignac finishes it too! That series starts with Axel Sjoberg, playing it to Marc Burch. Burch plays it across to Azira. Azira plays it across to Pappa, who had come back for the ball, and voila. Goal.
Note a couple other things: Pappa has come central, even though he's really a right wing; that happy guy ‘skipping' backwards is Sam Cronin, who had floated high when Pappa dropped deep, and is now rotating back to provide defensive cover. Cronin flexed high a lot in this one. Also, Gashi and Pappa, as in past weeks, flipped sides a couple times. That fluidity: fullbacks pressing high, central mids dropping deep or floating wide or swapping left -> central, right -> left, etc; is something we didn't see as much last year. Whether that's the influence of Marco Pappa and Shkelzen Gashi being given the green light to roam, or whether that's John Spencer, offensive coordinator, I don't know. But it helps.
Grain of salt: yes, I know the goal came after the Benoit Cheyrou red card, and that can't be ignored. Still, Toronto adjusted by going to a fairly standard 4-4-1 when Cheyrou was sent off, and it didn't stop the Rapids from driving a stake right through their midsection.
Responding to a Bunkered Defense
Before the sending off, TFC played a high press that forced the Rapids to play long ball and go out to the corners. But after the red, Toronto FC reorganized and played not to concede. It didn't last long, although they tried.
TFC really did their darnedest to keep the middle impassible, putting three right into the central attackers' way. That's why Pappa coming back while sending Cronin up was so effective. But it's also why that didn't work the rest of the way. The Rapids were forced into the corners and wide for most of the rest of the game. Here are key passes from the second half to illustrate a little.
That's six shots inside the 18 yard box, on three corners, one cross from Marc Burch, and a couple of attempted putbacks. The Rapids earned eight corners total, but couldn't convert. TFC defended well and denied the middle after letting in that first goal, but through some decent Rapids defending, good goalkeeping, and more than a little offensive ineptitude by Toronto, the Rapids weren't burned by TFC solid defense and scraped by with the 1-0 win.
A Pivotal Pivot Man
Quick: who led the Rapids in touches, passing percentage and total passes?
Not him either.
It was Micheal Azira.
He was the guy the offense ran through, both to start attacks, to recycle to the middle, and even to find the most open man in the final third.
Having a dependable midfield anchor who can stomp out attacks and calmly and reliably distribute the ball is an underrated asset, but while it ain't flashy, every team needs a guy who can't be knocked off the ball and will keep the offense linked up and moving, even though he won't finish in the MLS MVP or Golden Boot race.
It's likely Azira that loses his spot to Jermaine Jones in a few weeks, with Cronin moving into that ‘anchor' spot while Jermaine roams. But I think a case could be made for giving Azira a shot there too. Steady and unspectacular is a valuable thing. In case you're wondering, here is what his passing map looked like.
68/75 on passing, with circulation coming all over the field. And he had a slick key pass to Dillon Powers, who couldn't finish.
Not bad for a lunchpail-type
Last time the Rapids faced TFC back in 2015, Clint Irwin gave up a howler, and Sebastian Giovinco scored a brace against the Rapids. This time, he was pretty much out on an island, often bodied up by Axel Sjoberg or Bobby Burling, who, at 6'7" and 6'5" respectively made quite a sight over the diminutive Giovinco. He was effectively neutralized until the last 15 minutes, when the addition of Jozy Altidore and the general tiring and opening up of the field during frantic attacks and counter attacks made the Rapids defense open up more. Giovinco got at least three or four chances on the ball, but couldn't convert. The Rapids, however, were a bit lucky to escape with all three points, considering the openings they gave Toronto.
Gashi on Team of the Week (?)
Shkelzen Gashi made MLS' Team of the Week, due to a possible typo (they say he had three key passes, but Opta says its one). Or possibly due to something called the ‘Audi Player Index', which I've seen promoted and don't pretend to understand. It might be a good indicator of performance. It might be a random number spit out of a henhouse feather sorting program. Only Audi knows.
Gashi had five shots: four were blocked and the fifth was 8 feet over the goal. His one key pass was not significant either, resulting in a Cronin blocked shot. I thought Gashi was mostly invisible this game, although he was a reliable passer. He was fine. As you saw from the whoscored.com chart above, he was the lowest rated player by their 0-10 'Rating' metric. Which I put more stock in than the Audi Chicken Feather Counter.
I appreciate the Rapids got a guy in the 'player of the week' race, but Marco Pappa would've been a better choice. Luis Solignac too.
Dillon Serna came on at the 85th. He had a great run and pass off to Badji which was wasted on an errant shot. Then, on a quick run and feed from Sam Cronin, he did this:
The Rapids spent 7 whole minutes with Serna central in attack, Cronin and Powers sitting deep. It's a setup I suggested back in the doldrum days of 2015, when the team was bad and nothing else worked- play Serna in the middle and Powers deep. Although the sample size was small, Serna looked slick in that role once again. I have yet to meet a Rapids fan that doesn't want to see more Serna- if not starting on the wing or even in the middle, then please, Pablo, off the bench...
... @StormInMay certainly wants me to say something nice about Luis Solignac, who scored his first MLS goal after a 2015 season of futility. OK. It was a nice goal. Boy gotta do it again this week, though, or it proves nothing more than the old 'a broken watch is right twice a day' axiom. That said, he looked pretty at home up top, and maybe mixing him and Gashi there won't be such a drop off in the month or two we'll be without Kevin Doyle, he of the' The Walking Dead'-style selfies of exposed ankle flesh bone and sinew...
... "You're a USMNT international? You played in the Barclays Premier League? That's nice. STFD. My name is Axel Sjoberg. Recognize."