There was a time where one of the biggest criticisms of Pablo Mastroeni was that his teams were picked seemingly by throwing darts at a roster. Back in 2014 and most of last season, players seemed to get plucked out of and placed into starting line-ups based on no discernible reason of form, fatigue or otherwise. This has, thankfully, been something that the coach has grown out of as he has evolved as a manager.
Unfortunately, the Rapids appear to be having the exact opposite problem this year, and it nearly reared its ugly head during their match against the Columbus Crew on Saturday: The Rapids are simply not rotating the squad anymore, and it's starting to catch up with the players. Anyone who watched the match yesterday will have noticed just how tired the team looked. There was little in the way of attacking action after the 15th minute of each half, and the defense routinely were losing the Crew's players -- the Crew goal in particular was one of the worst sequences for the Rapids defense in the entire Pablo Mastroeni era. The team took far too many fouls to compensate for being a step slower than the Crew as well.
Thus far the Rapids have used only 19 players through the first 12 matches of the season, and only 13 of those players have played more than 400 minutes in that stretch. In this latest stretch, where the Rapids played three matches in eight days, there were only two major changes in the line-up throughout the stretch: Shkelzen Gashi for Dominique Badji in the midweek match, and Bobby Burling for Jared Watts in yesterday's match. Past that, the line-up remained unchanged, and you could tell that, with the exception perhaps of the tireless Micheal Azira, they were feeling it in Columbus.
Part of the reason that there are so many players with only a handful of minutes is that the team has also been skimping on substitutions all season long. Most of us spent the entire match yesterday screaming for an obviously needed substitution, but one did not come until nearly the 80th minute -- even then, it was a sub for Jermaine Jones, and not one of the clearly gassed fullbacks or forwards. The second and final sub, which brought Marlon Hairston on for Marc Burch, only came because of Burch picking up an injury. This lack of substitutions has been an issue all season long. At one point of the season, before the Rapids were on their winning streak, the team was averaging .5 goals and 1.8 substitutions per match. In the 2-2 draw against Montreal earlier this season, the team made only a single substitution, which came in stoppage time. Not only are talented players like Dillon Serna and Dillon Powers not being given that many minutes to make a difference -- Powers had effectively zero impact on the match yesterday after coming in so late -- but the starters in every game are almost all playing 80-90+ minutes instead of 60-70.
Since it's still a bit early in the season, it's unlikely to mean all that much for a while. The Crew match was simply an easy way to see fatigue in the players since it was at the end of a rough eight-day stretch. The MLS season is a slog, though. If this team is as good as they're playing right now, the last thing I want to see is a Rapids team that is playing a step slower in October than they were in May because the team's best players have all played nearly every minute available.
The success of this Rapids team right now is built upon a very stout, organized defense and midfield before anything else, and an offense that is very good at pinging the ball around on the break. Both a great counter attack and an organized defense can be hurt badly by fatigue, and we saw that peek in quite a bit during the Crew match. Other than the first 15 minutes of each half, the offense generally looked tired and bereft of ideas. Thankfully, Kevin Doyle was able to take one of those moments and turn it into the goal that got the Rapids the draw, but other matches where the offense is only turned on for 20-30 minutes won't always end with such luck.
It sucks to break up things like the Cronin-Azira pairing, or the wonderfully stout defensive line of Williams-Burling-Sjoberg-Burch, but if this team is actually as improved both tactically and in morale as the Rapids are claiming through this run, three or four players getting chances every couple of matches shouldn't send them into a tailspin. (It's worth noting that other than the helter skelter Crew goal, Watts had quite a good match filling in for Burling in the only change yesterday, though it wasn't a good match to judge anyone since the team was so noticeably off their game.)
This is the first time in his Rapids coaching career that Mastroeni has found something that has worked, and worked well. The Rapids are undefeated in 7 and have several players playing as well as they ever have. If he continues to run this exact same starting XI into the ground every week, though, there's a chance that by the end of the season fatigue will have taken its course. The fitness of this team is excellent, I've no doubt of that. That said, Barcelona was the best team in Spain for the entire La Liga season but almost saw their efforts collapse near the end of the year because of a fatigued group of players that were playing nearly every match for the team all year long. And as good as the Rapids are, this team certainly isn't Barcelona.