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Backpass: Play Your Style

Columbus and Colorado are each notable this year for having a pronounced style of play. But what happens when a key piece of that style - a team's leading scorer - is suddenly subtracted?

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

If ever there was a game that displayed the possibility of a quick reversal of fortune in Major League Soccer, it was this one. At this point in the 2015 season, the Colorado Rapids were 1-7-2 (W-T-L), having gained 10 points in a series of droll 1-1 ties, en route to a bottom-of-the-conference finish. The team lacked any semblance of a scoring threat, as even leading scorer Kevin Doyle had yet to see his first minutes, and the team was fruitlessly starting either Dominique Badji or Gabriel Torres as the number 9. Columbus at this time last year were 4-2-4, with 14 points and a high powered offense led by number 10 Gonzalo Higuain, speedy flanker Ethan Finlay, and of course one of MLS' best scorers, Kei Kamara. They rode that combo to the MLS Cup final.

However, by game time Saturday, things had changed.

Crew SC came into this match only 72 hours removed from one of the most contentious stretches that any team will see in MLS in 2016. To sum up for those that missed the drama: on Wednesday, Kamara and Higuain have a big spat over a penalty kick; Columbus disintergrates with a 4-1 lead and ends up 4-4; Kamara lambasts Higuain to reporters post-game; Coach Gregg Berhalter is having none of it and rumors swirl that Kamara is on the block at the trade deadline; Kamara is sent to the New England Revolution for a stack of GAM and TAM and Superdraft picks; Columbus start their first game at Mapfre Stadium, sans their 2015 leading scorer and talisman.

The Rapids had no clear game plan in 2015 short of ‘take no risks, muck up the game, nick a goal, hang on for dear life.' But in 2016, the Rapids employ an aggressive high press I call RTD - Rapids Total Defense - and overlapping fullbacks coupled with Shkelzen Gashi, Marco Pappa and Jermaine Jones driving a slick and retooled offense.

Meanwhile, Columbus Crew's motis operandi to this point - their team identity - was a known quantity: race up the flanks, fire diagonals to Finlay, pump crosses into the box, let Kei hammer them home with his noggin.

The Crew were still doing that in this game. Except that Kei Kamara wasn't there to head them home.


CSC tried 27 crosses in the game, compared to the Rapids 18. They still looked like a solid soccer team, albeit one that never really controlled the game for any significant stretch of time. And connecting on 5 of 27 crosses isn't terrible. But it's not good either. You can be a one-dimensional attacking team if your one dimension works. Without Kamara, I'm not sure it does.

Particularly in the second half, Columbus looked more reactive to the Rapids moves than vice versa. That's something we're not used to seeing as Rapids fans: our team having a game plan while the opposition struggle to find their zen; the Rapids dictating terms at an away game to a befuddled home side.

I'm talking like the Rapids destroyed this team. They didn't. I know the score was 1-1 at the end, and for a Columbus team that are coming out of some of the worst mid-season turmoil you could ever expect for an MLS team, that's an accomplishment.

Still. This game bodes well for the Rapids going forward. Columbus... notsomuch.

In Praise of Marc Burch

I was really concerned when the Rapids started the season with Marc Burch as the only clear option at Left Back. Burch was a capable defender in 2015. His other assets include a hammer of a left footed shot, a warm rapport with fans, and the fact that he was rockin' a man-bun before the trend really caught on. His minuses were pretty pronounced for a defender: his passing was poor, and although not a plodder, he isn't particularly fast. He was, in baseball stathead parlance, a 'replacement level player'. To that point, in 2015 Colorado brought in Michael Harrington to play in front of him. When that didn't pan out, they got Maynor Figueroa. This offseason, I was so resigned to Marc Burch being an insignificant reserve player that I pretty much forgot he existed.

Marc Burch instead has played in 9 of the Rapids 12 games, equalling his total in 2015. He has made zero defensive errors leading to a goal. He's cut his fouls in half from last year to this, tallying 15 in 2015 and only 8 to this point in 2016. He has 8 Key Passes (a pass leading to a shot or goal), while Sjoberg, Williams and Burling combined have only 5. And his overall passing has clearly improved from last year to this year. Observe:



Burch's passing percentage is up 7% over last year, a significant bump. He both attempts and completes more passes, meaning he's a guy the team can rely on to be part of the attack instead of someone you'd rather not pass to. Also, his average pass length has declined, meaning that his success is partly the result of having guys to pass to nearby, instead of getting desperate and firing hopefully long diangonals, like in 2015. The improvements are notable and important.

Is Marc Burch a better left back than Marcelo Viera or Ashley Cole? Mmm, probably not. But for a 32 year old journeyman MLS defender who had been gathering cobwebs to suddenly get starting reps, show improvement, and prove to be the best backline passer for the team is a real coup. It could be the pieces around him have fallen into place, but there is no denying that Marc Burch has been as much a part of this exemplary run of form for the Rapids as the other 10 guys.

Gashi MOTM?

Shkelzen Gashi has certainly made other teams sit up and take notice in ways that Juan Ramirez never did. He drew the foul that put the Rapids in the final third for a play into the box that turned into a corner. He got the assist on that corner to Kevin Doyle. And he had a stretch in the five minutes before and five after that goal where he had two shots and three key passes. Gashi was good all game, but from roughly 46' to 70', he absolutely terrorized Columbus. This chart is Gashi's Key plays from the whole game - yellow lines are Key Passes, green circles are shots on target, red circles are off target.


He makes the threatening run, he passes beautifully, and his shooting is always dangerous. It STILL hasn't turned into the bevy of goals he saw in Switzerland, but I think it will come.

Even if he's not deserving of Man of the Match, he certainly was the man for a solid 20 minutes. More of that, please.

When that wonder goal comes, it'll be on a play like this one below - a clever run that beats the defense, a long bomb pass, and a fantastic first touch that finds the back of the net (note: that gorgeous long pass is from Jared Watts - it's a thing he does). [UPDATE: I was wrong. It's Marc Burch with a nice diagonal that sort of both underscores and defies the things I said about him above. Dammit.]

And maybe it will show up on SportsCenter (dah dah dah! Dah dah dah!)



Squad Rotation

The Rapids keep on rolling along and beating teams. But it was worrisome that the club rolled out a starting XI of primarily the usual suspects. Jared Watts appeared in the starting lineup in place of Bobby Burling, and Shkelzen Gashi was swapped Wednesday in favor of Dom Badji. All of those guys had at least four appearances this year.

The Rapids played three games in eight days last week, so rotating in some fresh players seemed like a good idea. And they did that; but not a lot.

Listen, I don't have a degree in exercise physiology. I'm not privy to the VO Max numbers for the Rapids wingers, nor the lactase buildup threshholds of Jermaine Jones. I'm not even sure I used either of those terms properly.

I do know two things. First, 34 games plus the playoffs will run down your batteries. Guys need rest. Second, if you want to be prepared in case you need more late season squad rotation because of tiredness, or in case of injury, or while players are gone during Copa America nad Euro 2016, you need to get the young guys some reps. So Pablo Mastroeni not starting the Dillons; Dillon Serna and Dillon Powers; in any of these three games was cause for concern. Marlon Hairston, Conor Doyle, and Dennis Castillo were also available.

The counter argument is: you'll be missing Kevin Doyle, Jermaine Jones, and Shkelzen Gashi for a month in the summer anyways. Use them now. That's not an insignificant notion.

But I'm worried that an exhausted Jermaine Jones comes back after the Copa and needs to be spelled by Dillon Powers, and Powers hasn't seen significant minutes since October 2015. If we need him, will he be ready to step in and be the number 10? How about rotating Azira and Cronin once in a while? Both have been absolute rocks for the Rapids, but they've also played every single minute at the d-mid spots this year: they haven't even been subbed out, in my memory. If either player goes down, what is plan B?

Rapids Cheeky Life Moment



"Chip the keeper, from my weak foot, 30 yards out, into the far upper corner? Sure, why not? I'm Jermaine Jones."