With a little over one third of the 2016 MLS regular season in the books, one of the most compelling storylines so far is the worst-to-first turnaround put together by the Colorado Rapids. The Burgundy Boys have already registered 8 league wins so far this year, after picking up just 9 wins over the entirety of last season's campaign. They are first in the Supporters' Shield standings, and remain undefeated at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The 2015 outfit found themselves 2-4-7 through 13 games. This season, the Rapids find themselves 8-2-3. Additionally, the Rapids have increased their scoring average from 0.97 goals per 90 minutes to 1.23 goals/90, and have allowed only 0.69 goals/90 in 2016 after allowing 1.26 goals/90 the previous year.
Increasing your scoring output by 25%, bettering your defensive output by 40%, and more than doubling your Points Per Game average from 1.00 to 2.08 is an incredible development. Clearly, the Rapids have either refined their methods from last year to become a more efficient, potent outfit on a game to game basis, or they must be employing an advanced, innovative system designed to play to their strengths and mask their weaknesses week in and week out. Either way, one would expect there to be some sort of analytical explanation for this massive discrepancy in performance.
However, there isn't. Despite a revitalized lineup featuring a former Golden Boot winner and a midfield stalwart of USMNT pedigree, the 2016 Colorado Rapids are actually performing the same or worse in nearly every statistical category considered to be indicative of a soccer team's success on the field.
The offseason additions of Shkelzen Gashi and Jermaine Jones have not led to an increase in offensive proficiency as one might expect from such an injection. Despite the USMNT hero's presence, as well as the former Golden Boot winner of the Swiss Super League, the Rapids have seen their possession percentage drop from 49.3% in 2015 to 48% in 2016. The quality of their possession has decreased as well. The Rapids have seen 26% of their possession occur in their attacking third, down from 29% the previous year. In fact, the Rapids are spending more time in their defensive third as compared to last season. Perhaps this is indicative of a quality counter-attacking team that moves swiftly up the field and showers their opponents in shots until they hit paydirt.
While the Rapids have increased their total shots per game from 12.3 SPG to 13.5, that is hardly a large enough increase to explain a 25% increase in scoring output. In addition, the quality of those shots has arguably decreased. The Rapids are taking a smaller percentage of their shots within the 6 yard box, and are seeing a higher percentage of their shots blocked before reaching the keeper than last year. They have completed fewer successful dribbles, and have compounded that by being dispossessed off the dribble at a higher rate than last year. While the Rapids have not greatly regressed offensively, it is nearly impossible to argue that their offense is more efficient or more potent than last year.
Luckily, the Rapids have shown that they are building this team from the back four forward over the past few offseasons. Mastroeni fancies himself a defensive-minded coach, so perhaps it is the defense that has come together to catalyze the Rapids success this season. However, another statistical deep-dive into this theory left me puzzled and wanting.
The 2016 Rapids have allowed more shots per game, committed more fouls per game, and required more tackles in their defensive third this season when compared to last season. They have won fewer aerial duels in their defensive third, have recorded fewer saves per game, and have required nearly 3 more clearances per game as compared to last season. Again, the Rapids have not gotten significantly worse on the defensive side of the ball. However, the lack of improvement in nearly any statistical category still fails to explain their recent run of positive results.
Despite the unambiguous success the Rapids have enjoyed in the Win-Loss columns this year, they are not playing better than last year's outfit from any statistical perspective. This implies that the Rapids were either extremely unlucky for 34 straight games last year (unlikely), have been extremely lucky through 13 games this year (more likely), or some combination of the two (most likely). When a team is performing at or below league average in nearly every statistical category, and find themselves at the top of the table, I am inclined to believe that the team in question is due for some regression to the mean as the season rolls on. While the midseason arrival of Tim Howard may counter this prediction, I believe the Colorado Rapids are a leading candidate to regress throughout the rest of the regular season. Whether their equilibrium is good enough to reach the MLS playoffs, and perhaps even win a round or two, remains to be seen.