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Backpass: Tim Howard’s Real Debut

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Rapids hang in there for their 15th straight unbeaten. How did we even get that point?

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Rapids eked out a 1-1 draw against a tremendously talented FC Dallas side on Saturday night. Dallas had stretches, roughly from 20’-32’ and again from 55’-80’ where they looked the steadier of the two teams, on both sides of the ball. The game confirmed my perspective on MLS this year (and, to be honest, last year) - Dallas is the team to beat. Dallas’ offense wasn’t quite as overwhelming as usual: they certainly weren’t as dangerous without winger Fabian Castillo, who was in the midst of being sold to Trabzonspor in the Turkish first division. Dallas should be fine: heck, they handled the Rapids pretty well on the road without Castillo. And the hoops can probably fill that hole with one of their talented academy player or a crafty transfer window purchase. Especially considering Dallas is now $4 million richer.

One thing that has surprised me a little - Rapids fans reactions. One year ago, Colorado was pretty much dead in the water. A three game win streak around the All Star Game lent false hope to the faithful that we might still make it into the playoffs. Obviously, it wasn’t to be.

This year, the team sits second. The Rapids play with a specific approach each and every game. The Rapids are (dare I say) comfortably in position to make the playoffs. And yet I’ve read a half dozen articles and comments that our offense is troubled, or that we need to make a move at the transfer window.

As much as I agree we should add a striker before the window closes next week , remember how far we’ve come from last year, and rejoice. It’s OK to worry a little, guys, but don’t be too English about it; melancholy without cause does not befit us. We’re Coloradans. We brag about how much sunshine we get, even though some of that sunshine comes through after three days of snow, or precedes a hailstorm that dents your car. This team is a glass half full, or better, a pint of beer 3/4 full. Enjoy it.

Tim Howard is the Real Deal

The Democratic National Convention had a litany of high powered politicians speechifying out in Philly yesterday, auditioning for future roles as President, Cabinet Secretary, maybe even Supreme Court justice. One position that has been filled and remains occupied is Secretary of Defense.

Tim Howard put on a keeper clinic Saturday, stopping everything sent at him. He finished the night with 2 catches, 5 saves. He looked eminently steady and relaxed, and although only one shots really necessitated a long stretch, much of that can be owed to Howard’s superior positioning. Being in the right place to stop a shot is as valuable as having the reactions to stop it. Howard did both and made it look easy. Dallas might have won it 2-1 or even 3-1 with a less effective keeper.

This is the first time I’ve written a word about Tim Howard since he joined the team. Partly that’s a lingering hangover from my strongly held belief that, although Howard is an excellent keeper, paying a league-record $2.5 million a year and giving a DP slot to a goalie isn’t the best use of the teams resources. It’s partly the knowledge that Howard is a ‘big name’, meant to make the turnstiles spin a little faster and the cash registers jingle a bit more. I’ve also shied away from writing about Howard because, well, everyone else has been writing and writing about Howard. The MLS and Rapids PR and marketing team were working 100% to make a splash with Tim Howard, and that means the Mark Kiszlas and Andrew Wiebes of the world are doing press for Howard. I’m fine here, blogging in my mom’s basement.*

But Howard was fantastic, and that wasn’t even a ‘stand on your head’ performance. It was the first time he was really tested as the Rapids keeper, and he was excellent. In addition to his saves and box command, his distribution is fantastic. He started at least three plays with a fast-play throw into the offense. Last week, he had a 70-yard drop kick right to Kevin Doyle who ran in on goal; the kind of play I hadn’t seen from any of our previous keepers the past three years. In honor of Tim’s first big game, here’s a GK supercut of all his saves.

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Tim Howard supercut!

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It’s the Shimmy

Marlon Hairston scored his second goal in two games. Looking at his passing and shooting maps, he didn’t actually do much else of note in this game. That doesn’t matter when you finish at the rate he has the past two games - 2 goals on 4 shots. How has he done it? Trickery. Here’s the July 23rd goal:

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and here’s the July 16th goal:

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Look at that shimmy (those shimmies? He does it in both games). You can call it a shoulder-bob. Or a deek. Or a head-fake. (That’s throwball, hockey, and basketball parlance for those scoring at home.)

Marlon Hairston uses practiced deception to burn defenders and keepers alike. We’ve seen Kevin Doyle in on goal like that many times before, and be unable to convert. Doyle’s good at other things- poaching near-post, or a top-of-the-box shot. But Marly has put two world-class burns on, in back to back weeks.

He still has work to do. In this game, his off-the-ball movement seemed to keep him a bit isolated, and he didn’t receive the ball as much as a result. But he’s pretty much forced the clubs hand: this much scoring in a short period means Marly’s the presumptive starter for Saturday versus NYCFC.

One last note: Hairston started this game at right midfield, then was flipped to the left side about 15 minutes in; flipped back right to start the second half, and flipped back again. That’s a thing the Rapids have done, and here it paid dividends. BOTH of Marly’s two goals this year come from the left side as a right footed attacker. I see you workin’, John Spencer.

Diaz. In. Spaaaaaaaace!

The defensive midfield did a lot of great work keeping an eye on Mauro Diaz this game. There were lots of moments when Azira checked to him, or passed him on to Cronin or Sjoberg. Here’s one where, off a restart on the sideline, Diaz gets into space, and Gashi, Burch, and Azira get quickly back to close him down.

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And then, uh, there was this...

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In the 83rd minute, Sam Cronin aggressively comes to close down #16, Coy Craft, way up the field, maybe trying to force the issue and get the Rapids that late, great game winner. He threads it through to a wide-open #23, Kellyn Acosta, who also makes a scintillating pass to #10, Mauro Diaz, who is in tons of space. Micheal Azira is caught in no-mans-land; he wasn’t high enough to close off Acosta’s pass or deep enough to defend Diaz, one of MLS’ most dangerous players, with the field open before him. He hits the perfect pass to #21, Michael Barrios, and only the heroics of Tim Howard (it’s above in the GK Supercut) keep the Rapids alive.

In the stadium, this moment nearly killed 18,000 people dead on the spot - it came only minutes after the Dallas equalizer on the screamer from Ulloa. Lots of twitterati thought that moment was unforgivable: the Rapids look flat coming for a second ball, Cronin doesn’t close down, Dallas equalizes. I’m more forgiving. Sure, they should have done better on the goal, but that’s a damn laser of a shot from Ulloa. Respect must be given.

But this play above with Diaz? C’mon. This guy’s a killer. The team can’t be giving him space. The last time I saw this was last year against Toronto FC, when Sebastian Giovinco absolutely clowned us in the first half. The repeated inability for us to keep it tight against the leagues best number tens makes me uneasy. We aren’t learning our lesson.

Cronin and Azira are the heart and soul of the team this year, and they’ve been the thing that defines the team’s success and style of play. But that means they have to be that much better against the league’s best, or we aren’t destined to go far. I know they’ll be watching tape of this during the week with Pablo. From my attendances at practice, I’d expect Mr. Mastroeni will have utilized the ‘f’ word many times in reference to this play.

Whither the offense?

If you were a bit disappointed by our offense and wonder why it wasn’t effective on the night, look at this.

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Here’s all our take-on dribbles in the opponent’s half on the night:

  • 3 failed dribbles from Doyle.
  • 5 failed dribbles from Powers.
  • 2 failed dribbles from Gashi.
  • 1 successful dribble from Hairston (around Chris Seitz for the goal).

That’s a function of Dallas playing a little deep, but also our players on the night relying on their foot-speed to create chances, instead of crosses or passes. Which is fine, if our speediest and most technical players (Hairston, Gashi, Pappa) are making those attacks. We didn’t succeed at all, and so the plan was clearly deficient. Powers is the biggest culprit, one week after I said a bunch of nice things about him. I am cursed.

All respect again to Dallas though. Castillo and Diaz get so much praise, MLS fans often forget how good Dallas is all over the field. Here are Dallas’ tackles in their own half:

Number 7 is Carlos Gruezo, and he generally plays as a lone d-mid behind Diaz and Acosta, and man, is he good. Atiba Harris, #14, had that one gaffe, but he made a bunch of critical stops. Walker Zimmerman, #25, steps off the backline to snuff out Powers, too.

Dallas’ offense is nice, but it’s not more impressive to me than Toronto FC or the Red Bulls. The defense though? Good luck getting through that, especially when Gruezo is on like he was.

Rapids Thuglife Moment

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There’s ‘good thug’ and ‘bad thug’. Here’s Sam Cronin, on a yellow, pulling his man down by his arm and nearly stomping him. When the ball goes out, Cronin yells at the AR for calling it out on him.

Chill out Sam. You ain’t much good to us in the showers in the 31st minute.


* Note: I do not live in my mother’s basement.