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Backpass: When You Bring a Soup Spoon to a Knife Fight

How a sane fan and tactical nerd rationalizes being utterly demolished by Manchester City Junior.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There are two schools of thought, both as a manager and as a fan, that one could apply to Saturday’s game in Yankee Stadium against NYCFC for the Colorado Rapids.

Approach One:

This kind of thing (“s***”) happens from time to time. The Red Bulls clowned NYCFC 7-0 this season. A Red Bulls team that lost six of their first seven games of the season by a combined 15 goals to 4. Good teams have bad days. Move on dot org.

Approach Two:

The Emperor wears no clothes. A defense with the same core group of guys from 2015 that conceded 43 goals, sixth-fewest in the league, is not significantly better than they were last year, and was outperforming expectation. A backline of Burch, Sjoberg, Watts, and Williams, shielded by Cronin and Azira, was greater than the sum of its parts, but teams are starting to figure them out. Start panicking.

I’m kind of leaning towards the latter. Know, normally I’m the optimist on the BWave staff. I just can’t shake that this team looked collectively bad in ways that reminded me, individually, of each player’s limitations. Mekeil Williams was badly out of position multiple times. Jared Watts lost the plot and let Frank Lampard waltz into goal onside and unmarked. Axel Sjoberg did some ball watching. Michael Azira slid through Andrea Pirlo - a man who might very well send a magnum of the finest wine in Tuscany to the officiating crew each game - from behind early, in what might have been the poorest conceived tackle of the Rapids season. I mean, until Dominique Badji just ran over Jack Harrison in the box in the 82nd.

But, if you want the sunny Rabbi take, it’s neither of the two options above: this team isn’t bad, but this team can’t just walk away from this game with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. What happened here was we got the approach to this game terribly wrong, and we need to have more proverbial clubs in our bag for how to approach different tactical approaches.

NYC’s modus operandi this season is to play up-tempo, fast-attack transition soccer. If NYC concedes one or two, no big deal. The offense is built to score three or four. In 12 of their 24 games this season, the two teams involved scored a combined four goals or more. They’ve had four games which resulted in a 3-2 shootout.

The Rapids are not built for this kind of game. Granted, we’ve mucked up and slowed down teams who play aggressively and up-tempo this season: the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC. But once the Rapids are down a goal, that isn’t really going to work. Once you’ve lost a midfielder to a second yellow in the 37th minute, it’s all but impossible to plan to win by mucking it up.

Colorado doesn’t score a lot, and when they do score, they do it after the 75th minute. That means that smart managers with strong attacking teams should go for the throat early, knowing that Colorado has scored more than one goal in only 6 games this year. Hang two on the Rapids, and they’re as good as dead. The team hasn’t had to rely on its offense to this point. But it also hasn’t seen it’s defense get eviscerated like this either.

We aren’t built for this game, but we need to be able to either stop the high octane teams, or go toe-to-toe with them, by the time we see them in the (not jinxing it) playoffs.

Goal One

If the team was going to do its thing, and deny-deny-deny until the 75th, they had to do better than this. Here’s goal one, in two phases. Phase 1: All is well!

Jack Harrison, who is fantastic, has the ball on the right side, and Marc Burch closes him down well. Axel Sjoberg has picked him up for safety’s sake. Andoni Iraola laces one from the top of the box, and Jared Watts and Sam Cronin are there to block it. This looks like a million plays you’ve seen the Rapids handle this year, no prob. But Iraola gets the rebound, somehow, over both Sjoberg and Micheal Azira, and scoots it to the left for Andrea Pirlo, who flicks it on for Diego Martinez. Uh oh.

Martinez fires a low cross. Tommy McNamara flicks it with his head to the back post for Frank Lampard, who scores like his fourth ugly-goal of the season. Note that Mekeil Williams is marking the post on his side, but Marlon Hairston doesn’t pick up Maritinez. Jared Watts, meanwhile, isn’t really anywhere, and his drift towards the goal means that Lampard is onside. Axel Sjoberg had started to mark Tony Taylor, until he realized that Taylor was offside by a mile. But by that time, he’d misplaced Frank Lampard. Sam Cronin, as far as I can tell, is completely ball watching. It’s like a total and complete breakdown on the second ball (the phase after the first shot is blocked).

This is good final-third soccer, 101, by New York; hell, it looks more like basketball than soccer. You move the ball around the perimeter trying to catch the defense flatfooted, and in this case, that’s what happens. NYC gets the ball from right to left and back right again in a blink of an eye.

Goal Two

Micheal Azira makes a poorly timed tackle while sitting on a yellow at the 37th, after a lengthy lightning delay, and his day is done. With the Rapids down to 10 and behind by a goal, playing fierce defense and not conceding the midfield seemed to be the only way to hope to get out of the Bronx with a point. Yeah, about that...

NYC is on a restart in their own end. The Rapids decide to press high and hope to convert a mistake. Jefferson Mena, in acres of space, gives it Diego Martinez, in acres of space. Part of that is understandable, because the Rapids are down to 10 men. Part of that is not understandable, because Yankee Stadium’s soccer pitch is just 110 yards long by 70 yards wide, the smallest in MLS. Mekiel Williams comes up to meet him and (this is a recurring theme in this one) was caught in no-mans-land, unable to close down the ball, cut off the pass, or mark the runner that had gotten in behind him, Tommy McNamara, who had nearly just scored two minutes earlier. Tommy’s now got two targets making a run and only two defenders to beat. I think I had my head in my hands when the ball passed the half-way line.

Oh yeah, also watch Frank Lampard just absolutely blow by Dillon Powers down the middle of the field. W.T.F.

Tommy McNamara is all alone because Mekiel Williams has screwed up. Jared Watts and Williams try to stop him. Nobody has picked up Tony Taylor, a guy I never heard of till now. A guy filling in for David Villa. A guy that bounced around, mostly warming the bench in the Portuguese second and first division till he ended up at NYCFC. Tommy slips the ball right past Williams to Taylor, who gets blocked at first but rams it home on the second try. Axel probably had a play on it too, but, well, it was that kind of day maybe.

And That Wasn’t Even the Worst Defending

Here was the play before that one.

Here’s Pirlo-to-Taylor-to-TommyMac. That’s Tommy Mac, drawing onetwothreefourfive, defenders. Five. And then dishing the give and go to Lampard and Taylor, and nearly scoring.

This is a filthy play all around because of the passing and movement, and because of how Tommy clowns the whole Rapids team. But also: WHAT ARE THE RAPIDS DOING COLLAPSING FIVE GUYS ON TOMMY MCNAMARA. I’m a Rabbi, and I want to go on a Pablo-esque swearing jag the likes of which would get me unclergified in response to this hot mess of a play. This is like, Washington-Generals-level bad defending.

If you take anything from this whole Backpass (besides the general sense of sorrow) it’s that Jack Harrison and Tommy McNamara in the open field are absolute bloody hellbeasts. My word.

Goals Three, Four, And Five

You want me to break down the other goals? Do I have to? ARRRRRGGGGHHHH. Here’s the quick summary:

3- Badji makes a really poorly thought-out pass back to Eric Miller, who instead of receiving it, or defending the turn-over, just tumbles over instead. The Rapids, who had pulled Axel Sjoberg for Badji to go three-at-the-back and try and claw back into the game with an offensively-minded formation, are now dead in the water, without the guy that is (usually) their best defender.

4- The Rapids have a bunch of guys in the NYC box. A shot from Gashi is knocked down and played out to Jack Harrison on the right wing, with few burgundy shirts nearby to catch him. He races 50 yards, feeds an open Frank Lampard, and the Rapids are down four.

5- Badji knocks Harrison down in the box. Lampard takes the PK and earns the hat trick. Humiliations galore.

That felt awful. Pity the Rapids defenders for having to watch a video session on those - I just gave you a quick synopsis.

Offense?

The Rapids had 2 shots on target all game; only 1 that was taken inside the 18 yard box, and a fluky free-kick goal in garbage time by Shkelzen Gashi that was utterly and totally meaningless. The other 11 shots we basically long prayers launched up in desperation, mostly after we were behind 2-0. So, no, there wasn’t, in reality, any offense.

Rapids Thug Life Moment?

No. There will be no mirth and merriment in this one. I am bitter that I had to rewatch parts of this shambolic train wreck in order to bring you Backpass. It felt sick and wrong, like tuning in a snuff film. And there was nothing thuglife about this match. At some point Tim Howard bumped Tommy McNamara and threw his headband at him. Actually.

I feel ill. I’m going to drink some whiskey.

Conclusion

Hopefully we can all put this behind us and go back to our winning ways. There needs to be some learning from these mistakes, remembering the lesson of being on a big stage in New York City and utterly face planting and not wanting to do it again. There needs to be some wind sprints, and some bitter video sessions, and some anger and resolve, and maybe a few jokes and deep breaths and locker room leadership, and hopefully we come back stronger, better, and a little pissed off for Saturday night against the Whitecaps. Hell, NYCFC got schwacked 7-0 by the Red Bulls, and have gone 6-1-3 (WTL) since then, sitting top of the East.