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Backpass: Don’t Let the Dread Seep In

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There’s a lot of negativity in this post. Especially towards a certain Irish striker.

MLS: Sporting KC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As my fortieth birthday approaches, my father asked me what I wanted as a gift. Considering the Rapids unlikely turnaround from league doormats in 2014 and 2015 to Supporters Shield contenders in 2016, I have begun in my head to make a plan for my birthday to involve an away game for the playoffs.

My dad called this week, and I told him this: “As it stands today, the Rapids might have a first round game against maybe Los Angeles, or Seattle, which would be great places to visit. Or maybe Kansas City. Which would suck. Of course, now that I’ve started making plans for the playoffs, it is entirely possible that the Rapids will lose the next ten games and miss the playoffs entirely.”

This is either attempting to recognize the possibility that I have jinxed the team by making playoff plans, or just the inevitable pessimism that comes with regularly supporting a sports team with a history of failure.

You see, when I was 11 in 1988, my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers made it to the World Series, and my father took me to game one. Even if you don’t really follow baseball, you might have heard of that game. Kirk Gibson hit a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs and two strikes to win. Yes, I experienced what certainly will be the greatest sporting moment of my life when I still hadn’t even hit puberty.

Since then, the Dodgers have been an endless assembly-line of disappointment: a lot of .500 seasons, and lately a few playoff runs. Each of those was ended by either Philadelphia or St. Louis.

In fact, in 2008, the Dodgers were in the National League Championship Series, and I decided that I could finally afford to repay the gift my father had given me as a kid: I ordered two tickets to the World Series. The Dodgers lost to Philadelphia in 5 games - no World Series for them. I still have the tickets.

Is it a jinx to buy tickets to a playoff game that isn’t assured? Is it wrong to plan for success if one should reasonably expect failure?

The Rapids had, until Friday night, the best points per game record in MLS. Their defense has been exceptional. Offense, less so. But still, fans could be considered totally within their rights to start planning for the post season.

With the loss Friday, the Rapids have only 2 points from the past three games, and are just 1-3-2 (WTL) over the past six games. Only New England and Vancouver have collected fewer points in that time. We’re 11 points above seventh place San Jose, but 8th place Seattle look like a dragon that just awoke from a 20 game slumber, and the rest of the Western Conference might look at the Rapids current string of results like chum in the water. Add two or three losses to this team, and the future starts to look murkier.

The sunny optimism and outright joy from the beginning of the season is making way for a sense of existential dread that coincides eerily with the browning, drying out death of the early autumn. Things are getting crinkly and look less vibrant in my front yard. And also, my football club.

I must stave off the dread.

We can get 3 points on the road without our internationals.

We can go into Dallas and get a result.

I must stave off the dread...

Kevin Doyle Did Nothing

So here’s all the shots, passes, and dribbles of our million-dollar DP striker Kevin Doyle from Friday.

I’d love to say that this kind of performance: no successful dribbles, no shots on target, no significant offense generated in the final third; was an isolated thing. It’s not. Doyle hasn’t really been of great help to this team this year. Which has led me to this very serious and (brace yourself) long-winded (but well-supported with data!) rant...

I’m Done With Kevin Doyle

Since Arsenal were able to blow out Watford in just 45 minutes, I could spend the second half of that EPL match pondering a question on my mind after Fridays offensively-challenged defeat in Rio Tinto: over the past two seasons, how bad has Kevin Doyle been?

Answer: pretty bad.

Let’s start by comparing him with the Top-Half of MLS forwards - starters; regular goal scorers; generally the top man on each club...

xG stands for ‘expected goals’, a metric that measures how often a player should score when a shot is taken from a given position, normalized to 1.0. The players listed are the top nineteen scoring forwards in MLS, in order of 2016 goals. Plus Kevin Doyle, who is not the 20th best scorer in MLS this year (he’s tied for 44th). Orange highlights players that perform in that stat very well. Blue highlights players that perform poorly at that stat. Red is highlighting how insane Drogba’s year was in 2015.

Doyle is simply not in the upper echelon of MLS scorers over the past two years, by any metric. His fellow forwards absolutely outpace him in goals scored, and not just the elite ones, like Sebastian Giovinco and Dom Dwyer. No, even the less heralded guys are better than Doyle.

Chris Pontius was hurt, or playing poorly, and really a winger, in 2015. And yet he’s rebounded for Philadelphia and has been better over the same two year stretch than Kevin Doyle. Joao Plata was also below-par in 2015, but has played solidly in 2016 to prove it was a fluke. Maxi Urruti was a late-game sub for Portland for all of 2015, but still collected more goals than Doyle over that time.

Moving to the middle column, you see players xG (expected goals) numbers, which tell you, based on shot position, how much they SHOULD have scored. What you see is that the only top forwards in MLS over two years with below 6.00 xG are Kevin Doyle and Giovani Dos Santos. Dos Santos often plays more like a number 10, so maybe you can forgive his poor xG for that reason. Or you could look at his goals and say: math dictates that he should have scored a paltry 6.68 goals in the past two years, yet he has 12 goals - dude can finish.

Kevin Doyle, meanwhile, doesn’t score much. And his xG indicates that he can’t find his way into a shooting position much, either. Doyle’s 55 shots put him second on the Rapids, and isn’t that far off the normal pace for an MLS striker. But Jordan Morris has 59 shots and 9 goals. Chris Wondolowski has 48 shots, and 9 goals. Doyle has just four goals.

Doyle, then, is a combination of a striker than doesn’t get into position enough to score AND doesn’t finish at an above average rate either. Guys like David Villa get themselves into a tremendous number of opportunities to score. Guys like Robbie Keane finish at a ridiculously high rate. Doyle does neither.

Now let’s compare Doyle with a couple of the bottom half of MLS forwards - but only the ones that regularly start. Comparing him with guys that hardly even make the 18 skew the numbers.

Forwards with comparable Goals/90 rates this year include Dom Oduro (0.22), Will Bruin (0.26), Kennedy Igboananike (0.22), Quincy Amarikwa (0.16), Luis Solignac (0.24), and Nelson Valdez (0.0).

Oduro has the speed of Usain Bolt but the finishing of a drunken stormtrooper. Will Bruin plays for the worst team in MLS. He’s also notoriously streaky, but hasn’t found a streak this year. Igboananike was unloaded for basically nothing to DC. Amarikwa can be electric at times, but with only 21 goals in 5 MLS seasons, has never lived up to his potential. I don’t think any striker wants to be considered a comparable player to Luis Solignac, who missed one of the most wide open chances of the season last week, condemning Chi-Town to a 2-2 tie against LA. Nelson Valdez’ inability to score through 17 games is making him look like the bust of the year.

In short, this is a list of bad finishers you do not want to be on. The teams these players start for are either below the red line or on a bad skid in that direction.

On top of all that is Doyle’s salary of $1.1 million a year, and the fact that he takes up one of the Rapids three precious DP slots. The Rapids could have a DP winger, or d-mid, or striker, or anything, instead of Doyle, while playing a youngster or an MLS vet at striker, who would almost certainly produce better results than Kevin Doyle. Maxi Urruti was available in the MLS Re-Entry draft. Chad Barrett was a free agent. Jack McInerney and Kei Kamara and Patrick Mullins were all traded this season around MLS. Meanwhile we still have a fabulous backup GK warming the bench. That trade-bait is now useless, since the transfer window is now closed.

Do not tell me Doyle has a great work rate, or presses well. When Hairston presses, he steals the ball and scores. Gashi can press. Hell, anyone on the CU cross-country team can run around real good for 90 minutes.

And don’t tell me Doyle drags defenders with him to create space for other players. Sure, he does that some times. But so do Drogba and Wondolowski. They also put the ball in net. Doyle doesn’t.

Yes, the Rapids were (and still are) at the top-end of the MLS table, and changing horses mid-race is clearly a radical move. But with the team now slumping and a lack of goal scoring a major culprit, dropping your under-performing striker doesn’t seem like an unthinkable move anymore.

Is my reaction a sudden one on the back of this disappointing game? No. I’ve ranted about Kevin Doyle Many. Times. Before.

I was skeptical from the beginning.

Consider this my last time doing it. Sure, it’s entirely possible he’ll score 5 more to finish the year and make me eat my words. But short of a miraculous resurrection of epic proportions, I am done with Kevin Doyle.

The Alternative: Striker By Committee

“So ok Mr. Smart Rabbi Guy. You drop Kevin Doyle. You’ve traded Luis Solignac. Who plays striker?”

Anybody. Lemmee esplain.

The Rapids have played a quirky up-front bunch of dudes this season, doing quirky things. Jermaine Jones spent his first few games as a Rapid being the number 10 that charged into the box like a number 9. Lately, Shkelzen Gashi has done the same thing. He’s also been playing lately as a number 10 that likes to drift out to the left. Marlon Hairston is a winger that loves to cut in. Marco Pappa does Marco Pappa things wherever you play him on the pitch.

Meanwhile, the Rapids have routinely flippity-floped their wingers at least once a half. It means the team has adopted a certain fluidity to their attack, at least horizontally. So why not do it vertically too?

Start four guys - three mids and a striker - that take turns rotating into and out of the number 9 role. Marly can start up high, and just when he starts dragging defenders with him, someone else - Badji, Gashi, whoever - starts making the most advanced run. Keep ‘em guessing. Don’t let ‘em know who your striker is. To some degree, that might make the 4-2-3-1 play in some ways like a 4-2-4, especially when the team is behind and pressing for a goal. I’m ok with that. This is Total Football, just reserved to the front four.

It’s not my idea. Arsenal did it this weekend - Alexis Sanchez, who normally plays on the right wing, started up top, but roamed wherever the hell he wanted. That let Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott rotate and fill and play free-form soccer in a beautiful, jazz music kind of way. Lots of teams do lots of interesting things instead of utilizing a lone striker in a monolithic fashion. It could work. It can’t produce any few goals than we’ve already generated at the number 9 spot to date.

Meanwhile, you sit Kevin Doyle, and bring him on as your 75th minute sub. Maybe he finds his groove as the late spark.

Maybe.

Rabbi, Did you Even Watch this Week’s Game?

Oh you betcha. Gashi had another tremendous goal and then we spent 82 minutes defecating all over ourselves. We played good soccer for the first and last ten minutes and 70 minutes of crap in between. And Tim Howard did this:

...

Without that (and Yura Movsisyan blowing it) we lose that one 4-1, or worse. That’s because Juan ‘Burrito’ Martinez did stuff like this all game:

...

...

When you’ve got two guys that can take two defenders at once out of the game with slick dribbling, all you need is a little finishing and you’re toast. Add to that Aaron Maund and Justin Glad and Kyle Beckerman sealing everything off defensively, and you’re dead meat.

Bye bye, Rocky Mountain Cup.

Last Bit of Dread

One way to chalk this whole thing up is on injury. The Rapids haven’t had Jermaine Jones since July 4th, and he’s missed 14 of the past 15 games overall. Electric youngster Marlon Hairston picked up a knock right before the game began. Without those two big pieces, this offense isn’t the same.

It gets worse next week, as the team will be without Marco Pappa, Shkelzen Gashi, Jermaine Jones, Mekeil Williams, and Tim Howard, all out on international duty. If Hairston’s still hurt, we’re looking at an attacking four of K. Doyle, Dom Badji, Dillon Powers, and ??? . No, seriously, I have no idea.

Maybe it gets worse before it gets better.

Finally...

Could Caleb Calvert step in and become the new striker this team needs if they sit Kevin Doyle?

Maybe.