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Backpass: Be yourself

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Wherein we learn that the Shakespearean maxim ‘To thine own self be true’ applies to soccer teams as well

MLS: Colorado Rapids at FC Dallas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was griping about another employee: essentially, that he wasn’t able to change, wasn’t capable of certain things, could be something other than what he was.

Knowing the employee’s limitations as well as his strengths quite clearly, I responded as such:

“A duck is a duck, and it can’t be a fish.”

This is not an indictment of ducks. Ducks are fine. Ducks do what they do very well. But you can’t expect them, regardless of training or effort or desire, to become something they can not be. The Colorado Rapids are who they are, and being something else just isn’t in the cards.

What they are is a very good defensive soccer team - the best in MLS this year, having surrendered only 24 goals in 27 games. They defend fiercely all over the park, especially in their own half. When appropriate, the Rapids press high in small numbers, often producing turnovers in dangerous spots that they can convert into goals - just ask Sporting Kansas City. Their backline clears crosses with ferocity -#SwedishMissleDefense. When they score, it’s on a burst of speed against the run of play, or the occasional cracker from outside the box. But it isn’t often.

Fans get to hand wringing about the team’s lack of goals; the Rapids have only 29, second-to-worst in MLS.

Guys, a duck is a duck, and it can’t be a fish.

This is not a team that scores a lot of goals. We have to be ok with that. It could be the team is exceedingly defensive-minded, and it cuts down on their expeditionary flair. It could be the lack of quality finishing among the attackers. It could be that the team doesn’t generate a ton of chances - they currently sit 9th in MLS in Key Passes with 270.

This team wins with ironclad, lockdown defense. We can wish for more goals, or a more open attack, or the occasional game marked by beautiful, flowing soccer. But that’s not our style. We are a punishing, physical, well organized defensive soccer team. It’s time to come to grips with that and embrace it.

You may be saying to yourself, ‘Yeah, duh, Rabbi, everybody knows that. This is Pablo Mastroeni’s team.’

What I mean by this, dear fans, is: give in to the Mastronaccio. Submit to the will of the 2016 edition of the club. Stop pining for the days of yore, when a blazing Jamaican or a shiny-domed savior would pound 10 or more goals into the net. No, this team is not going to score more than 1 or 2 goals a game (the team has scored 2 goals five times, and scored 3 goals only once.) We are who we are, and in a certain way, that has its own beauty.

The Maze with No Exit

I say all this because the Rapids, of course, stole all three points against FC Dallas in Toyota Park, marking Dallas’ first home defeat of the year. And Colorado did it, as I’ve alluded to above, with stifling defense. They frustrated Dallas into maybe two good chances in the first half; Dom Badji got a great goal by beating Walker Zimmerman all to hell at the 52nd minute; and the team kept it organized till the final whistle.

I’ve been itching to break down the fantastic play of our defensive midfielders, Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin, all season, but other players have risen to be more deserving of praise. In this one, though, the dynamic duo were the thing that suffocated the Dallas attack all night. I’ll tell the story in three gifs and one diagram. Sure, the defense wasn’t perfect - in the first five minutes there were two near-disasters. But overall, the Rapids came in pushed Dallas around in their own house all night.

D-Mid ShutDown Party, Part I

Watch this a while. It’s hypnotic.

Le Toux steps to Atiba Harris, who passes to Ryan Hollingshead. Hollingshead drops it for a give-and-go back to Harris. Azira presses Harris into retreating backwards. Dom Badji reads his movement and runs in to press the next recipient, Walker Zimmerman. His rough first touch nearly causes a turnover in a bad spot, so with nothing left to do, Zimmerman shields the ball and launches it back to GK Chris Seitz. Seitz would launch a long ball for naught, and the Rapids harass their way to a turnover. Notice also on this play how Sam Cronin rotates over to fill the midfield and cut off an option to Victor Ulloa. It’s a great example of one-man pressing with players off-the-ball filling the dangerous spaces and limiting Dallas’ options.

D-Mid Shutdown Party, Part II

Here’s a three-part diagram of some Rapids giving Big D... the D.

Phase One. Dallas has the ball at the midway line. Azira (22) and Cronin (6) have sealed the middle, while Le Toux (7) and Dillon Powers (8) are squeezing playmaker Kellyn Acosta (23).

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Phase Two. So Acosta (23) will drop the ball off for Atiba Harris (14) and run on. Le Toux (7) will cover Harris and close down the lane to Acosta. Azira (22), Cronin (6) , and Marc Burch (4) have Hollingshead (12) and Getterson (9) covered. Not many options except to go long maybe, or wait for another option to open up.

...

Phase Three. Victor Ulloa (8) charges up and Harris crosses to him. Look at the pointing arms: Azira is telling Marlon Hairston to close off the pass up to the forward. Azira closes the runner and Cronin has denied the pass to the right side. The only thing for Ulloa to do is fire a high ball up to the forwards on the left, but he can’t find the pass. Threat averted. Defense prevails again.

D-Mid Shutdown Party, Part III

Here’s Matt Hedges getting into space at a dangerous moment with a lot of options. In about two-seconds, the Rapids would close down all available options.

Hedges has room, but Marlon Hairston would quickly close him down, and with Hedges as the second to last defender, he wasn’t about to try and take on MarlyG alone. So he checks down looking for options. Ryan Hollingshead is almost open, but Micheal Azira closes down that passing line right quick. So Hedges keeps running; Azira picks him up, and Sam Cronin closes down the next available pass, to Getterson. There’s a brief window where maybe a good pass can be had to Maxi Urruti, although he’s mostly smothered by Axel Sjoberg. Hedges doesn’t see it, and fires a pass - too late and too long - to (I think?) Tesho Akindele. No dice. Rapids close all the trap doors and shunt the Hoops into a no-win situation.

D-Mid Shutdown Party, Part IV

It’s nice to close down passing lanes and cover your man. But it’s even better to strip the ball and turn defense into offense. All the better if you do it against a player like Mauro Diaz, a pundit-favorite for dark horse MLS MVP. Azira steps up and takes the ball off his man, and only some Matt Hedges two-on-one emergency defending (and some not-very-good coordination between Azira and Hairston) would keep this ball out of the net.

Pablo Mastroeni has received harsh criticism for his lack of creativity in forming a plan, but I think he’s getting it right. ‘Defending deep’ is the thing we all know he does. But selectively pressing in ones and twos high up the pitch is another hallmark of the Mastronaccio. Pablo’s game plans this year have been effective and good, especially when the team is drawn 0-0 or up 1-0. When we go down a goal, well, that’s another discussion for another Backpass.

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All in all, the Rapids defensive midfield did an exemplary job of killing Dallas all night. This is how we won so many games up till now, if the recent skid had you forgetting. In the end, the Rapids defense succeeded on the night in closing down the middle, pushing the ball into the corners or sides, then squeezing and pressing to regain control. Their offense was very conservative, and seemed mostly dedicated to not stretching into positions that would be easily exploitable in the event of a turnover. You rarely saw either defensive midfield come up in attack, and never saw both sally forth. That’s who we are. And that’s how we win. Let’s not get away from who we are. In this fan’s opinion, it’s the only way this team is going to win MLS Cup.

Rapids Thuglife Moment

Giving your all for the club - going in for a 50-50 that you know might hurt like hell - that’s the Rapids way. I’ve highlighted Micheal Azira doing great things all over this Backpass, but damn if Sam Cronin doesn’t embody the ethos of the 2016 Rapids more than anything. What I wouldn’t give to have seen a full season of Jermaine Jones and Sam Cronin sacrificing their souls for the good of the club.

Sam Cronin is the flesh and blood embodiment of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Head Like A Hole’:

Head like a hole/

Black as your soul/

I’d rather die/

Than give you control/

Bow down before the one you serve/

You’re going to get what you deserve

The rest of the Western Conference is on notice. We’d rather die than give you control.