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Backpass: The Softness and the Sorrow

Let us mourn 2017 a little. Go on, put on your fuzzy slippers, make some cocoa, and allow yourself to be sad.

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Rapids played well on Saturday, but my heart wasn’t in the game, really. Attendance was not great, and as a result, it was a little quieter, a little softer, and a little less ebullient than previous games. Those visual and auditory cues are palpable, visceral indicators of our team’s position in the league table. Lots of full season ticket holders, deciding not to show up, even when they have tickets to the match. I can’t say I blame them, but it mutes the energy.

The press box and the press conference room were little better. The season began with dozens of reporters and photographers excited to cover a Rapids team coming off a great 2016. But now, with this season’s travails and the beginning of hockey, basketball, and throwball season, the media attention for the Rapids has drastically dwindled. An off-the-record conversation with a person in the know informed me of something I already knew: even official MLS coverage of the Rapids is essentially in ‘we don’t really care’ mode. This is life outside of the playoffs. This is life at the bottom of the table.

Maybe this is less about the Rapids than my own emotional state, but like many irrational middle-aged males in America, my mood and my sports team are mystically and inextricably linked. I carry the Rapids disappointing season a little too close to my heart, and there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it.

I watched the game and dutifully turned in a recap, much as the players dutifully (and really, pretty admirably) worked hard on the pitch to get a 1-1 result and basically stuck that draw right in Oscar Pareja’s eye. Interim Head Coach Steve Cooke’s comments in the post-game presser demonstrated that he had carefully and thoughtfully planned how to win this match. Essentially, in their last game against the Rapids, Dallas used physicality to bully the midfield, and used their fullbacks to press high and create a problem for the Rapids on crosses and the overlap. So Cooke put Joshua Gatt and Dominique Badji on the wings, and told Nana Boateng, Stefan Aigner, and Mohammed Saeid to play physically in the midfield. Gatt and Badji’s speed pinned back Dallas’ fullbacks, and Mauro Diaz and Javier Morales took too many lumps in midfield to be effective. The Rapids kept Dallas completely out of sync all night. This FC Dallas team was nearly unstoppable a year ago, so that should be commended.

And yet. And yet what I really wanted to ask Steve Cooke after the game was: what now for you? But I was too afraid. And too respectful. My observations of Cooke are that he is thoughtful, wise, and capable, and that he could absolutely be pro-level football manager, and a successful one too. And my other observations are that the odds for him to get to do that here in Denver are very low.

This is what I mean by ‘the softness.’ I want to win, guys, just like you. But I also am too emotionally soft to feel like that winning needs to accomplished through cold, hard, mathematical calculations of dollars and cents and xG and WAR data. I don’t like watching guys play for their jobs.

Up in the press box, Jared Watts, suspended for 2 games for a slide tackle last week against Montreal, sat 15 feet to my left. And he was as engaged and emotional about the game as the hardest of hard core fans - he was slumped back in his chair, hands on his head, annoyed with each of the two or three chances Colorado had that were turned away by Dallas GK Jesse Gonzalez. And although I’m not sure that Jared Watts on the field in 2018 gets the Rapids to the playoffs, I feel a measure of sorrow that he might not be with the team next year in the inevitable roster purge and restructure.

The last piece of this is that it was maybe my last game this year. My wife’s out of town this weekend, and I’ve got the kids, so unless I pay a babysitter $50, I can’t really go to the game and get those last interviews I was hoping. I could bring the kids, but they tend to be a wreck at the match, and I don’t really have an extra $75 for tickets either. Bleah.

So that’s it. I might never see Serna or Watts or Gatt or Azira or Cooke or any of these guys again, either from the stands as a fan, or in the hall outside the locker room. I should probably recognize that these guys don’t really know me from a hole in the wall, and they’ll all go on and do other things because hey, that’s life in the top echelon of soccer. But still, it bothers me.

Rabbi, stop being melodramatic and give me some damn tactics

OK, here’s some tactics. To expand on Cooke’s tactical plan for Dallas, here’s his full quote when I asked about looking at the tape of the last Dallas game, and how it informed his approach to this match.

That’s the kind of question that interests me, because we do think about these things for hours and hours a day.

In that game, if you remember early in the game, both Grana at right back and Maynor Figueroa at left back got forward very well and had 3v2 combinations down the outsides. And I felt that if we didn’t have pace on the wide spots, we would suffer from that again. We would bring their fullbacks into the attack, and I didn’t want to do that. The very fact that we have Josh (Gatt) and Marlon (Hairston) and Dominique Badji able to stretch them means that their fullbacks had to be responsible. Their fullbacks had to honor the fact that we had players who could hurt them. With Alan Gordon occupying the nine as well, it became more of a 1v1 ‘round the sides, and we scored from that. I think we could have got two or three more goals from that as well.

That was really the adjustment we made from that game, and also making sure that we didn’t lose out in the middle. If you remember that game we were a little bit soft in the middle, and they outnumbered us with (Javier) Morales and (Carlos) Gruezo and also (Mauro) Diaz popping into the hole.

To be fair, Mohammed Saeid and Nana Boateng did a terrific job of blocking that central area, and not only blocking that central area but making them play around us so that we could then win the ball and break into the quicker play.

So tactically I think the adjustments from that game were spot on. I think the players did a fantastic job of what was required to get a win.

I like the way this man thinks - that each game, especially when your team isn’t intimidating to anyone else, has to have a different approach. The ‘Pids looked poised and composed for long stretches, they defended fiercely, and they even showed some razzle-dazzle as a result of relying on those wingers. Josh Gatt had a play in the second half where he burned Figueroa, pulled up, stepped over the ball, crossed the left back inside, cut back outside, faked outside and cut back in again, to a delighted double-gasp of the crowd. It didn’t result in a scoring chance, but as the coach said, it kept Dallas honest.

Rapids Sartorial Style Corner

One look down at the sidelines Saturday, I knew what I had to do. So I texted our guy John Babiak with the camera immediately.

And, viola. STEVECOOKE_OMFGILOVETHOSESHOES_DALLAS.jpg was born and shared with the world.

John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

Also, I’m so glad we could bring back ‘Sartorial Style Corner’ in the post-Pablo era.

What have we learned about Marlon Hairston and Stefan Aigner?

Last week I wrote about how the Rapids are certainly trialing players for the 2018 team. One other thing they are trialing is where to put the pieces they currently have, who are likely to return for next year. Stefan Aigner was a right winger for 1860 Munich, but the Rapids have started him as the central attacking midfielder two weeks running. Steve Cooke seemed to indicate that it is possible for Aigner to be a CAM for this team going forward:

“He (Aigner) has played two games in the number ten position. And he’s scored two goals, a goal in each game. I’m not much of a mathematician but that for me speaks for itself.”

It was also interesting to note whether Marlon Hairston, who started this match at right back, is still being permanently converted to defense for the Rapids. Marlon, as you will recall, was played back there by Pablo Mastroeni to start 2016 and a little again at 2017. So was playing Hairston at right back against Dallas part of an ongoing experiment? Steve Cooke explained his reasoning as a bit more utilitarian this week.

“It’s not an experiment, it’s a need. I think he’s got the ability to play in both positions depending upon the style of play. For me, Marlon’s a right winger who can threaten the fullback and get great crosses in, and he’s got an eye for goal as well. And I like to have pace on the wings, and I like to have pace going forwards. Obviously with Mekeil (Williams) missing tonight, and we’re missing some players in midfield through injury and suspension, it became almost a situation where we had that need. We did have the idea of playing (Hairston) from the beginning at right wing, and obviously he ended up there for the last 25 minutes.

I think Marlon has a real ability to go past players. I wish he was more positive; I wish he would go at players more, I wish he would trust in himself a bit more because he’s got the ability to go past players, and I wish he’d believe that sometimes. I think he stops and comes back when he has defenders on their heels. For me, that would be the next evolution of Marlon’s game to put left backs on their heels and make them fall over while he goes past them.

You don’t often hear coaches tell players to, essentially, be more selfish with the ball, so that’s a real endorsement of Hairston’s game.

I’d love to live in a world where teams have to spend hours at practice preparing to deal with Badji and Aigner and Hairston the way the way Ligue 1 teams prepare to face Neymar, Di Maria and Cavani. As of right now, I assume teams don’t much have to adjust to us at all. When this season ends, we’ll have a long and boring winter to ponder the questions of who, and if, and how.