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Backpass: Rising and Falling

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Some players are headed into the final games of the year looking to impress. Others, less so.

Aigner’s stock is rising for his new club.
John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

As the year winds down, players are now jockeying to prove to the Front Office that they belong at the club for next year. Over the past three games, a few players have modified the contents of their dossiers in a manner which might impact whether they are part of core of the team that advances to 2018, or will be moving on to other pastures.

Rising

Stefan Aigner

There isn’t much doubt that Aigner is on this team for 2018, since he’s still acclimating to MLS. But starting as the central attacker on Saturday against Montreal and scoring a cool, clean-headed goal to get the night going for the Rapids is a good way to sooth your bosses nerves that you were a sound investment.

Dominique Badji

This isn’t a new thought from me. Badji scored his ninth goal of the season last week in Vancouver, nutmegging David Ousted. Against Montreal, he had a great shot in the second half that forced a save from Evan Bush. Badji is finishing strong for Colorado in an otherwise lost season. That’s a hopeful sign.

Alan Gordon

Gordo is still doing his thing, and that thing is filling opponents with dread after the 80th minute. Gordon has three goals this year: a game-winner in the 86th minute on June 3rd, a game-winner in the 89th minute on June 17th, and a game-winner in the 81st minute on September 30. The last one was with his feet. Did you know Gordon even had feet? I thought he was just a movable pogo-stick with a mop that deflected in headers. Are those nine points worth Gordon’s $180,000 a year salary? Abso. Friggin. Loutely.

Falling

Bobby Burling

Burling got a rare start against Dallas midweek on September 27th, and he was at least partially responsible for this goal from Roland Lamah.

Bobby was a great addition to the team in 2015, and he was really critical to their success in 2016. But he wasn’t great this season, and it might be time to give that squad-rotation center back spot to someone else.

Jared Watts

Steve Cooke has moved Watts back to defensive midfield, the position he originally occupied for the Rapids before Pablo Mastroeni moved him to central defense in 2015 and 2016. Watts is streaky as hell. He is an aggressive tackler who, when it’s all clicking, makes great emergency slides for the ball. When it’s not, it’s not. Watts has 4 yellow cards and 2 red cards this season in 1,430 minutes of action to date, which is fewer per minute than Mike Da Fonte (5 yellow, 0 red, 1,125 minutes), Mekeil Williams (7 yellow, 1 red, 1,397 minutes), and Alan Gordon (4 yellow, 1 red, 640 minutes). But still, he hasn’t been consistent this season.

I believe defensive midfield is the most important position on the field. I could bring a lot of proof texts, but the simplest one is N’golo Kante. In his breakout year with Leicester City, they win the league. After Chelsea stole him away in 2016-17, they win the Premier League, and Leicester slumps to 12th.

Watts was very good in 2016, and the Rapids were very good. Watts hasn’t been great in 2017, and the Rapids have been worse-than-not-great.

Nana Boateng

He got a start against FC Dallas, but never seemed to be part of the attack. Fans have been frustrated with the Rapids midfield and its lack of connectivity since Dillon Powers was the man in the middle in 2014. He’s gone on to Orlando, where he looks to be fitting in nicely. Meanwhile his replacement in Denver has yet to make a mark: Boateng has zero goals, zero assists, and only 0.3 key passes per game. Powers had 0.7 key passes for Colorado this year before he was traded. Boateng was supposed to be the key signing to help the team move forward this year. Now, he’s the one that needs to step forward.

Tim Howard

Long stats rant ahead. Buckle in.

Goalkeeping is hard to assess, and in terms of my overall soccer understanding, I don’t pretend to understand goalkeeping like I do other aspects of the game. Additionally, the traditional stats kept for goalkeepers: clean sheets, save percentage, and saves, are mostly garbage, since each heavily relies on the defense.

A better metric, although still affected by the positioning of defenders, is Goals Allowed versus Expected Goals Allowed, or GA-xGA. An average goalkeeper has 0.00; better than average is a negative number. Here’s all MLS goalkeepers stats to date, courtesy of americansocceranalysis.com.

Oh hey look the Rapids keeper is doing great! He’s in the top 10 of GA-xGA with a -0.66 GA-xGA!

Oh wait. That’s Zac MacMath. Where’s Tim?

(scrolling down)

(scrolling down)

(scrolling down)

Aha. I see Tim Howard is... lower down, with a +3.14 GA-xGA. Right around Jake Gleeson and Matt Lampson. Who are both fine goalkeepers. Fine goalkeepers who don’t earn $2.5 million a year. That’s... not great.

In fact, of the 25 MLS GKs with more than 1000 minutes of time this season, Tim ranks 16th in GA-xGA. He hasn’t been bad, he’s just been OK. Tim Melia, ranked number 1 in GA-xGA, has been spectacular this year, and his team is playoff-bound.

Tim’s our keeper for 2018. He will need to keep his skills from declining further in 2018 or we’re dead meat. Because you know who else isn’t in the playoffs along with Tim Howard this season? Cody Cropper, Evan Bush, and Brian Rowe - the guys at the bottom of this list.

Axel Sjoberg

Axel didn’t step up to Mario Mancosu Saturday, and he had a free shot on goal, and boy did he take it. Axel has declined from being the rock that ensured this team would be good for many years to come, to the leagues largest question mark. Did he never come back fully from his early season injury? Are Axel’s struggles more related to the struggles of his supporting cast, and particularly his inconsistent partners at Left Back? Or did he have a career year in 2016, never to be repeated?

Sjoberg’s season has been a big mystery to me and to every other Rapids observer. The team will likely conclude that he had a bad year, and can return in 2018 to be a top MLS center back. But there might need to be a plan B for Colorado going forward.

A lot of players on this team’s roster who were once inscribed on the starting XI in black ink go into 2018 scribbled onto the provisional lineup sheet in faint pencil. There’s three games left to find a pen.