What we said at the end of 2016
In 34 games this season, Colorado trotted out Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira 31 times. The other three times it was Cronin and Dillon Powers. It would be hard to argue that the Rapids should upgrade at defensive midfield, seeing as Sam Cronin was quietly one of the top three best defensive midfielders in MLS this season, and Micheal Azira played an effective Watson to Cronin’s Sherlock Holmes. Breaking up this dynamic duo is maybe a bad idea.
2017 Counting Stats:
30 GP, 28 GS, 0 G, 2 A, 2569 min, 8 YC (most carded player on the Rapids)
CBI pg: 4.50, 1st among all MLS defensive midfielders
T pg: 2.70, 12th among all MLS defensive midfielders
KP pg: 0.30, 41st among all MLS defensive midfielders
(CBI- Clearances, Blocks, and Interceptions; T- Tackles; KP- Key Passes, a pass that resulted in a shot on goal; pg- per game)
Playing against his old midfield mate Sam Cronin in Minnesota for the first time on April 28th, Azira had 1 clearance, 7 interceptions, and 4 tackles, but the Rapids were still defeated on a late goal, 1-0.
Against Columbus, he recorded 2 clearances, 2 blocks, 4 interceptions, and 3 tackles, as the Rapids won 2-1 on a late Alan Gordon header.
Here’s some highlight reel footage by MLS and Matt Doyle from earlier this year that is mmm-mmm good.
The differences in defensive mids. https://t.co/8PevWxyinQ— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 17, 2017
This moment against Portland wasn’t great.
Blanco burns Hairston and Azira, Portland goal. 18' #Rapids96 pic.twitter.com/mdrDG5x7Mm— Rapids Rabbi (@rapidsrabbi) June 20, 2017
Azira was otherwise solid with 8 total defensive actions, and the Rapids went on to win this game 2-1 on a late Alan Gordon header.
Azira was dribbled 4 times by Sporting KC on May 28. The Sporks (not their official nickname, but I think it should be) won 1-0. He still had 1 clearance, 1 block, and 4 interceptions, because Azira is like pizza, even when he’s bad, he’s still pretty decent.
The fundamental question in the universe is not ‘what is the meaning of life?’ It is not ‘What is the problem of evil?’ It is not ‘Is absolute truth knowable?’ And it is not ‘Is a hot dog a sandwich?’ I have explored and suffienciently answered these questions, at least for myself.* Your mileage on these conundrums, however, may vary.
No, the fundamental question in the universe is ‘What ought a central midfielder do?’ How you answer this critical question becomes central to your belief in your teams tactics and shape. Do you play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and have three midfielders doing 3 different tasks? Or do you play a 4-4-2 and have two do-everything midfielders? I think no other question is as important. This is the question that vexed Michael Bradley for the last 4 years, and vexed Jurgen Klinsmann in turn. This problem challenged Pablo Mastroeni right out of a job, and it keeps Dillon Powers from being successful. It makes everyone both love, and hate, Jermaine Jones. I mean, his instagram does that too. And his mouth.
But if you aren’t a physical freak and a technical god-among-men like Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba, you must slightly tilt in one direction or another. You must be a defensively-skilled attacking midfielder, or a defensive midfielder with value-added in attack. The ying and yang are not perfectly balanced. Such is life.
This is why Micheal Azira matters so much. At least, he does to me. I am preternaturally disposed to loving defensive midfielders. I don’t know why. You can have your Messis and Ronaldos. I’ll be busy watching Casemiro time a tackle juuuuuust right to change the game. Or watching Diego Chara just clean a dude out. Or watching my son yank down some other 7 year old and having some dad yell ‘that’s not fair!’ while I kiss my fingers and yell ‘Belissimo!’ as a tear forms in the corner of my eye.
To the eye, Micheal Azira is a defense-first d-mid. He’s fine on the ball. He can be relied upon to make the short and simple pass. But he’s not really on the field to contribute in the attack. That’s what I saw over the past two seasons. But I couldn’t tell you to what degree he was a ‘good’ defensive midfielder, because I couldn’t define exactly what the ideal of that position is. So, I sat down and spent three days researching it and I made this chart of all of the defensive midfielders in MLS in 2017 and their key defensive stats per game, along with their Key Passes per game. Yes, you should call the men in white coats.
This research told me a lot; at least, it told me who was good or bad at playing midfield the way I think should be played - defensively active, but with an ability to make passes that create offense. It told me some midfielders and D-mids that are widely respected are actually overrated, like Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo. They’re fine players. But Bradley’s creative abilities don’t make up for his 22nd ranked CBIT pg score. Acosta’s passing abilities (ranked 8th) aren’t as good as the passing abilities of Roger Espinoza or Cristian Roldan, and they are MUCH better defenders then he is. And Gruezo’s just bad.
And other d-mids are criminally underrated. Yes, Cristian Roldan was capped for the USMNT. But the way my numbers see him, he should have started in all 10 games in the Hex. Come @ me, bro. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are old, yes. But they can still get it done. Alexander Ring and Diego Chara, who get a lot praise, deserve it and more. Ibson also deserves way more praise than he gets. Haris Medunjanin is such a good passer that he finished 39th in his defensive metrics and still finished 17th in d-mid ranking, which, wow.
And all of that, finally, dear reader, brings me to Micheal Azira.
Azira, along with a couple of similar d-mids like Jeff Larentowicz, Juan David Cabezas, and Sam Cronin (I’ll come back to him), is an extreme along the continuum of what a d-mid is. He and those other guys are defensive, exclamation mark, all caps. And in the land of the ‘defensive’ type of defensive midfielder, Micheal Azira is king. Azira was 1st in CBI pg, while being 12th in T pg, and his aggregate of those two stats, 8.20 CBIT pg, was best in the league at d-mid by a healthy margin. He is amazing. He is dominant. He is everywhere. Micheal Azira stops attacks. Dead.
But, of course, he’s one of the worst d-mids in the league at creating goals from passes. In 2569 minutes he created just 2 assists, and that is actually kind of fluky for how few KP he had. And he had just 1 Throughball pass for the whole year, which feels like it should be a record or something.
So we reach the really critical question for the Colorado Rapids going into 2018: is Micheal Azira the defensive lynchpin that keeps this club together? Or is he holding the team back, offensively? I would bet that soccer fans will break 50-50 on this question, depending on your own proclivities. But how the front office handled the early-season trade of Sam Cronin might be instructive.
When Padraig Smith traded Sam Cronin away, it was because he saw what this chart illustrated: that Cronin and Azira together were absolute defensive beasts, but they also hindered the attack. He assumed that Pablo Mastroeni, with the midfielders at his disposal, could continue to get most of the same defensive performance they were getting with a Sam-and-Mike midfield, while adding some pizazz to the attack. Instead, the team not only got worse on defense; going from 32 Goals Against in 2016 to 51 Goals Against in 2017; but the attack actually got worse too, going from 39 Goals in 2016 to only 31 Goals in 2017. So whatever we can say about the Rapids midfield in 2017, it can be agreed upon by all that it didn’t work. And losing Sam Cronin hurt.
That’s my fear if the Rapids decide in the offseason to not bring back Micheal Azira. If the Rapids decide to move on from this defensive titan of a man, and instead, go to a two-man, box-to-box midfield, hoping they can have two players do it all in the middle, they might regress further in terms of conceding goals. As bad as the Rapids were in 2017, there were seven teams in MLS that conceded even more goals than they did. And if you give up 60+ goals a year, your attack needs to include Messi and Ronaldo, more or less, to offset it.
Colorado scored one of greatest coups by picking Azira off the waiver wire in late 2015. Whatever Padraig Smith’s talk about a new ‘Rapids Way’ that is more attacking in nature, this team has something that works in Micheal Azira. The team ought to build around him (maybe a 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-3-2). Because, for what he does, there is no one better than Micheal Azira.
Abbie’s 2017 Grade: B+
Rabbi’s 2017 Grade: A
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* 1) Make meaning for others, and make meaning for yourself, and don’t be a jerk. 2) Free will, human stupidity, and fear. Gravity and thermodynamics, to a lesser extent. 3) No. But we ought to try anyhow. 4) No.