After seeing the pieces, new and old, the Rapids have to play with for the 2017 season, it’s time to make some guesses as to how they’ll line up this year. This is based on a few assumptions. Assumption 1: the Rapids will almost certainly play the same 4-2-3-1 that they have for most of the last two seasons. Manager Pablo Mastroeni likes the defensiveness of it, the ability to outnumber an opponent in midfield, and the flexibility of allowing your wide midfielders to play higher, or use your fullbacks more aggressively, or add a defensive midfielder to the attack. Assumption 2: players that have received significant runout as of late are getting tuned up to be starters. That said, there are still some big ‘maybes’ out there for Mastroeni, Claudio Lopez, Conor Casey, and Steve Cooke to decide on.
Lineup 1: If it ain’t broke...
This lineup is the most unexciting, but possibly the best, since it is identical to multiple starting lineups from 2016. The one exception, of course, is Marlon Hairston, who started 14 times at right wing, while Dominique Badji, Marco Pappa, and Sebastien Le Toux got the other starts. Picking Hairston over Badji is a tossup, since Badji has nearly equal speed, plus size to boot. But Dom’s been more prevalent on the left side, while Marly’s been used almost exclusively on the right, except when he’s been flipped to serve as an inverted winger.
Powers was the starting CM on opening day in 2016. He was the starting CM in 2015. It’s a safe bet to say he will likely start there on March 4. Despite a fair amount of talk about using him as a d-mid, he’s a true two-way player, and Pablo doesn’t seem to believe in a spritely, playmaking number 10. Pablo wants 11 guys that can defend, and he wants a midfield five that can all look like d-mids if need be. Mastroeni values defense out of the midfield so much that he played the chaotic marauder Jermaine Jones as the CM in 2016. Although Powers doesn’t have JJ levels of creative anarchy, he was the midfielder of choice through much of the Rapids successful 2016 run.
The backline? They were the best defense in MLS in 2016, allowing only 32 goals, and only 7 goals at home, which I believe is an MLS record. You don’t mess with something that good.
Lineup 2: An approximation of the 2016 MLS Playoff Rapids
The Rapids faced the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders with a few tweaks to the lineup. On several occasions, Kevin Doyle was pushed back to be the CAM, which makes a fair amount of sense, since Doyle, for all his faults, is a good dribbler who can turn upfield with the ball well, and often looks best for the Rapids when he drops into midfield to receive instead of holding up a centerback. In lieu of the Rapids going out and signing a true number 10 this offseason, maybe Colorado tries this experiment full time in 2017. The reason that wouldn’t be the case is that Doyle’s played at striker all through pre-season.
But if Doyle’s your CAM, then Badji’s probably your striker. His shooting boots weren’t entirely reliable in 2016, but his speed and physicality are useful and often deliver him with the ball to the right place. If Badji can be a little more efficient in front of goal in 2017, Colorado will have an everyday striker that will do just fine.
In this lineup I have new acquisition Bismark Adjei-Boateng (he goes by Nana) at CDM alongside Sam Cronin. I did a deep dive into CDM back in December, and why Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira are a fantastic pair and should not be broken up. But on the other hand, you don’t pay Manchester City a big honkin’ transfer fee to put a guy on your bench, and Nana is most likely suited to be a defensive midfielder. I like Micheal Azira and I think he’s effective at that spot. But maybe he and Nana split time for the first dozen games to see what that does for the team.
Liam Callahan at left wing is certainly a shot in the dark. Marc Burch is still very good and very effective. I am president and founder of the Marc Burch fan club - this article I wrote on him last year is also one of my favorite things I ever wrote. But Liam Callahan has been in the starting lineup multiple time for the Rapids - sometimes as a left midfielder. Maybe Colorado gives him a shot there. I highly doubt it, but eventually, it will be time for the team to begin grooming Burch’s heir-apparent. Besides Ashley Cole, I don’t think anyone in MLS at left back is older than Burch; that’s not to say its his time, yet. It’s just that outside back is a position that demands speed, and thus means that the expiration date for players is potentially a bit shorter than for other positions. Really, though, I think Callahan is being groomed as a utility replacement player on the left side.
Lineup 3: Why the heck not
Look, I know I told you its going to be a 4-2-3-1. I only throw out this 4-3-3 to make a point.
The 4-2-3-1’s beautiful flexibility is that it morphs into the 4-3-3 with little effort. If the Rapids are 0-0 at the 70th minute and feel their opponent is vulnerable to a three-man high press, the formation will look like it does above. If they’re behind 0-1 or more, or facing aggressive fullbacks that tend to get too far forward, or facing a 3-5-2 in which they can overwhelm their opponent by sending runners into the corners and firing long diagonals at them, then the 4-2-3-1 is going to look an awful lot like a 4-3-3.
Back to the personnel. If Adjei-Boateng was brought in by Padraig Smith and Paul Bravo because the team wanted a Jermaine Jones doppelgänger, then he’ll be the CM. To this point in pre-season, he hasn’t looked as good as Dillon Powers to me, but he may not be judged on the same set of criteria that I’m applying for a CM.
Sam Hamilton has looked good at cutting off space, and physically he gives you a little more size than Micheal Azira does. He’s a dark horse to start at CDM, but I certainly feel he’s distinguished himself enough to earn a contract.
Finally, the Rapids pulled Kortne Ford up from DU although the kid still had a year of eligibility. Was there a quid pro quo offered - you sign as an HGP, we’ll make you the starting centerback? Is that a chemtrails-level conspiracy theory, or am I crazy like a fox? Ford has been solid up till now in the matches I watched, but the data set is pretty incomplete. I like that he was confident enough in the game on Wednesday against NYCFC to bring the ball up himself in the manner of a midfielder. Confidence is a nice thing to see from an academy kid. This lineup is also for those Rapids fans that aren’t totally sold on Jared Watts. I AM sold on Watts, but I know a lot of people still think he’s prone to errors. If you’re that guy, then Ford is, in my opinion, as likely a replacement as Bobby Burling is.
If you’ve got a crazy idea for a favorite lineup, or just want to tell mewhy I’m dead wrong, sound off in the comments.