Last season was amazing for the Colorado Rapids. After a rough few years, we all expected more of the same going into 2016. Instead, things went well. Really well. Pablo’s philosophy seemed to finally click, and the guys truly believed in themselves. Many fans were waiting for the backslide, waiting for it to all fall apart, but it didn’t. The Rapids remained unbeaten at home and several players had career seasons. The Burgundy Boys made it to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the eventual MLS Cup winners, the Seattle Sounders.
But that leaves us with one big question for 2017 - can they do it again?
15-13-6 (W-T-L), 58 points, 2nd in the Western Conference, Reached Western Conference Finals.
2016 Goals For:
39, 19th in MLS
2016 Goals Against:
32, 1st in MLS
2016 Key Statistic:
numbers care of americansocceranalysis.com
The Rapids 2016 xGD, a combination of the team’s expected goals vs expected goals allowed, was -4.44, good for 13th in MLS. That indicates that they were either fantastic at winning in tight games and stopped an inordinate number of sure-thing goals from their opponents, or they were very lucky in 2016 and will regress to the mean in 2017.
Bismark Adjei-Boateng, Alan Gordon, Kortne Ford, Ricardo Perez, Sam Hamilton (?), Liam Callahan (?)
Jermaine Jones, Marco Pappa, Sebastien Le Toux, Joseph Greenspan, Conor Doyle, Zach Pfeffer, Sean St. Ledger
Previewing the Defense
The Rapids return the entire back seven of their MLS-best defenders of 2016, from GK up to defensive midfield. Counting their bench, they’re actually going to return a full 11 players from the 2016 edition of the club. The only players not returning to the Rapids defense are Sean St. Ledger, who missed all of 2016 with a knee injury, and Joseph Greenspan, who played precisely one minute of MLS regular season action in 2016.
That core: Zac MacMath and Tim Howard at GK; Marc Burch, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts and Eric Miller on the defensive line; Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira at defensive midfielder; were the best in MLS last year, conceding only 32 goals all season. Even better: they only conceded seven goals at home. If DSGP was a fortress, then the six-yard box was an unlockable safe, forged of adamantium, protected by magic spells and legions of beserkers conjured from the depths of hell. In retrospect, MLS teams probably should have spent 2016 launching lottery-ticket shots from 40+ yards. The odds of scoring would have been better.
What's Good about the Defense
Everything. Watts and Sjoberg and Miller are all excellent and still young: we may not have even seen their best yet. There’s depth in defense, too: Mekeil Williams and Bobby Burling can step in to sub if needed. Dennis Castillo, Kortne Ford, and possibly Liam Callahan are on hand to apprentice.
At defensive midfield, there is basically no better tandem than Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira. Last year, Azira led all MLS midfielders in 104 interceptions. He also led all midfielders in clearances with 58 and was 6th in tackles with 83. Cronin was second in clearances among midfielders with 53, and was top-12 in MLS in recoveries and blocks. He was also one of the team’s most reliable passers out of the midfield for the team. And that doesn’t even give credit to his locker room leadership as the team’s captain, and his infectious intensity on the field. This is truly Sam Cronin’s team, which is all the more amazing because the dude is a totally unassuming 5’10”, 165 lbs. If you didn’t know he was a professional athlete, you might otherwise mistake him for the regional sales manager for a restaurant supply company.
I don’t want to steal all the good talking points from Abbie Mood, who is going to preview the offense, but this team also defends front to back, as is the mandate of boss Pablo Mastroeni. Players like Marlon Hairston and Shkelzen Gashi were tremendous at harassing teams into high turnovers in 2016, and I imagine we’ll see more of that this year. It will be exciting to see how Nana Boateng clicks into this style of play. I imagine, based on the way Padraig Smith and the Rapids front office scout players, that he’s got that kinda stuff in his tool kit, or else Pablo wouldn’t have wanted the team to bring him on.
What's Troubling about the Defense
Well, the fear of regression. MLS teams have had a Goals Against under 32 in the 34 game era; Sporting KC in 2012 & 2013; LA Galaxy in 2011. But it’s still pretty hard to do.
It will be extremely hard to do when the mathematicians think you’ve exceeded your expectation in 2016. According to the position of the shots the Rapids faced last season, a metric called ‘Expected Goal’ or xG, Opta thinks the Rapids should have surrendered 41.91 goals against; 9.91 more than they actually conceded. Good goalkeeping and great defending account for some of that. But so does bad shooting by the opposition. Cutting down on shots by opponents would potentially help keep goals down. The Rapids conceded 12.29 Ave Shots Against, 6th in MLS, but well off the league leaders, Sporting KC and FC Dallas, at 9.68 AvShtA and 9.5 AvShtA, respectively. But mostly I expect that the Rapids should be able to contain the opposition to somewhere between 30 and 37 goals.
Better, Worse or Equal to 2016?
With the same personnel, a strongly defined and well-practiced system, and a deep defensive bench, Colorado will have a defense equal or better to the 2016 edition. Although, based on the numbers I discussed above, I wouldn’t go to Vegas betting the team could improve upon its stingy 32 goals against number.
Previewing the Offense
The good news is that most of the guys who ran the offense last year are returning. The bad news is that nothing has changed. After scoring just 39 goals (tied for second least in the league), the Rapids didn’t do much in the offseason to bolster the attack, which makes many of us wonder where the goals are going to come from. The potential is there, it’s just a matter of aggressively going after goals and executing/finishing in the box (and to be fair, that’s what Pablo and the team has been focusing on in the offseason). Well that, and the fact that we could really use a #9 or #10, but more on that later.
What’s Good about the Offense
First, let’s talk about the good news, though.
We still have Gashi, who put in nine goals last season and (in my opinion) was just getting warmed up. I fully expect him to put in double digits this year, and I. can’t. wait. (I mean come on.)
Another player who seemed to be just getting warmed up last year was Marlon Hairston. He’s fast and he can finish - Marly is one of my favorite players to watch. With Sébastien Le Toux gone, Marly is the natural choice to start on the right side. I’m a big fan of the speedy Hairston/Badji combo, and we should see much more of that this year.
Homegrown player Dillon Serna will be back this season, after FC Dallas’ Agustin Jara destroyed his knee last summer, which is pretty exciting. It will be good to see him back out as a super sub, or maybe a starter. I think he provides a much-needed spark as a super sub, but he did start three games last season before his injury.
After having a great preseason, including a brace against New England in the Desert Diamond Cup, I expect that Caleb Calvert will get more time this year. I think Calvert can be a little overly aggressive when he gets on the pitch, but it’s probably because he’s trying to prove himself when he does get out there for a few minutes. With a little discipline, Calvert could absolutely put the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis.
Based on what I saw on the preseason, Ricardo Perez is someone to be excited about, too. He was good on the ball, took opportunities to shoot, and is quick. But he won’t likely be a starter.
What’s Troubling about the Offense
There’s a couple key issues with the offense: the Rapids don’t have a number 9 who can score a bunch of goals, and they don’t have a number 10 with creativity and vision to distribute the ball. While there is a rumor floating around about Colorado looking at Aron Jóhannsson for the summer, they’ve got to figure out how to work with what they have now. It would have been a really good idea to sign either a 9 or a 10, but they didn’t sign either. They did sign Alan Gordon, but he’s not coming in as a starter.
We need Dominique Badji and Kevin Doyle step it up in the 9 role (both had just six goals last year), but that doesn’t solve the issue of no #10. Kevin Doyle can play the position, and is actually decent at it, so that’s one option. Dillon Powers can also technically play the position, but the pace of the game is a little too fast for him up there. I think Powers is much better as a D-mid, where he has more time and has more of the field in front of him. There’s the potential for new midfielder Bismark Adjei-Boateng, who goes by “Nana”, to play the 10, but most of his experience is in the 6/8 role. I really think that Nana could replace Azira and partner with Cronin in the back, but there’s also an interesting possibility that Nana and Azira could partner in the back and push Cronin up to the 10.
I think a big issue isn’t necessarily that we need a better #9 (I actually have faith in Doyle and Badji), it’s more that we don’t have anyone distributing the ball. Look at the last preseason game, for example. They pushed high, they got guys in the box, but the delivery into the box just wasn’t that good. There’s still room for improvement, but with the regular season starting in a couple days, it needs to happen quickly.
Better, Worse or Equal to 2016?
I really hope better, but at the very least, equal. Alan Gordon should have an impact, but he’s not going to be a regular starter. If everything clicks and the guys can grab even just 5-6 more goals, that puts them in a much better place (Seattle only had 44 goals last year, after all).
Rabbi: The club still has big question marks in the area of scoring, but even if they don’t significantly improve over 2016 in that area, the defense itself will carry the club to the playoffs. 5th place in the Western Conference, but hard to guess what happens then.
Abbie: I agree with Rabbi - we need to fix the offense, but if we don’t, it’s not going to be the end of the world. That being said, the Rapids aren’t going to be as successful as last year if they can’t score some goals, but I’m going to go with 3rd (maybe 4th) in the Western Conference.