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Backpass: The Predictable Loss

We probably didn’t expect to win on the road against a juggernaut like NYRB. But maybe we could have looked better in losing?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we didn’t really expect that game to be an exciting barn-burner, and it wasn’t. Unless you are a connoisseur of midfield duels and inaccurate passing, which, why the hell would you be a connoisseur of that?

The Rapids went down 1-0 to the Red Bulls on Saturday, who were the deserved winners in a game in which New York looked like the stronger team on the day. The only goal of the match came when a ball came into the Colorado six-yard box, and Rapids defender Eric Miller booted it right into the net for a heartbreaking own-goal.

It was the Rapids’ first road match of the season, and tactically, they certainly played a bit more conservatively against the home team Red Bulls. Colorado went into the match gunning to hold a nil-nil draw for as long as possible by staying compact and not committing too many men forward. The ‘Pids was happy to concede the bulk of possession in order to muck up the midfield, and in order keep NYRB from stringing together a series of dangerous passes. The Red Bulls out-possessed Colorado 61% to 39%, and the Rapids were out-shot 13 to 3, with the Rapids landing only one shot on-target, a shot in the 71st minute from Dominique Badji that came from a 30-yard through-ball from Dillon Powers, his only Key Chance of the game. More on that later.

It was always going to be a difficult game for Colorado, because:

  • A) it was New York’s home-opener, and
  • B) game time temperatures were in the 30’s, and
  • C) New York is one of the best teams in MLS, and
  • D) Colorado was without both Kevin Doyle and Alan Gordon, as the former was listed as out with a head injury, and the latter is experiencing back problems, leaving the team to start young striker Caleb Calvert up top, and
  • E) Shkelzen Gashi wasn’t match-fit for 90 minutes, so he was only able to come off of the bench in the second half, and
  • F) it’s still early in the season, and Colorado doesn’t seem to have it’s chemistry clicking yet.

In other words, the passing was terrible

Point F is particularly pronounced for the Rapids, as their pass percentage was a terrible 58% on the day. The Rapids played an absurd 84 long balls on the day, compared to New York, who had only 54, as the Red Bulls press was consistently effective at forcing Colorado to turn over the ball. The vast majority of those long passes were defenders, under pressure, kicking it long to avoid the NY press and turning it over. Observe.

Long passes often come in at a 40% or 30% completion rate, so Axel Sjoberg (6 of 14) and Micheal Azira (5 of 13) were fine on the day, even if they were kicking it long way, way too much. Jared Watts is usually a little better than 33%. But look at poor, poor Eric Miller: 1 for 12 in long passes, a putrid 37% in passing overall. Those are the kind of numbers you see from a striker. Or a U12 game. Not a fullback on a modern football club in which your fullbacks are the key to the start of your attack. His own goal in the 45th minute wasn’t the only thing bad about his day.

It wasn’t just Miller and the defense, and it wasn’t just long passes. The passes in attack were profligate and sloppy as well. Here’s a sampling of some of the most important failed passes.

Bad Pass #1

The Rapids have a very dangerous 4-on-4, and Badji has some great options. He could play a ball into space for Marlon Hairston, who’s making a run. He could fake a shot or cut back, and feed it to Caleb Calvert, now that Hairston has dragged away his defender. He could shoot it. He could pass it to Dillon Powers, who is alone, although that requires a touch chip past the two defenders between him and Powers. He goes for the toughest option, and he misses the mark by 10 yards.* The attack slows, the defense recovers, Powers tries to cross, and Daniel Royer blocks it.

Bad Pass #2

Powers gets a gorgeous pass from Sam Cronin. His first touch isn’t great. His second recovery touch is better, and he’s got three options: shoot it, pass to Hairston, or go to Badji backpost. He doesn’t really do any of those.

Am I being harsh? A little. But look at what Erick Torres of the Houston Dynamo did in a similar situation on Saturday night.

Sure, he only has three defenders to beat and he’s a little more central when the ball is played to him, while Dillon is wider and has at least four to contend with. But Cubo also has a much more decisive first touch, and gets to goal much quicker, and he totally burns the right back.

Bad Pass #3

There’s no doubt for me that this was the Rapids best chance on the night, and Badji under hits it. Arrgh.

Bad Pass #4

I’m not even gonna try and explain why Powers tries this. Note that Micheal Azira’s pass in to Powers is pretty good though.

The Rapids really struggled for their front four to make much of anything happen this game. Credit to New York’s defense for both giving Colorado few real chances to get into the attack with that high press, and absolutely snuffing those attacks out when they happened. But these examples above are a sign of a persistent problem for the Rapids that’ll need work going forward.

When the Powers is off

Here’s Dillon Power’s passing map from Saturday.

For your central creator to have only 24 total pass attempts isn’t great. But also, he didn’t generate much from those passes.

Powers is usually a good passer: he finished 2016 averaging 1.3 Key Passes** per game, which is a decent clip, but down from 1.78 KPpG in 2015 and 2.33 KPpG in 2014. In week 1 of 2017, he had 3 Key Passes against New England, but in this week’s game against NYRB he had only 1 .

I care about this stat for Powers because it’s pretty much his whole game, a thing we’ve discussed before. Dillon Powers isn’t going to out-dribble his defender, a la Nicolas Lodeiro, or burn him for speed, a la Kekuta Manneh. And he isn’t the shooting threat of Sebastian Giovinco or Clint Dempsey or Benny Feilhaber. Powers is either passing well, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, the team struggles; as I noted last year, if Dillon Powers gets a touch in the final third, it frequently results in chance.

The season is still young. Hopefully the Rapids get Powers going. And I’m pretty sure some of you will write in the comments that Powers should not be acting in the number 10 role, but should either sit on the bench or play alongside Cronin as a defensive midfielder. I probably agree, and I’m game for giving Shkelzen Gashi, Dillon Serna, or Ricki Perez a start at CAM. But it’s still early, so maybe wait a few weeks until we all start panicking.

Despite all that, maybe we still deserved a better result

I almost never protest the zebras, because it’s futile and also because I generally defer to them when it’s an either-or type call. But Head Official Robert Sibiga missed a terrible foul in the box in the early goings, and it probably cost us a point.

Sweet baby Moses is that an obvious foul by (I think) rookie Aaron Long. If a two armed shove-in-the-back inside the 6-yard box isn’t a penalty, then I don’t know what is a penalty anymore. Apparently the Eastern Conference is going on handegg throwball rules, and thus the Rapids should have been allowed to lay dudes out with full-on shoulder tackles. I know Sam Cronin’d be game.

If that’s called, and the ‘Pids convert, it’s 1-0 and the whole game looks very different. As it stands, I hope the MLS Discipline Committee (the DisCo, my favorite MLS-y name of all time) takes a look at this and gives Long a suspension.

Rays of Hope

Even though we lost this match, there were three encouraging signs that should make us feel good going forward into next week.

First, Tim Howard was back. And it was full-on Secretary-of-Defense Timmy, right out of the gate. Howard had 7 saves in this match, and more than a few were difficult ones. This one was the most ridiculous.

#WelcomeBackTim

Second, the Rapids defense held Bradley Wright-Phillips goalless, although he had 4 shots, with 3 on-target. Colorado also held Sacha Kljestan to only 2 Key Passes. Last year he led MLS with 3.3 KPpG. When all else fails, it sure is nice to know that the Rapids defense is as reliable as a Swiss watch.

And third, next week we play Minnesota United, who just became the first MLS team in history to concede 5 or more goals in back-to-back games. Even a Rapids offense that seems to have trouble getting going should be good for one or two goals against the hapless back line of MNUFC. Vadim Demidov has been absolutely posterized in his first two starts for the Loons. Don’t take my word for it.

Left back Justin Davis looked shaky in week one, so Minnesota went with Swiss fullback Jerome Thiesson in week 2, and the results were no better.

But wait! It gets worse! Goalkeeper John Alvbage was stretchered off in the 86th minute and the injury looked bad. That means backup Bobby Shuttlesworth is likely to get the call against Colorado. Shuttlesworth was traded to Minnesota just a week before the season started, and certainly has had very few reps with that defense. The only thing on the back line that doesn’t look catastrophic is Francisco Calvo.

The Rapids should be able to find at least one goal against this horror show. Maybe they really get nuts and score TWO goals.

In other words, I really hope I get to title next week’s Backpass as ‘the predictable win.’

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* Note that Opta marks this a ‘successful pass’. This may count as ‘successful’ because it didn’t result in a turnover, but this should have been a Key Chance and it wasn’t. Which is why just using statistics in the absence of the context of watching the game with a critical eye is just plain dumb. Don’t be that guy/gal.

** A ‘Key Pass’ is a pass that results in a shot.