This post was written by Eric Stinson, a guest contributor. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @ericstinson19
For those I haven't met (or don't know me), I have been a member of Pid Army and Centennial 38, and have been a Season Ticket Holder since 2011. I was at the Conference Finals in 2010 that saw us to MLS Cup. I have been at so many of our recent successes... and failures. I've been to the parties where we have been drunk with excitement for the Colorado Rapids’ triumphs, and I have been to the anger-filled Season Ticket Holder meetings with the Front Office. I was there for the amazing signings of Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, and I was there for the spectacular flops of Edu, Caleb Folan, and Gabriel Torres.
Looking Back on 2016
Last season saw our Burgundy Boys have their most complete season in club history. Eleven home wins, 58 points, undefeated at home for the entire the regular season, and 2nd place in the Western Conference, culminating with the climatic Western Conference Semifinal penalty shootout, where Tim Howard cemented his place in Rapids history with his many dramatic saves against the vaunted LA Galaxy. I can't remember seeing Dick's Sporting Goods Park so electric. Ever.
Lost in the euphoria of our successes was our setbacks. Losing out on the Supporters’ Shield with several missed opportunities, including the meltdown in Vancouver, where we had three separate leads (only to be equalized thrice), including a Shkelzen Gashi golazo that became the 2016 MLS Goal of the Year, only to see Marco Pappa mis-dribble the ball, leading to the tying goal in the dying moments that took those two precious points away. Or the chance to secure the Shield in Portland, only to no-show in the rain with the country watching on national television.
In short, we Rapids fans are passionate and patient. We are tolerant, but can easily unnerved. We defend our club, but are ready to unleash venom. (Remember the two consecutive years of the airplane banners?) We have seen our beloved team range from amazing to disgraceful, and one thing is for sure—true Rapids fans have stood by our club through good times and bad.
Looking Forward to 2017
Which brings us to this season, the Rapids’ 22nd. As is normal with our club, there is much to be optimistic about, but there is also some anxiety.
We return the best defense in Major League Soccer from last season; in fact, one of the best in MLS history. Our Back Four and defensive midfielders are together again, and poised to reassert their dominance against a league that has improved in both skill and quality.
With the Twitter-fueled and less-than-classy departure of Jermaine Jones, comes the arrival of Bismark Adjei-Boateng, a product of the Manchester City (holding back that gagging feeling of an oil-rich, Emirate-bought mega-club) system. Upon first glance, Boateng looks to be a very young, but speedy, versatile, and hungry midfielder that brings some similar attributes. In fact, he is just the latest in young, fast, and versatile attacking options we have on the roster. Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston also return with aspirations to add to their goal tallies in 2016.
Speaking of Goals
Which brings us to the uncomfortable, and often-repeated rhetorical question...where are the goals going to come from? We know we have a very stingy defense. In 2016, we conceded 32 goals, fewest in MLS, and one of the fewest in MLS history. Can this be repeated? My belief is that we will not be able to match this feat.
In 2016, we had so many things go right in order to earn this reputation. The Back Four (Eric Miller, Jared Watts, Axel Sjoberg, and Marc Burch. Also throw in Bobby Burling, Mekeil Williams, and Dennis Castillo) had either breakout years, or career best seasons. Asking them to repeat this level of performance is a lot, regardless of potential.
So if the defense can't replicate this level of dominance, how can the Rapids score more goals to take the pressure off the Back Four? Here we go, the same tired question, asked yet again.
A Potential Path to Success
Several things have to happen:
1. EVERYONE MUST CONTRIBUTE!!! (This means you, Kevin Doyle!) Realistically, in order to compete for trophies, this team needs to score more goals. How you ask? Doyle needs to score eight or more. Gashi needs double figures. Hairston needs six goals. Badji needs eight. Boateng needs to contribute at least five goals, which was two more than Jones did last year. In other words, everyone needs to score two or more goals compared to last season in order to find success. If we can do this, it would push our season goal scoring total to the high 40s, which would be a club record.
2. Counterattack carefully. Since this club is a defensive-minded system, it involves absorbing a lot of pressure, then trying to catch opponents on the counterattack. We saw this in both the New England Revs win and the New York Red Bulls loss. Pablo seems content to sit deep and use our team speed to outrun defenders into 1v1 counter situations and breakaways. This philosophy can work, but it also can be very high risk because it asks a lot of your Back Four and your midfielders. It also requires that defense be on the same page, which includes the midfielders keeping things locked up in the middle third of the pitch. We also saw how high risk it is when the team is not playing in sync, like in New York.
3. Tim Howard needs to continue being Tim Howard. We brought the Beard of Doom in to be a world-class shot stopper. However, he just returned from that devastating injury suffered in the US-Mexico match last year. Now I'm not saying that Tim would've done a better job against Seattle, but it was perhaps too much to ask Zac MacMath to come in place of Timmy and stop a red-hot Sounders team. If anyone could've done it, Tim could have. And now he's back with a vengeance, already earning MLS Best XI of the Week honors. For us to have a chance at getting more scoring, he needs to continue being the Secretary of Defense, frustrating strikers and giving us a chance to stay in matches.
4. Pablo needs to manage outside his comfort zone. We all know that Pablo stresses team defense. And that's fine. But now he needs to stress team attacking and finishing, especially with his young studs, (plus Gashi and Doyle). Bunkering down for long stretches of the match does well to preserve leads, but if we aren't scoring or are having issues even finding the attacking third, bunkering for a draw is meaningless. As we saw in New York, when the team struggled and Eric Miller became the victim of an unfortunate own goal, the offense struggled to find its way. This cannot happen repeatedly or else all teams have to do is pressure us with numbers, score first, and test our mettle by daring us to attack. If this happens, I don't like our chances of winning.
Long story short, we know what Pablo has promised us - much more offensive focus. Conor Casey was brought in specifically for this purpose. Pádraig Smith promised us better results, and has devised a system to deliver on that promise.
So having said that, what are we Rapids fans, passionate and all, to do about this?
What we always do: cheer for our club, have faith and celebrate their success, but be ready to hold the club accountable should they not deliver.