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Backpass: And now for something completely different

The Colorado Rapids drew Minnesota 2-2 at home, in a game that was very unrapids-y.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado’s 2-2 draw at home against Minnesota United team was, well, different than Rapids games we’ve seen for the past two years. In 2016, the team had seven home matches in which they conceded one goal, and 10 home matches in which they conceded zero goals. You’d have to go all the way back to October 5th, 2015, against RSL, to find a match when the Rapids conceded two home goals.

On the positive, the team also achieved a mildly aberrant mark in scoring, as they put up two goals: they only scored two or more goals in 10 out of 38 matches in 2016.

All of this is very (said in a John Cleese voice) “And now for something completely different.”* The match was either a mild aberration from the team’s usual hallmark of stalwart defense and cautious-if-boring offense, or it portends some not-so-great things to come. I’m not willing to state which of the two is more likely, but I do think swapping in Bobby Burling and Mekeil Williams for the injured Axel Sjoberg and Eric Miller is a significant factor.

Minnesota should be commended for coming to DSGP with a plan and getting out of town with their first ever MLS points. A team that had been pummeled for 11 goals in their previous two matches (insert dumpster_fire.gif here) swapped some personnel out and did a solid job of making the most of just a few chances.

From Colorado’s perspective, however, this sure felt like a winnable game that ended as a tie. Or worse, a tie that felt like a loss. Our coaching staff are certainly going to be asking some questions over the next two weeks off about how not to repeat the mistakes last Saturday night again soon.

We got two goals! Well that’s a switch!

Colorado dominated possession 64-36, as Minnesota defended deeply and let the Rapids venture forth in search of counterattack goals. The Rapids also led MNUFC in passes, 515-306, passing percentage, 81-71, and shots, 11-7.

Some of that was pretty passing:

Some of that was the Rapids high press generating turnovers for automatic goals, like the Rapids first one:

Some of that was the way the Rapids used their fullbacks in the attack, especially Marc Burch:

Burch was 46 for 57 in passing, good for 80.7%, with a decent 2 of 8 on crosses and a very good 4 for 9 on Long Balls. The blue arrow is his assist to Marlon Hairston at the back post in the 59th minute for the Rapids game-tying goal. The yellow was a great cross to Dom Badji in the 36th minute that he headed just wide.

The offense generated a bunch of good looks and was able to go through the middle some towards the end of the game when Justin Davis was sent off in the 70th minute for kicking Hairston. Of course the team should be capable of threatening goal against 10 men, but the Rapids were able to get between the lines and in front of the goal, and not just wing in hopeless crosses. Bismark Adjei-Boateng’s dribble to the top of the box that resulted in a foul and free kick was good evidence of that.

Of course, there were less rosy stretches for Colorado, who were totally ineffective in the first half - and especially the first painfully boring eleven minutes of the match - aside from that forced-turnover goal that Badji recorded. But overall, it was hopeful against Minnesota, even if the offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders.

Badji Can Finish? Badji Can Finish

The knock on Dominique Badji is that although he’s big and fast, he’s not accurate and he hasn’t proven himself to be a finisher at striker to this point. It’s an arguable thesis: Badji had six goals in 2016 but had an Expected Goals of 4.73, meaning the maths think he’s actually an above average finisher.

Don’t like math? Like documented evidence of a visual nature? Here was the quick-and-clean finish on that lightning-fast steal in the 17th minute.

Badji has two goals in three games for Colorado. Dom has scored in ‘16 and ‘17 from the left wing and striker positions. I’m not sure where he’s better, but I am pretty sure that’s he’s forced his way into the starting lineup for the foreseeable future with his play. With Gashi’s return, that meant that Kevin Doyle was pushed into the midfield instead of his normal role at striker, and Dillon Powers was pushed to bench.

Badji’s scoring seems to have re-ordered the Rapids pecking order a bit, and that’s something to watch going forward.

I made ‘em extra sloppy for ya!

Bobby Burling looked indecisive at times when he received the ball, and a little slow-to-respond defensively. Mekeil Williams put too much body on Minnesota midfielder Collen Warner, knocking him down in the box to earn a penalty. Jared Watts made mistakes - enough that the metric on soccer website uses to rate players put him at a putrid 6.12 (out of 10) for the match.

The backline weren’t good in this game. The reasons are both simple: too many sloppy mistakes, and too many occasions when the backline were pulled terribly out of shape, requiring one player or another to compensate for each other.

Here’s the worst example of the former.

I know you saw it. I saw it and thought - who took my efficient, effective Colorado Rapids defense and replaced it with these stooges?

Blame everyone. Blame Mekeil Williams and Marc Burch for BOTH heading up the pitch during a three-man Minnesota press. Blame Jared Watts for that AWFUL back pass to Tim Howard. Blame Bobby Burling and Micheal Azira for not checking back to bail out Howard on that pass. Blame Tim Howard for not clearing his lines and seeing the lurking Johan Venegas, who picks off the pass. And blame Azira and Cronin and Watts again for forgetting to pick up Rasmus Schuller as he comes top of the box.

It was a miracle they didn’t concede a goal here, but it was symptomatic of a defense that hadn’t played together much. Eric Miller will likely be back by the next match on April 9, as he only had a minor hamstring pull keeping him out of this one. Burling, however, will need to do better, as he’s likely going to be filling in for Axel Sjoberg until May.

Here’s that second Minnesota goal, which is due to the Rapids getting wildly pulled out of shape, and to Minnesota serving a perfect cross to the head of Christian Ramirez.

It’s a cascading series of errors. First, Marc Burch is way the hell up the field because he’s been playing far forward in the attack all game. That makes the defensive midfield have to cheat ball-side, with Micheal Azira defending the ball-carrier at the wing; it forces Marlon Hairston to have to play left back momentarily; and it requires Bobby Burling to protect the near side. It leaves a ton of space, and it leaves Jared Watts defending Ramirez by himself.

Meanwhile Jerome Thiessen, Ibsen, and Johan Venegas have overloaded the side and have a comfy 3-on-2, while Hairston is trying to emergency defend and read two players at once. Open cross, near post header, goal.

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with the Rapids pushing their fullbacks up the pitch. But they need to be better prepared to deal with the consequences if their opponent recover the ball with the fullback well behind the play.

The Left Wing Party

The wings were pretty uneven in this game in a fascinating way. Here are the sides of attack in this match (Rapids in orange, MNU in blue).

I tweeted mid-game about all the attacks running through Marc Burch, and clearly I exaggerated. Only 48% of the attacks went through Marc Burch.

Minnesota came down the left side 55% of the time, with Miguel Ibarra, Rasmus Schuller, and Justin Davis leading those attacks.

The Rapids wingers pushed high and overlapped often in attack. That led to a defensive action map for March Burch (#4) and Mekeil Williams (#5) that looked, uh, interesting.

Burch had three recoveries (yellow triangles) and all of them were high up the pitch. (Those other shapes are offensive in nature.) Meaning: Marc Burch was an attacking fullback and nothing more in this match. His job was to get forward early and often. It was the defensive midfielders and the center backs responsibilities to protect both the center and the wings. This is certainly interesting, but I’m not sure it worked, especially considering we conceded two goals.

Mekeil Williams, meanwhile, saw a lot more defensive action: 4 recoveries, 3 tackles (green triangles), and 3 clearances (purple triangles), and all of it was deep in the Rapids own defensive-end. Pablo and his men clearly believed that Minnesota was vulnerable at right back with Justin Davis in charge, and that he wouldn’t be a factor on the other end.

I dunno. I like it when the Rapids mix it up on offense: when they can cross from both sides, drive through the middle, high press in spots and lay back in spots, use speed, use quick passes, etc. I like a little of everything. Perhaps they because one dimensional and predictable in this one. Perhaps running your whole offense through your 32-year-old left back isn’t dynamic enough.

Perhaps this was a fluke.

Perhaps not.

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* Monty Python reference. Maybe worth knowing as a cultural point of knowledge. But possibly not.