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Backpass: Oh, Tim

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Kind of a bad game all-around for the Rapids, who drop their first match against SKC since 2015. Tim Howard also said some stuff he shouldn’t have.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Sporting KC
When your goal box is covered in the other team’s celebratory confetti, you know it wasn’t a great game.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday for me neatly paralleled the experience of the Rapids. It was the day before Passover, which for observant Jews involves a massive effort of cleaning, moving, cleaning, boiling, burning, and cleaning. That often involves mishaps.

In the morning, with the oven on self-cleaning high blast, I tried to put something in, and burned the living hell out of my right forearm. Midday, I was responsible for taking my in-laws to brunch, because it was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. I had to take care of my wife’s family and the kids and the Passover cleaning solo, because my wife, the defensive lynchpin of the family, was in Boston at a conference. I’m not a total train wreck as a parent, but I’m better with a strong partner in support. Between the meal and dessert, I dutifully informed the waitress it was my mother-in-law’s birthday before the dessert course, which I’m pretty sure universally translates in the food service world as ‘put candles on that dessert crepe, lady.’ Crepe comes. No candles. Then, I burned three fingers while boiling water. Rabbi, burned again. At the end of the day, I got a small break because I was able to unload my daughter on somebody else for three hours for a play date. Nice, but a small consolation to the other crappy parts of the day..

Here’s how the Rapids sync up with that day:

  • Tim Howard starts the day off at 6’ reaching for a ball. He punches with his forearm and fails to clear it adequately. He gets burned by Seth Sinovic. 1-0, SKC.
  • The Rapids play their first game in the post-Sam Cronin era, who has been the team’s defensive lynchpin since he joined the team to start the 2015 season. The midfield, while not a total train wreck without Sam, is certainly weaker without a strong voice barking orders at other defenders and making timely decisions.
  • The Rapids have three significant first half chances: two crosses across the face of goal from Hairston that Micheal Azira couldn’t connect with, and a perfect cross from Kevin Doyle to Dominique Badji that Tim Melia made a tremendous save on at 44’. No candles.
  • The Rapids concede a second goal when the fullbacks are pushed up on a quick-counter and three midfield defenders fail to recover the ball or close-off the outlet pass. So Dom Dwyer settles it and passes to Roger Espinoza, who lays in a perfect pass to Gerso Fernandez. 2-0, SKC. Rapids, burned again.
  • Dom Dwyer gets a 3rd goal on a perfect long pass from Seth Sinovic*. There’s no metaphor from my own weekend on this. Even clumsy-ass rabbis don’t get burned that many times in their holiday cleaning.
  • The Rapids get a consolation goal on a penalty when Soni Mustivar fouls Dom Badji in the box. Kinda like having another parent take your 4-year-old daughter off your hands for 2 hours; nice, but ultimately meaningless when you still have to clean a house and entertain your in-laws while getting burned multiple times. Rapids fall to SKC, 3-1.

A Shorter Summary

In 140 characters, here was my instant reaction. Upon re-watching the match, I think I got it pretty right.

The Rapids desire to be more attacking, as Pablo Mastroeni mentioned earlier this season in a Denver Post article, meant that the team pushed pretty high with the fullbacks. That’s not inherently bad, as long as your fullbacks don’t make big mistakes or get caught out. Ours did both. On SKC’s second goal, our fullbacks are caught out, leaving Roger Espinoza all alone. On the third goal, Eric Miller swings to kick the ball and whiffs, turning it over to Daniel Salloi in Rapids territory. Miller fouls Salloi and picks up a yellow In the ensuing play, SKC scores.

On top of that, the Rapids fullbacks didn’t pass so good: Miller was 16/21 for 76%; Mekeil Williams was 28/45, or 62%. Williams was also 0 for 5 on long balls. Williams also had three passes that were turned over in the Rapids own-third of the field, a big no-no. This was a bad debut for the guy that is replacing the ever-reliable Marc Burch.

The second goal was a good reveal of an all-around defensive breakdown. I’m sure this will get a lot of looks from the coaching staff and the players this week. Let’s dissect.

When the ball is booted long by Gerso Fernandez, Mekeil Williams is standing right in front of him. That’ll leave our two centerbacks and our two d-mids to deal with this cleared ball/long pass. Dom Dwyer wins it, back-to-goal, at the midfield line, with Jared Watts defending him. Micheal Azira is getting back from the offensive attack. Nana Boateng is floating in space, and reacts slowly to the play: first watching, then jogging, and finally, running. Dwyer takes three touches. The second touch cuts out Jared Watts. You can watch Watts prevaricate: ‘Should I go after Dwyer? Oh, maybe Nana’s got him. Maybe I go with Espinoza? Oops he’s gone. Crap.’ Crap indeed. Watts gets killed on this play.

Dwyer’s third touch completely destroys Boateng. Azira tries to salvage the play, but Dwyer knocks a beautiful pass to Espinoza. Now Espinoza, the wily veteran with almost 13,000 minutes in MLS, alongside three years in the England Premier League and English Championship with Wigan, is in a three-on-one against Kort Ford**, who is playing his first professional match ever.

Ford does a good thing: he gets into the right space to contain either Espinoza or an attacker. But Espinoza’s pass into space for Gerso is perfect. Watt’s emergency tackle is too late. SKC scores.

A good follow-up question here: Azira has successfully tracked back and is defending the back post. But where is Mekeil Williams? He was standing next to Gerso at the start of this play. Now, he’s nowhere to be found. And where is Nana? He was at midfield 10 seconds ago. Watts and Williams and Boateng all make multiple errors here. Two of those guys would have been on the bench if Burch and Cronin were still with the Rapids.

That doesn’t mean I hate the ‘Cronin & Burch for Saeid & Gatt & Cap room’ trade. Nor does it mean that the Rapids are doomed this season. The new-look Rapids are a work-in-progress. That said, this was a bad start to the new regime. The defense needs to step up.

Oh, Tim

All of this will be overshadowed in the postmortem analysis by Tim Howard’s day, which began with conceding a soft goal, and got worse from there. Here’s that conceded goal, at 6’.

Howard reaches for an out-swinging cross that isn’t on frame at all - its what the Men in Blazers would term a ‘sh-ass’, a shot so bad it might be better to call it a pass. Howard punches right into the path of the unmarked Seth Sinovic. This is not a defensive breakdown - everyone that is critical to KC’s attack is marked, and the defense is well positioned. Except Howard’s punch has created a scoring chance, and KC converts.

Hey, man, that happens. Every keeper is going to give up an untidy clearance from time to time. MLS left backs won’t always finish those. This is an error, but a reasonable one. Wait for it.

A little later, at the 19th minute, the fans at Children’s Mercy Park are getting on Tim. Howard extends his greetings back in a manner that, well, you don’t want to get caught doing on national television.

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Later still, the ‘Cauldron’ is bubbling, probably throwing a lot of foul insults at Timmy. Tim does a really really dumb thing and responds.

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Dude. In the Russian Premier League, they throw bananas at black players and call them the ‘N’ word. In Liga MX, goalkeepers get bags of piss thrown at them and laser pointers in their faces. In Argentina, some a**-hole pepper sprayed the entire River Plate team last year.

As a player, it is your job not to respond. Even if you had a bad day. That’s the deal. Sure SKC’s fans were probably being jerks. But the trade-off as a professional athlete is: you have to do your job in front of thousands of people. In exchange, you get shoe contracts, and first class accommodations, and TV commercials selling online college classes, and $6 million a year. But you don’t get to tell the fans that you advocate their committing incest with their direct relatives.

(To add to all this, the guys at Total Soccer Show noted that Howard also had words in the post-match handshakes with Dom Dwyer, which I can’t substantiate, and also, Dom’s obnoxious so I kinda get that. But still.)

Tim’s going to get asked about this by media this week. He’ll probably be contrite and this will all blow over. And yet, just like the defensive failures, this isn’t good enough, and we, the fans, expect better.

The Offense?

There wasn’t a lot. But it was close! The Rapids had an early chance at around 4’ - a cross from Hairston that Badji and Azira streaked for, but couldn’t reach. An identical chance was left begging at 45’.

It’s a 4-on-4 break! It looks good at first. Badji does well to dribble and body-up Ike Opara. Doyle momentarily occupies Jimmy Medranda enough to open space for Hairston. Badji makes a great pass to Marlon Hairston. Hairston probably has a good shot here, but elects to pass. And overshoots Micheal Azira. If this is converted, it’s 1-1 at the half, and the Rapids are looking at a very different ball game.

Just before that was another one that should have been a goal, were it not for an awesome stop by Tim Melia, who is low-key having an awesome start to 2017. Doyle makes a great cross to the back-post, and Dom Badji elevates and heads it into a great spot. Tim just got there first (oh, Tim.)

The Third Goal: “Listen to me. It’s not your fault.”

At 67’, with the team down 2-0, Mastroeni subs on Bobby Burling for Kortne Ford. I’m sure a few of you were like: wut? I can explain, I think.

Pablo is bringing on the big 6’6” guy for his offensive potential. He tells him to get forward and play high; a box-to-box headed specialist. Think Axel Sjoberg in 2016 against Vancouver breaking his wrist and tying the score on a last second header. So Bobby is told to play high. How high?

That’s Burling, the central defender, attacking a ball midfield. He doesn’t get it. Jimmy Medranda does, and feeds Seth Sinovic. At this point, Jared Watts is back as the lone defender. Sinovic (arrgh!) pings the perfect 30 yard diagonal to Dom Dwyer, who tallies his first goal of 2017. I ain’t gifin’ in. Go look it up on mlssoccer.com.

At this point, Pablo’s making a desperate gamble to get the team back into it while down 2-0. It doesn’t work out. That happens with desperate gambles. But don’t blame them for goal 3.

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Colorado needed to have a game without Sam Cronin and Marc Burch that could tell them what they now lack. So far, it looks like they need better communication on defense. They need better fullback play in both directions. They need Nana Boateng to step up and be the guy now that, you know, he’s the guy. And unrelated to the trade, they need Marlon Hairston and Dominique Badji to go from ‘promising MLS players of the future’ to ‘league-topping, goal-generating, two-headed monster’. They need Shkelzen Gashi to get it going this year: he’s barely made any noise for the Rapids from any position ever since he scored that 36 yard rocket against LA Galaxy in the playoffs.

It’s just one game, but it looked like it exposed a lot of potential long-term flaws that underlies this team. Or maybe it was just a clunker on the road.

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* One time on Backpass I made a lot of fun of Seth Sinovic for getting torched twice by Vicente Sanchez. [Since the gifs were done on Vine, and Vine is dead, you can’t see them anymore. Boo.] I consider Sinovic destroying the Rapids on national tv a form of karmic justice.

** Kort Ford looked pretty good in this game, I thought. Solid performance, no horrendous mistakes - he got beat on the dribble once, to my recollection.