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Backpass: The optimist, the pragmatist, and the pessimist

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We still don’t know what the 2017 Rapids are. How you perceive them might tell you a lot about who you are, though.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Minnesota United FC
These guys used to wear the same kit. (Sigh.)
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

How was your weekend? Mine was fine. The weather was nice on Sunday; I got a lot of yard work done. My favorite Bundesliga club, Mainz 05, got a great draw against Bayern Munich. And I watched two fantastic MLS matches in Philadelphia-Montreal and Dallas-SKC.

But, well, the Rapids lost. So we’ve got to talk about that.

There are a lot of ways to approach this match, and the Rapids season up till now. Inspired by a quote from the recent S-Town podcast by Brian Reed and Julie Snyder, which is awesome and you should listen to, I’m breaking down the broader meaning of this game by applying a variety of philosophical approaches. First, the t-shirt slogan that inspired me.

We’re gonna call these three approaches ‘optimism’, ‘pragmatism’, and ‘pessimism.’* I know some of you might prefer that I use the approach of ‘realism’. No thanks. I don’t really buy into ‘realism’. Realism at best is me giving you a recap of what happened in the game. We didn’t score. They scored. We lost. I did that already. It’s called a recap.

At worst, ‘realism’ is what pessimists use to argue that they aren’t negative about things, they’re just right... you’ll see. Yeah, I don’t buy that.

Here’s a quick recap of the salient details of this game, to jog your memory.

  • In the 5th minute, Mohammed Saeid almost gave the team a right-out-of-the-box lead when he struck a shot from 15 yards out that was blocked by Minnesota.
  • Not much happens for the next 30 minutes. A lot of fouls. Marlon Hairston has the ball at his feet a bunch, but Minnesota is wary of his speed and sits deep on him.
  • In the 37th minute, Kevin Doyle gets a chance with his back to goal. He bicycles the ball into his own face.

...

  • The first half, mercifully, ends. Neither team records a shot on target in the first frame.
  • In the 54th minute, a long diagonal from Marc Burch (who belongs to Minnesota now, in case you forgot) ends up with Kevin Molino, who bursts through the defense for a shot. Zac MacMath makes a fingertip save. Kortne Ford makes a sliding tackle to save a sure put-back goal from Christian Ramirez.

...

  • In the 61st minute, Dominique Badji wondos the ball over the crossbar spectacularly. I mean, dude was putting his hands to his face before it even hit the bar like ‘Oh no.’ Oh no indeed.

...

  • In the 62nd minute, the Rapids concede a dangerous run to Kevin Molino, who feeds Christian Ramirez right in front of goal. Zac MacMath makes a phenomenal reaction save to keep things even.

...

...

  • In the 72nd minute, a cross cleared by Ford falls to Minnesota’s Ibsen. Ibsen’s shot is nearly perfect, but it rattles off the far post. Ramirez heads to Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra heads it into the net.
  • In the 82nd minute, Marlon Hairston sees a nice chance from the right side, but can’t generate much oomph behind the ball. That’s all she wrote. Rapids lose, 1-0.

...

It’s only six games in. We don’t really know that much yet. But we know some things. So here are three takes on this game and it’s broader implications. I recommend you read all three, but if you wanted to go all ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ on me, feel free to select the approach that best matches your personality.

The Optimistic Approach

The Rapids have been competitive and solid in the past two matches against RSL and Minnesota United, despite missing some or all of the following regulars: Tim Howard, Dillon Serna, Jared Watts, Axel Sjoberg, Shkelzen Gashi, and Alan Gordon. That’s 9062 minutes of soccer from 2016 the Rapids have a need to replace. Those injured/suspended starters must be replaced with sub-quality players; and those bench-subs are now primarily composed of reserve team players.

And they’ve done pretty good! They were 6 minutes shy of a 1-1 draw against RSL before Liverpool youth player Brooks Lennon did that thing that fantastic inverted wingers do; cut in and burn defenders. And they were a bad shot from Badji and a pair of lucky bounces to Ibsen and Christian Ramirez away from a draw, maybe even a win.

Even though the lineup card didn’t reflect it, Pablo Mastroeni finally shifted Dillon Powers back to playing as a defensive midfielder, and Mohammed Saied played as the pass-making number 10. He looked pretty good! Here was his passing map in that droll first half.

On the day, Saeid was 31/35 in passing, for a stellar 88.6%, although as you can see, fully 23 of those came in the first half. United’s manager Adrien Heath clearly adjusted at the break in order to close off the spigot to Saeid. Overall, Saeid also had 3 key passes, leading all Colorado players on the day.

Kort Ford also had a good day, recording 5 clearances and 2 interceptions to go with 1 tackle. He was also not afraid to get physical, as he was whistled for 3 fouls. Consider what the future holds for these Rapids...

The Badji miss was atrocious, but everyone blows an easy chance now and again. The term for blowing it over the bar inside the six yard box has become known since 2014 as ‘Wondo-ing’. Yet Chris Wondolowski has 123 MLS goals to date, and seven consecutive double-digit goal scoring seasons. So, everybody should be allowed a face-slapping miss now and again. Hell, maybe the agony of that miss fuels Badji’s fire to become a lethal weapon from here on out.

Lastly, everybody was talking about Tim Howard’s suspension, and then Zac MacMath turns in a stellar performance on Sunday, taking away two sure goals from Minnesota. When the technical directors of other teams look at the Rapids, I’m certain a lot of them are trying to piece together trade offers to pry the Florida native out from under Colorado, where he’s liable to spend stretches of the season on the bench behind Secretary of Defense Timmy Ho.

So, there was good here. It’s all something to build on going forward.

The Pragmatic Approach

Pragmatism is defined by its creator as this: “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

What, practically, can we make of events of the Colorado Rapids, up till now? Well:

  • We have two DPs on the roster. One, Shkelzen Gashi, has only started 2 games. The other, Tim Howard, has only started 3 games. That’s bound to hurt ya.
  • The lynchpin of the ball club had been captain Sam Cronin. He, along with starting defender Marc Burch, was traded to clear up salary cap space. That cap room hasn’t been utilized yet, so the Rapids are effectively playing with a roster they know is depleted.
  • Cronin was moved to make room for Bismark Adjei-Boateng. Boateng then got hurt. There isn’t much the team could have done to predict that: players get hurt. Swapping Sam for Nana was probably the right move, but bad luck means it was a net-negative for the Rapids this season. If he gets healthy and plays well, it might still work out fine.
  • The team is on an ugly three-game losing skid. The team never lost three matches in row in all of 2016. Heck, they only lost two in a row once last year.
  • The Rapids sit last in Western Conference with only 4 points through six games. And don’t give me that ‘but we’ve got games in hand’ BS. The Rapids sit last in the Western Conference on Points Per Game, with a 0.67 PPG.
  • On the other hand, six games is a tiny portion of the season - only 17% of the year has gone by. A paltry two-game win streak would likely boost the team back above the playoff-qualified red line. Nothing is f’ed here, dude.
  • The team recently cleared cap space for a big signing. They also still have their third DP, Juan Ramirez, on the books till approximately July. That means that one or two big players could be coming to this team in time for the big July 4th game. That player (or players) is going to be a creative attacker, according to Padraig Smith, who told the Denver Post on March 31:

“We want to be a more offensive-minded team... We’ve identified a number of key targets and the additional financial flexibility this deal gives us will put us in a position to execute on those plans.”

  • On July 24, 2016, 20 games into the season, the Seattle Sounders were near the bottom of the Western Conference. MLS stats guru Ben Baer gave them “a zero percent chance of making the playoffs.” We know how that all turned out. So the Rapids FO may be crazy like a fox. In a salary cap league where 12 out of 22 teams makes the playoffs, spending money on the first half of the season is, to put it in Machiavellian terms, wasteful and inefficient. For all intents and purposes, you can field a mediocre team and scrape along at bottom of the table until June or July, then re-stock the roster with European castoffs and aspiring social-climbers from South America, make the playoffs, and win the Cup. Is this the Rapids plan? The practical effects of the Front Office will play out over the next 31 games.

In short, the Rapids aren’t good in the near term because they aren’t built to be good in the near term. We don’t yet know what the long term plan holds, or if there even is a long term plan, although evidence points to there being one.

The Pessimistic Approach

Pessimism became the default setting of Rapids fans after two terrible seasons in a row, 2014 and 2015. The pessimistic approach for the Rapids, above all, is that 2016’s success was a fluke, and that the team is regressing back to its natural state as MLS whipping boy.

There are many reasonable signs that vindicate this viewpoint.

  • The most important thing in MLS 3.0 is having your Designated Player signings and upper-middle class TAM signings work out well. We’ve struck out on all of them. Our current DPs are 1) Shkelzen Gashi, who has started the season slowly, possibly due to illness; 2) Tim Howard, who is coming off of a torn adductor and was banned for three games for inquiring about the carnal availability of the mothers of SKC fans, and 3) Juan Ramirez, who, according to TiesUBetcha, while out on loan over in 2016 has played in “26 games, (with) 1 goal between Almeria (Spanish 2nd Div) and Talleres (Argentina 1st Div)”. Their big TAM player, Kevin Doyle, is the bright spot, with 2 goals through 5 games this season, a big improvement over his 14 goals in 55 games from the previous two years with the Rapids. So our big signings haven’t been good in 2017.
  • Our two young up-and-comers, Dom Badji and Marlon Hairston, who were so good in 2016, have reverted to being pumpkins in 2017. That optimist up above remembers Badji outracing defenders on the break and slotting home goals as his typical behavior, and his missing sitters in front of goal as fluke brain farts that all players experience. The pessimist says that the real Badji is the one we saw Sunday: a guy that can’t shoot straight. There’s a reason he went un-drafted to the 4th round. Hairston, meanwhile, has been productive in his Rapids career only for a very brief span running from July 16 to August 13 of last year. He bagged 3 goals, 2 assists in that time, which is pretty damn good. But maybe we’ve seen all his tricks, and perhaps he’s less like Jordan Morris and more like Dilly Duka - the can’t miss prospect that missed.
  • Unloading Marc Burch, who turns 33 this season, and Sam Cronin, who turns 31 at the end of the year, might be a smart move for a team trying to unload somewhat pricey, middle-of-the-road players that can be replaced for cheaper. But it also killed the team. In a 4-2-3-1, your two defensive midfielders are possibly the most important players on the team. How important are good defensive midfielders? Last year, with N’Golo Kante on Leicester City, they went 23-12-3 (WTL) and won the Premier League. This year, without N’Golo Kante, Leicester are 10-7-15, and sit 12th in the Premier League. Other than that, there are really no significant differences in Leicesters roster. With Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira last year, the Rapids conjured magic, as the two played so well together that they were more than sum of their parts; some thought Sam Cronin was the best defensive midfielder in MLS last year. Selling Sam and Marc spells doom for the Rapids; even if they bring in some transfer mid-year, they may take some time to jell. 2016 is toast.
  • Asking Pablo Mastroeni, a former defensive midfielder, to suddenly become an offensive Svengali because the Front Office wants him to is a bad idea. As I counciled a colleague in regards to someone once “A duck is a duck, and it can’t be a fish.” Mastroeni is a defensive-first coach. Pushing him to be something he isn’t will certainly end badly.

...

Which approach should a Rapids fan take? I can’t tell you that. Certain folks are predisposed to specific dispositions in life. I’m a bit of a rationalist, so I will likely hew towards the pragmatic view. Predicting doom and gloom is an entirely reasonable yet depressing life philosophy. The optimistic viewpoint makes the most sense if you are a season ticket holder. Since you’ve plunked all that money down, you’re probably inclined to believe it will render a fair amount of joy.

So, fans, where are you at? Optimist, pessimist, or pragmatist? Whatever it may be, there will come a time where our perceptions of the team are irrelevant - you are either above or below the red line. That time isn’t now, but the Rapids can’t keep misfiring for long and expect to make a run at some hardware in 2017.

— — — — — — — — —

* Is the pragmatist the glass above that says ‘I think this is piss’? He’s evaluating the data based on the available evidence - the liquid is yellow. This is either beer or piss. Or is the pragmatist the ‘The glass is half full’ glass? He’s thinking- there’s only 8 ounces of fluid left to consume, I’d better take my time. S-town’s main subject, John B Macklemore, had a decidely pessimistic; nay, apocalyptic; view of the world, that I think is ascribed to the ‘I think this is piss’ ethos. I dunno, man.