The trade of Sam Cronin and Marc Burch, which was revealed this week to have been a trade five months in the making, is done. Sam and Marc are wearing sky blue, black, and grey. Mohammed Saeid and Joshua Gatt are wearing burgundy. Now it’s time to to put this lineup back together. Here’s my thoughts on who goes where.
Lineup 1: Stability, with a few switches
This lineup is assuming that the trade with Minnesota was about two things: cap-space and Nana.
The first thing assumes the Rapids made this trade primarily in order to clear cap space so that they can make a move for a new player between now and July, when MLS’ transfer window closes. And the second thing about this lineup is that Sam Cronin was moved out to clear a spot in the starting XI for Bismark Adjei-Boateng . The Rapids just needed to wait to move Sam until the price was driven up.
With those thoughts in mind, this lineup features the same formation (a 4-2-3-1) and the same personnel as week 3 versus Minnesota, with two switches: Nana in for Cronin, and Williams in for Marc Burch. Pablo Mastroeni prefers to have Nana playing a little deeper, and this lineup reflects that assessment: he’s a pure defensive midfielder. Burch can be replaced by Mekeil Williams, who has expressed comfort playing at either left or right back. In fact, he regularly features as a left back for Trinidad and Tobago, while the Rapids have used him mostly at right back. So this lineup here is just an uncreative, plug-and-play XI.
Which might still be the best look for the Rapids. One stated goal of the Rapids as part of this trade was being more ‘offensively-minded’. Burch gave pretty good service and could certainly get forward, but Williams is the speedier option, and he plays well in short passing combos, too. Azira’s ability to close off space makes him the ‘shield’, while Nana plays the ‘sword’ - marauding and destroying, and forcing errant passes that Azira or the backline scoop up. The offensive four stay the same as last time out.
Lineup 2: There may be something there that wasn't there before
It’s possible that the trade will push the Rapids to make a formation change, and although I’m skeptical, I think it’s worth entertaining.
To get more offense out of the Rapids, you need central midfielders that can really do a job in both directions: offense and defense. Azira and Cronin are/were purely defensive. Adjei-Boateng and Mohammed Saeid are an unknown quantity, but maybe, just maybe, they’re capable of being true two-way players. In that case, you go 4-4-2.
Doyle also needs the support of a partner, and also likes to drop back into midfield when needed, or to make the run off the bigger holdup man. These are things you can do if you have a two-striker system.
The pluses of this formation and lineup are that it’s more offensive, and it plays to speed and width better. The minuses are that you are more likely to get outnumbered in midfield if you face a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, and that you are asking a lot from those central midfielders.
The last little tweak you’ll see here is that Dillon Serna (!) is your left back. Look, Serna’s great and we all love him. But he’s stuck behind a DP left wing in Gashi, and the emerging talent that is Marlon Hairston. He’s probably not physical or composed enough to be a starting number 10 - if he was, we’d have seen it by now, other than one game in the US Open Cup last year. So put him at left back and see what happens. We know he can bomb forward and overlap. We’ll find out if he can be a full-time defender.
Lineup 3 “The Two Yoots.” “Did you say, ‘Yoots’?”
First, ignore the personnel and think about a formation change. The Rapids could go to a 4-3-3 on the assumption that it’ll be more attacking, and that Boateng can be the defensive midfielder alone. To be honest, I think that would be highly unlikely. I believe Pablo Mastroeni would prefer to put five defensive midfielders on the pitch over only one. Pablo likes defending. He does not like making managerial moves that are guaranteed to result in the Rapids conceding more goals.
It’s also possible to see this 4-3-3 as having three midfielders with three distinct roles. One of those is a number 10, a pure attacking midfielder. One is a number 8, a box-to-box roamer. And one is a number 6, a shield. So your number 10 is probably Kevin Doyle, your 8 is Nana, and your 6 is Dillon Powers. Powers may not have demonstrated his defensive chops yet, but it’s probably high time he be given the chance. Also, playing Powers deep allows him to see the whole field and bang big diagonals or through-balls to the attackers. You don’t play him deep because of his defensive abilities - you play him deep to see if it can unlock his offensive capabilities, a la Andrea Pirlo. We’ve been talking about this for a long time, so maybe we’ll actually finally see it happen soon.
“But Rabbi, you didn’t write ‘Doyle’ in at the number 10. You wrote ‘Perez’.” Yes. Yes I did.
I’d like to see Ricardo Perez get a shot on the field. He was a number 10 at Creighton, and he’s been groomed as a number 10. When he played in preseason, he looked like a number 10, in terms of being an excellent dribbler and being able to make the slick pass. It may be too early in the season to be making risky moves with untested players. But the Rapids have been trying to figure out the number 10 spot since forever. In my time in Colorado (since 2013), they’ve tried:
None of those guys has reached what I consider the gold-standard of CAMs: double-digit assists. In 2016, 13 MLS players had double-digit assists. In 2015, 10 players did it. The last Colorado Rapid to have double-digit assists? Omar Cummings in 2009 - and a big reason for that was Conor Casey banging in 16 goals that year. So we haven’t had a clear success with our attacking midfielders in a long time. Let’s try something new.
While we’re tinkering, it’s time to take the departure of Marc Burch as a chance to refresh the back line with some new options as well. Mekiel Williams slots in at left back. Then you try newly-acquired USL defender Mike da Fonte at right back (note: now you know why da Fonte was brought in - Colorado knew they’d be unloading a defender.) Da Fonte is probably best as a center back, but he’s bounced around in soccer in a lot of different ways. He’s here because it’s assumed he’s adaptable. Hell, he might even be great at right back. And then, the piece-de-resistance, Kortne Ford starts at center back. I’ll explain.
Burling and Miller looked shaky at best in their last outings: Miller had that own-goal against NYRB, along with terrible passing for the match. Burling looked a touch indecisive and slow-to-commit on both sides of the ball against Minnesota. Giving da Fonte and Ford a chance to show their stuff might be a leap, but I think it’s worth putting them on the field and giving them a try.
This lineup (as is customary with my “Three Lineups” articles) is the least likely. But it’s always worth throwing out crazy ideas. Like, say, trading our captain away.
Never be afraid to question all of your preconceived notions. The sun revolved around the earth until Copernicus woke up one day and said it didn’t. Sometimes good things come when you throw out everything you assume and try something new. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Don’t answer that.