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Backpass: The Downward Spiral

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Losing can be the result of a lack of planning, a deficit in talent, the result of a bad bounce, or a failure of confidence. Or maybe all four at once.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado is back in familiar territory: the sucking undertow of a losing streak. The last time the Rapids lost this many games was the back end of the 2014 season, when a spate of injuries decimated the back line for the Rapids, resulting in a 7-game skid. The Rapids were outscored 22-7 over that stretch, losing games by scores of 3-0, 4-2, and 6-0. They looked hopelessly outclassed against every opponent. It was awful.

The Rapids current skid is bad, but not as bad as 2014. In the past five win-less games, Colorado has been outscored 9-2. And the team has not scored a goal since April 15th.

Things are going badly for the Rapids.

It will take a combination of coaching ingenuity, team leadership, belief in one another, the timely return of some injured players, better chances created in the final third, and luck to get this team off the whammy. Your guess is as good as mine if they can make that happen.

Losing one game can be the result of a bad bounce or a momentary lapse by a player. Losing five games in a row can quickly turn toxic for a locker room. Teammates begin blaming each other or the coach. Players cease passing or following directions. Teammates become selfish or self-protective. Confidence falters and the ‘right’ play is abandoned in favor of the ‘safe’ play. The fans stop supporting the players, the coach, and the Front Office, and start blaming them instead.

You can see all of that personified in one play. Take a look at minute 38 against Vancouver this past Friday.

Off an unsuccessful corner, the ball bounced out to Mekeil Williams at midfield, who stood over it, and pondered, and vacillated, and gave up for a long, long pass all the way back to Tim Howard. In another year or on another team, this isn’t a noteworthy event, but with a Rapids team that is caught in a downward spiral, this sheepish counter-productive pass embodies the lack of belief this team has in itself right now. Altitude commentators Marcelo Balboa and Richard Fleming saw it, too. Marcelo and Richard clearly flashed each other a knowing look (eye roll?) before Balboa said this:

“I’ll say it. I’ll say it. A ball comes back to you there off a corner kick? You can’t send it back to the keeper. You just can’t."

A free fall like this can be arrested if the team can find a little rhythm going, get the right mix into the starting lineup, summon up some confidence, and get a lucky bounce or two. But it takes more energy and perseverance to reverse a losing streak like this than it would to just go out and play a regular old game. Does this team have what it takes to turn things around?

Positive Signs

Last week, the Rapids could only muster three measly shots against Disney World United FC. This week, somebody told these guys to shoot the rock, and they listened. Colorado busted off 15 shots, a season high so far in 2017. The chart:

Red- Off target ; Yellow- Blocked ; Green- On target.

Fully 8 of these shots are from 30 yards out or beyond. That’s not great, but considering the starting lineup the Rapids sent out was Alan Gordon, Mohammed Saeid, Shkelzen Gashi, and Kevin Doyle, this is somewhat expected. This is not the speedy lineup - this is the sniper-shot lineup, and they played accordingly.

Colorado got these chances with some ticky-tacky ball movement that looked livelier and more productive than it had to this point in the season.

This play of Azira-to-Doyle-to-Saeid-to-Gordon-to-Doyle is gorgeous: one-touch passing, playing through the middle, Gordon making a play flow with his back to goal, Doyle making a decent impression of number 10, Mohammed Saied playing a key role as a shuttler. This is the paradigm the team needs to operate in, with the added point that this should have resulted in a shot from a central position, and not a bail-out pass to the wing.

Here’s another sign-of-life in the Colorado attack:

Doyle dribbling out of trouble away from two defenders is *thumbs-up-sunglasses-guy-big-smile-emoji.jpeg* . Everything’s great here until Powers kind of makes the run into the wrong place and Doyle’s pass bonks off of him. But I like that idea! It’s not out to the wing or a slow-bail-out-and-recirculation; the pass was bold and into a dangerous spot, and the deflection ended with Miller fouled on the edge of the box. Gashi took the free kick but it struck the head of one of the Vancouver defenders in the wall.

Gashi led the team with 5 shots: two were wide; two were blocked; one was on target, but a bit soft. One of those was nearly the breakthrough for the ‘Pids:

So even though the final product wasn’t there; and even though I was a little dismayed at our lack of speed; and even though the mix of shots weighed too heavily on long-range efforts, I was pleased with the overall idea. I’m uncomfortable with the notion that since we lost, this was the wrong lineup. There was a lot to like in this attack. I think if the Rapids trotted out these same exact four attackers again next week, or swapped Doyle for Serna and let the three midfielders take turns at coming central to play as the number 10, it would be a good look for this club.

To add to that, we were one bad Gordon touch and one miraculous save-off-the-line by David Ousted away from being up 1-0 going into the final minutes. Poor finishing and unlucky bounces will be the death of me.

But also, there were problems

We’ll start with the shooting. 15 shots with 1 on-target is horrible. Just horrible. Should we have scored one of those goals? Or should the team have been trying to get in closer to goal more? The Expected Goals data on the game shows that the Rapids xG was 0.58, while Vancouver’s xG was 0.56 (on 9 shots). That tells us that the sum total of the Rapids shots, on average, don’t quite render a likely goal. Teams get a goal sometimes with an xG below 1.0, but statistically, the closer to 1.0 you are, the more likely a goal is to occur - an xG near or above 2.0 says the statistical likelihood is that you scored two goals, etc. So while I’m happy the team got trigger happy for once this year, I think a better mix of speed, passing, and shooting power would provide a better mix of shots that are more likely to yield goals. I’d gladly trade 15 shots outside the box for just 4 or 5 from inside the box. The odds are better, and I think (I hope?) the Rapids coaching staff know that.

Alan Gordon was off-side twice - just barely - in situations that nearly resulted in goals, and his biff up above is the reason he has a reputation as a monster with his head, but unreliable with his feet. Is he the best option at striker? Can he get his shooting boots (shooting helmet?) on right? We’ve seen what the other options - Dom Badji and Kevin Doyle - have to offer, and it’s probably not enough. Doyle also made a decent showing as the CAM this week, as you can see from some of the runs and take-ons I gif’ed above. He especially looked good with Mohammed Saeid working off of him. But back to the point - striker is still a big donut hole for the Rapids right now, and that’s another serious problem.

Can we talk about Mekeil Williams in this game? Man, he had issues. The Rapids offense is still running through left back much of the time, the same as in the Marc Burch days. Williams was second on the team in touches in this game, with 95. The good is that he led the team in tackles (5), accurate crosses (3 out of 7), and passing percentage (93.9). But Williams did some things in this match that were slap-your-forehead bad. His two yellow card fouls got him sent off in the 88th minute*, and the second one was really, really dumb and obvious. He also had two missed tackles that resulted in chances for Vancouver - Eric Miller on the other side had zero tackles but also zero missed tackles. There was also this moment, which really could have been disaster for the Rapids, back in the 58th minute:

...

Reminded me of this:

...

“Went like this, he went like this, I said to Hollywood ‘Where’d he go?’ Hollywood said ‘Where’d whoooo gooooo?’”

Fans are going to talk about how we’ve struggled without Sam Cronin and that losing him was devastating for the Rapids. I’m concerned that losing Marc Burch is at least as big a net-loss for the team as losing Sam. I had hopes that Williams would emerge as an equivalent force for the Rapids at the key position of left back, but this game did not make me confident that Williams is the guy. I think it was couple of inconveniently timed errors, but it feels like each of our defenders have had one or more bad games his season: Miller had a bad game against RBNY, Burling got beat back post twice over this losing streak, and Watts had that handball/penalty/red card. It’s got to stop, or the losing streak will go on.

Oh also, in case you forgot, we conceded late, just like we did against Real Salt Lake. This recurring problem has also got to stop.

That ball took a really lucky bounce to end up with Nicolas Mezquida, and he smokes in the perfect pass to the fastest guy on the pitch, all while the Rapids have pushed up their defense, and especially their fullbacks, on attack. Still: where was Jared Watts? (Watts made that midfield tackle - better ‘why was Watts so high? shouldn’t Azira or Powers have been shielding a little deeper?’) Shea should have had to beat at least two guys here.

The 24th Minute

I had this crazy idea the day after Kortne Ford announced that his mother Laurie was undergoing treatment for cancer: let’s do something as fans to show our love. But also, to help raise some money for the Fords. I had seen Premier League teams ‘stand’ in a certain minute for a cause, and I thought that was pretty cool. I brought Abbie in on the idea, who suggested we should make signs. I invited some other Rapids fans over to make two-poles. And it all came together! On what was otherwise a bad game, it was nice to show support for Kort and his mom. I can tell from the money raised (over $12,000 by this writing - you can donate here) and the response on social media from the Fords that it was important and appreciated. I’ll write a full reflection later, but for now, it was really nice to have something positive in the midst of a rough patch for this team.

So thanks to all of you who donated, or stood up and clapped, or made a sign, or forwarded a link. Thanks also to the staff with the Colorado Rapids, who were really helpful and accommodating in this whole 24th minute effort. I am grateful to Emily Maguire and John Hess for coordinating this whole effort on the club side.

By the way, you can give right here to the Ford gofundme page. Consider skipping your latte and instead, just fire up a Keurig pod at home. Then give $5.

Dissension in the Ranks

I was down in Section 117 with Centennial 38 for this game** rather than my usual seats in the 109, because 117 is the only section that allows flags and two-poles. This was the first game since C38 posted a letter, rebuking the Rapids management for the current direction of the club. So, um, kinda awkward. Throughout the game, it only got worse.

First half was pretty much ok, until that Mekeil Williams backpass to Tim Howard. Some (many?) members of C38 booed lustily. About 8 people in the section followed up by chanting ‘Fuera Pablo’ - ‘Fire Pablo.’ They started that cheer again at the end of the half, and again after Brek Shea scored his goal, and again at the final whistle. In between, they yelled ‘puto’ at Vancouver GK David Ousted a couple times before the C38 capos started to try and stifle things.

In the second half, when another ‘Fuera Pablo’ cheer when up, C38’s capo started screaming red-faced at the offenders about loyalty and such. During the second half, and especially after the goal, the 117 was virtually unmotivate-able. A core of maybe 25 fans were cheering, but the rest of the section were unmoved by the Rapids sudden collapse. Some were angry. Some resigned. Some were just too drunk for anything. At the end of the game, some kind of scuffle broke out between two supporters at odds over what level of fan dissatisfaction is permissible in 117. Or maybe they misunderstood what the phrase ‘Keep fighting’ is supposed to mean.

Right now, C38, home of some our most passionate fans, seems deeply divided between those that want to protest against KSE and the Rapids office for mismanaging a playoff-team right back into the cellar, and loyalists who believe in sticking with the club and its players in the lean times. I don’t pretend to have an opinion about which option is right. I understand why fans are pissed off. I also want to support the players when things aren’t going their way. But it’s a good question- at what point should a supporters group become a protest group? How can supporters be loyal to a club that turns over its captains - Drew Moor in 2015, Sam Cronin in 2017 - with such swiftness and regularity? I don’t know, man.

I will say that the capos and club leaders down in C38 are passionate and love this club, and will scream through a megaphone or sit in a parking lot baking pizzas or tapping kegs for hours as an expression of their love for soccer. And I respect the hell out of that.

But losing badly for three of the past four years has taken a toll on this SG. And bringing on new and vibrant members to the group, with the team in the basement of the Western Conference, playing dull, goal-less football, is probably really really hard.

In short, its hard times for Rapids nation. From the FO that need to worry about their jobs, to the players that draw the direct criticism for their play. And from the season ticket holders who are wondering why the hell they dropped four-figures to watch bad, losing soccer, to C38 suddenly fighting amongst itself.

My sense is the team has what it takes to arrest this downward trend. We’ll see if I’m speaking from my head as an tactical analyst, looking at the available data, or whether I’m just an naive, over-confident, optimistic fanboy.

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* This leads to an important question: who the hell will play left back this Saturday? Mike de Fonte is supposedly more of a CB, but maybe you give him a run there. Dillon Serna is left footed and has played left back for the USMNT U23s, but he’s probably best an attacker, and the Rapids have never tried him at left back in a game. Could you put Eric Miller there and recall Dennis Castillo from loan to play right back? Do you give Watts a try at outside back? Move Hairston back to right back and play Miller on the left? Maybe this is your opportunity to give the 5-3-2 a try, with Ford, Burling, and Watts at CB and Serna and Hairston as your wingbacks? I’m really curious, and also a little terrified.

** Full disclosure: I count myself as a member of both C38 and Stout Street Bulldog SGs. I may be the only person that ‘swings both ways’, for whatever its worth.