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Backpass: Amp Up, Amplify, Defy

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Rapids beat Timbers 2-1. Reviewing a win is better than reviewing a loss. And this one? (Kisses fingers) Mmmmwwwwah!

Axel tugs on Fanendo Adi’s jersey as Sebastian Blanco eyes a put-back.
John Babiak, @photog_johnb

Whatever you think about the 2017 Colorado Rapids, they’re going to defy you.

A defense-minded team, built on the fiery spirit of Sam Cronin? We sold him. The top notch defensive tandem of Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts? They’re out hurt. A fresh young face via the transfer window to take over MLS? Bismark Adjei-Boateng is out 6-8 weeks with a broken vertebrae. Their best chance creator spending the month fasting for Ramadan? No big deal; he’ll start every match, get 2 assists and 6 key passes. A d-mid-centric coach who wants to win every match 1-0? Pablo’s gonna roll out a 4-4-2 and produce a string of seven games where the combined score of the two teams involved is 21 goals, or 3.0 per game.

The season is lost? The team is 2-1-8 (WTL) through the first third of the season? We’ll just rattle off four straight wins (including Open Cup) and defy expectation.

So like my holy brother Pastor Matt said yesterday: don’t make any bets on this club. Don’t predict disaster or triumph. Don’t expect something ordinary or routine. Expect to be surprised. That’s the new normal around here.

Game Review

Although the game had a few sluggish moments in the first half, overall, this was an up-tempo, exciting match. Each team took 13 shots, which is above average for a normal soccer match, and very above average for the Rapids, who had only 116 shots through 14 games by the end of this match, or 8.28 per match. And thats without Albanian marksman Shkelzen Gashi firing hopeful 35-yard sniper shots. Off a Portland turnover, Dominique Badji would get the first crack to open the scoring.

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On the very next possession, the Rapids would use the speed and passing of Mohammed Saeid and Marlon Hairston together to try and pick out Kevin Doyle and Badji making the run. The final ball was long, but this was one of the better ideas of the night.

Colorado has evolved away from preferring crosses and long balls, which typically require only three or four players total to make a run into the final third, and thus preserve a defensive orientation by holding back the other six players. Mastroeni is now using more quick passing and through-balls in the attack, along with pushing five or six players forward. That’s especially true early in the game, when a goal can force the other team to change tactics and expend more energy, which we all know that at altitude can be especially taxing.

I’m like most Rapids fans in enjoying a more up-tempo, exciting soccer. However, I’m definitely more conservative than most in that I’m fine with a defense-minded, long-ball-oriented approach. I only care that we win.

Nonetheless, it was Portland that struck first.

Before the gif starts, Portland have a throw-in. Micheal Azira leaps to pick off the ball and misses, which gives Portland a free run through the midfield. In my mind, Jared Watts, playing at defensive midfielder for only the second time this year, should have high-tailed it over to cover Sebastian Blanco and let Azira fill in for him, but I’ll grant that there isn’t much he could do to fix the initial problem.

Azira decides to book it and cover. Because he’s at nearly full speed in trying to close down Blanco, he’s ripe to get crossed up. But because he’s into the right spot to close out Blanco, and because Vytautas Andriuškevičius (AKA Vytas) is overlapping on Blanco’s left, Hairston hedges and leaves Blanco for Azira. As a split second decision, it’s probably a reasonable one. But I think Hairston is best served to stay with Blanco and be closing him off from coming inside. Hairston is cheating a little to the outside because of Vytas, and that leaves him kind of out-to-dry.

Marlon Hairston is still adjusting to an unfamiliar position, and he’s a work in progress at right back. I think we’re likely to see things like this again this year. If he’s a right back long term in MLS, then 2017 is going to be the ‘growing pains’ year, and we’ll get the payoff in 2018. Which kinda sucks, but it’s to be expected. You don’t just wake up one morning like in The Matrix, jack into the mainframe, download the program for ‘right back’, open your eyes and suddenly exclaim to Morpheus ‘I know how to play fullback.’ It’d be cool if you could do that, though.

Shortly after the half, the Rapids gave up a 14-pass sequence to the Timbers (which was really beautiful, TBH) in the 48th minute that culminated in another left-sided shot by Sebastian Blanco, this time better defended by Kort Ford, and then a wide open chance on the rebound from Fanendo Adi.

Yeah, this is the miss of the year, but also, Axel Sjoberg has to do better here. Sure, Adi probably fouls him in the process, but most MLS refs aren’t going to give an attacker going for a rebound a foul in the box over the defender unless he commits murder.

A minute later, Kevin Doyle drops veeeery deep and Jared Watts gets him the ball. Doyle turns and makes quite possibly the pass of the year Dom Badji, who finishes with a perfect left-footed chip. The right sentiment for Doyle’s pass is just a recording of George Takei exclaiming ‘Ohhhhhh myyyyyyyyy.’ I’d insert it, but there’s already so many damn gifs in this article I’m afraid of breaking SBNation’s text edit program. When I’m sad, I’m going to pull up this gif and watch it over and over and over until I’m happy again.

Anecdotally and without looking into the hard data, I’ll add that Doyle looks a lot better playing as something of an attacking midfielder that drops deep but has two wingers and a forward keeping the line off him. I think the BWave commentariat has been screaming that he’ll work better in a two-striker system for well nye two years now. Ain’t it great when we’re right?

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It was fairly clear the Rapids were not satisfied with 1-1, while Portland was a little more willing to let this one end in a draw. Colorado took six more shots after this goal, to Portland’s four, and the Rapids pushed more players upfield. That makes sense based on Colorado’s position in the league table. As we discussed in the comments a few weeks ago, the Rapids can’t play for ties anymore - they need 10 or more wins over the remaining 10 games. That means going for wins, every time out. So you bring on Alan Gordon and...

That’s two wins Alan Gordon has delivered with his big meaty forehead. Both of them this month. I love that the sense of dread that folks experience when Alan Gordon checks in at the 75th minute is now something our opponents feel, instead of me.

Backline

The Rapids have used 11 different backline combinations in just 15 games this season.

Rapids Backline Selections 2017

Date LB CB CB RB
Date LB CB CB RB
6-17-17 da Fonte Sjoberg Ford Hairston
6-14-17 Serna Miller Burling Castillo
6-3-17 Miller Ford da Fonte Hairston
5-27-17 Miller Ford Burling Hairston
5-20-17 Miller Sjoberg Ford da Fonte
5-17-17 Miller Watts Burling Hairston
5-13-17 Miller Watts Burling Hairston
5-5-17 Williams Watts Burling Miller
4-29-17 Williams Watts Burling Miller
4-23-17 Williams Ford Burling Miller
4-15-17 Williams Ford Watts Miller
4-9-17 Williams Watts Ford Miller
3-18-17 Burch Burling Watts Williams
3-11-17 Burch Sjoberg Watts Miller
3-4-17 Burch Sjoberg Watts Miller
Rapids Rabbi

This week, Mike da Fonte played left back, which I think was in order to give Eric Miller and Mekeil Williams a rest: Mekeil played over the international break for Trinidad and Tobago, and Eric Miller went the full 90 on Tuesday night in the Rapids US Open Cup victory over OKC Energy FC. Hairston at right back I discussed up above. Bobby Burling, who was filling in for Sjoberg while he recovered from a hamstring injury, got hurt in that US Open Cup match. Marc Burch was traded. What I mean by all of this is: some of the flux is normal and explainable due to squad rotation, injuries, and a trade.

But also it is clear that Pablo hasn’t really settled on a backline. There have been five different left backs, five different right backs, and (I think?) eight different combinations at centerback. Not to mention the fact that we’ve played both of our goalkeepers almost an equal amount for various reasons. That’s a whole lot of inconsistency, and it takes time for that back five to gel.

That’s all a setup to this: I have seen the future, and it is Ford and Sjoberg.

Ford and Sjoberg

Kort Ford got his first shot in April after Axel went down and Burling looked kinda meh. He looked great in his first game. And his second game. And every game since, pretty much. He reads defenders well, he’s fast, he’s big, he emergency-defends well, and he’s been consistent. If he isn’t in the conversation for rookie of the year, expect me to throw a twitter-fit. Here’s two of Fords three critical tackles - he made one in the 4th minute too that I elected not to gif.

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And again!

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Sjoberg, meanwhile, had a more pedestrian game. He looked a tad rusty after his long injury layoff, but I’m confident he’ll be back to his defender-of-the-year-candidate self in another game or two. Sjoberg and Ford have the potential to be the best centerback pairing in MLS this season, and to give this team a level of consistency and impenatribility that hasn’t been there since 2016.

That explains why Jared Watts was given two games at defensive midfielder. Pablo and the coaching staff know that Ford and Sjoberg are the best two CBs on the team right now, but also that Jared Watts was great in the latter half of 2016, and has the background and the chops to be an MLS-caliber defensive midfielder. In this game, he didn’t look great. He made a few notable mistakes, and in general didn’t establish that midfield tandem with Micheal Azira where one goes after the ball and one sits waiting to intercept. Sometimes Watts went when Azira wasn’t in position to cover, sometimes Watts sat in the passing lane but failed to pressure the ball. If the goal is to find a true box to box mid that can pass and attack and defend, and allows Azira to be a full time shield to the backline, I don’t think Watts is the guy. I think Pablo agrees, which is why Watts was subbed off for Serna early in the second half.

The Stupid Chant

“Puto” emanated out of section 117 - just once, but it happened, and it was loud. It’s Gay Pride this week in Denver, so that’s pretty disgraceful. I know some members of C38 were flying Pride flags during this match and that was great! And I know that “the chant” is an internally divisive issue inside the supporters group. But it’s time the chant officially and permanently ended, and I wonder when and how it finally dies. Lord knows you’ve already heard this from me, but until we’re done with this thing, you all have to put up with me mentioning it.

How the farm is just cracklin’

“Dancing fire trucks my captain!”

“Have a feeling its applin’!”

“Hubert Humphrey you’re napping!”

Can anyone tell me what Pablo’s saying here?

Also, welcome to #RapidsThugLife here, Mike da Fonte. Now please avoid any further head trauma. Good soccer players need all their brain cells. OK, most of ‘em, anyways.