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Backpass: One Lump, Then Two

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Colorado drops two as the defense surrenders four goals and the offense continues to sputter.

Pablo Mastroeni after a tough loss to LA at home.
John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

Since the last Backpass, an ebullient piece of writing that extolled all the things this team is capable of doing on both sides of the ball, Colorado has dropped two matches. In the win over Portland last Saturday, Mohammed Saeid was pulling the strings, Kortne Ford defended like a veteran, and Alan Gordon did his Alan Gordon thing. In these last two matches, Saeid went out with a hurt knee; Ford committed a sloppy foul in the 18-yard box resulting in a penalty, then sat on the bench in Atlanta; and Alan Gordon was dangerous but unsuccessful against LA, and effectively neutralized against Atlanta.

There are ways to make sense of this. For one, squad rotation meant the team was a little weaker in both matches. For another, the team is missing key players like Saeid, Shkelzen Gashi, and Kevin Doyle.

But really, there aren’t any excuses. The team is averaging one point per game and are still dead-last in the league in points, and there’s no clear sign of a turnabout in the works.

The good news is that the Western Conference has been God-awful this year - the Rapids have been terrible, and yet sit only six points below the red line and only 14 from first place. The bottom seven teams in the conference - San Jose, LA, Vancouver, Seattle, Minnesota, Salt Lake and Colorado - have all been varying shades of bad, and probably will be into the final month. The Rapids don’t have to become amazing. With the level of parity we’re seeing this year, they just need to start being less bad.

Highlights

This Road Strategy

Despite Colorado dumping the more defensive 4-2-3-1 for a more fluid and forward 4-4-2, the Rapids road strategy this season has effectively been to conservatively bunker and counter. Which, in the right setting and with the right personnel, is a fine strategy. In this one, it nearly worked, as Dillon Serna’s 39th minute long range made a toink! off the crossbar and Bismark Adjei-Boateng’s stoppage time header was strong and on target, but saved. The Rapids conceded the ball to Atlanta and looked to defend in a classic two-banks-of-four. Atlanta out-possessed the ‘Pids 73-27%.

I know that’s been the strategy, because it’s obvious from our possession numbers in nearly all our away games:

As SouthStands noted yesterday, we lost all of those games - some in the final seconds, some through lack of offense, and some in thorough and complete Brad-Pitt-vs-Jared Leto-in-Fight-Club beat downs.

Seven road losses in seven games. In all but one, the Rapids were out-possessed by the home team.
whoscored.com

This strategy of bunker-and-counter relies on two things: a reliable, consistent defense, and a strong ability to score on accurate long balls and crosses.

Colorado hasn’t had reliable defending. The back four yesterday was the 12th different combination of defenders in the 17 matches of the year - a mind-boggling attempt to find the right chemistry to produce reliable protection. Clearly, it hasn’t been found yet.

The team hasn’t allowed a ton of goals - 23 goals allowed so far this year, good enough for 8th in MLS - but that’s a far cry from last year’s league-best defense. The defending on the Atlanta goal in the 67th minute is a disaster all-around - Mekeil Williams biffs the tackle on Brandon Vazquez and gives him an olé!, leaving him a wide-open pass to Josef Martinez. Mike da Fonte makes a total hash of his marking of him, from the run into the box to the moment he receives the ball to his getting juked out of his shorts. Eric Miller is ball watching. Every defender on the team has taken a turn making a game-breaking mistake each week. Oh 2016, where did you go?

Meanwhile this defensive road tactic is killing the offense. Of the Rapids 15 goals, fully 87% of them, 13 in total, have come at home.

The road tactics need to be re-assessed. I fully get what Pablo is doing in theory - score some goals at home, then grind on the road for a point. Except, seven times we’ve gone on the road, and seven times we’ve returned home with nothing to show. Bunker and counter doesn’t work for us, because apparently our defense isn’t good enough to rely on. It’s time to try something else. That doesn’t mean becoming a ‘possession football’ team, but it certainly means that the Rapids must definitively decide that building an attack and hanging on to the ball is more valuable than protecting the net by clearing it every single time. Teams expect to see the Rapids sit deep in banks of four when they go on the road. So they practice for it. And they beat us. We’ve got to stop doing what they expect.

Serna is the new, old, new Saeid

Since arriving from Minnesota, Mohammed Saeid has become the surprising catalyst for the offense with 18 key passes and 3 assists since joining the Rapids. That number matches the amount by Kevin Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi over the same period - 18 key passes.

But then he went down in a crumpled heap in the 68th minute against LA. Now, Dillon Serna is playing as the central winger for the Rapids.

When I say ‘central winger’, here’s what I mean. The Rapids start four midfielders these days: Micheal Azira and three attackers. Each of the three regularly flips, interchanges, or overlaps. The central midfielder alongside Azira usually has the job of dropping back towards the defenders to pick up the ball for the attack, and the two wingers tend to come centrally as the fullbacks push up along the flanks. Those wingers, like Gatt, Gashi, and Serna, are more likely to attack through the middle and right onto the net than they are to swing wide and pump in crosses. Also, the players are often playing as inverted wingers. Serna, a left-footed player, started this past week on the right side, and cut in dangerously on many occasions.

Here’s the best example:

Serna as an inverted winger is similar in some respects to Saeid, in that both are dangerous coming from outside to inside. Serna is different in that he prefers to shoot or dribble over passing, which means that if Serna is going to replace Saeid for an extended period, the Rapids will be taking on a different look. But Saeid came in to play the wing and took that spot away from Serna, who has been the heir-apparent as a wide midfielder for nearly his entire career here.

It’s unfortunate that an injury has given Serna the chance to take the position, but that’s how it is. This next 8-12 games might be Serna’s last chance to prove he is a first-team starter.

Gatt Misfiring

Gatt had five shots against LA, and was on target just twice. Several of his misses were, uh, bad. He had two shots, one on target, against Atlanta. Before this week, Gatt had an xG of 0.16, but zero goals. The numbers haven’t been tabulated from this week yet, but I’m guessing that the maths will tell us that Gatt has been statistically quite poor in front of the net. Maybe he needs to find his groove. Or maybe we’re seeing a second incarnation of Deshorn Brown, the-non-Jamaican-edition.

Gatt’s shooting boots (or lack thereof) are a thing to keep an eye on. But with Gashi and Saeid out and Hairston playing fullback, I’m not sure there’s much else on this roster. Back in December I wrote this:

The Rapids parted ways with Sebastien Le Toux and Marco Pappa at the end of 2016, so you’re looking at needing at least two wide midfielders that can defend front-to-back, offer speed, and/or serve a ball from the wide position well. It could be that Dominique Badji is the depth at that position, but I think he’s a more natural lone striker. So for starters, the team needs a few more players out wide.

I also suggested they get a wide midfielder at the draft this year, like Niko Hansen, Zeiko Lewis, or Brian Wright.

Maybe somebody should’ve listen to me.