Nostalgia is all the rage these days. Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all other manner of classic cartoons and shows have been making comebacks in recent years. I heard mullets might be coming back too, at least if Jaromir Jagr finally ends up getting signed somewhere. Remember the fanny pack? I saw someone wearing a fanny pack the other day. Those things are surprisingly practical.
Not all nostalgia, of course, is welcome. Take the Colorado Rapids' July 4th match against the Seattle Sounders, for instance. Watching that match saw memories flood back to me of days past. Those days were not the best days of our lives; they were from the horrendous slog that was the 2012 season. I apologize if mentioning the 2012 season brings back awful flashbacks - having 2014 and 2015 burn through us since then has probably numbed the pain, but a true masochist never forgets — but there's really no other comparison I could draw after Tuesday.
Oscar Pareja's 2012 team was defined very differently than Pablo Mastroeni's team has been in his tenure with the Rapids, but as the desperation of trying to recreate the fluke-filled magic of 2016 has started to set in, a few similarities have popped up.
Pareja's biggest issue on the field in 2012 was that his team lacked much of anything in terms of consistent attacking talent. The "Invisible Man" Jaime Castrillon was the team's leading scorer. Conor Casey never quite looked right after trying to come back from a horrendous achilles tendon injury the year prior, which essentially ended his Rapids career. Omar Cummings was about as good as a center forward as one would have expected him to be. Martin Rivero took approximately six trillion shots towards goal during the course of the season and scored, from what I recall, negative three of them. Remember Edu? I remember Edu. I'll never forget Edu, hard as I might try. (I hear he and Zat Knight have a timeshare with Tupac somewhere in the Andes.)
Even though it certainly isn’t a great offensive unit, it’s hard to argue that Mastroeni has quite the dearth of talent that Pareja had.
Besides the problems in personnel, Pareja also had a very big problem when it came to coaching a good transition game. He wanted nothing more than to play a beautiful attacking game, and he said as much in just about every public appearance he made. As we know, he ended up mastering as a coach as he got older, but there were some major growing pains. His style of attack saw as many as eight players steaming forward for the Rapids at all times, which left them hilariously wide open to counter attacks. Other teams realized very, very quickly that the Rapids were very beatable when they were just allowed to have the ball. In possession, they spent large amounts of time just passing it around the back before charging forward with no regard for human life. Any turnovers—and oh, were there turnovers—meant a counter attack from the other side that was normally at a man advantage due to the lack of defenders. Drew Moor could only do so much on his own.
If all this sounds familiar, it's because history repeated itself with the most recent version of Pabloball. Mastroeni has never had the ability to coach a good transition game. In his first couple of seasons, the team played incredibly defensive soccer and couldn't attack to save their lives but for the occasional longball success. But if they're not staying awfully defensive and ceding possession to the other team, the only other option is a lost attack with players flooding forward. A last-gasp loss to the Portland Timbers you may remember from not too long ago happened after the ultra-defensive Rapids somehow managed to snag a late equalizer only to see the Rapids immediately decide to push for a late winner at home. Seriously, Axel Sjoberg essentially moved to striker (?!). Naturally, Portland shifted immediately to the counter and the Rapids were punished in short order with a late loss.
Seattle's Brian Schmetzer outcoached Pablo from the outset on Tuesday. The Rapids spent the majority of the match in possession of the ball, taking a lead of 60-40 or higher for essentially the entire contest. Unfortunately, as we've seen from this Rapids team before, they had absolutely no idea what to do with it. When they can't play counter-attacking soccer themselves, they run out of ideas almost immediately. They occasionally managed to get something down the wing, but generally it was a weak run from one of the fullbacks or wingers followed by a cross to nowhere in particular. It's worked for them before—the goal they scored was of that variety but with a low cross rather than a high one—but it's not a recipe for success against a Sounders team with size at the back. The Rapids are not good at playing through the middle and creating killer passing sequences up into the attack, and it led to most of their passes going sideways or directly to someone wearing green on the occasion they did try something creative.
With the Sounders counterattacking, they were put in all sorts of good spots, and the early goal took the wind out of the Rapids' sails and let Seattle sit back and give the Rapids the ball even more. None of the three substitutes changed anything, because even if the formation changed, the overall game plan did not. (The only real plan was to hope that some of the occasional crosses from the wing they were getting it would actually hit Alan Gordon’s head instead of sailing over Doyle’s.)
When Oscar Pareja had these issues with his team, he was in his first ever year of coaching and did everything in his power to learn from his mistakes game after game. By his second year, his coaching issues had shrunk, and he coached much of the same team he had wallowed with in 2012 to a playoff appearance in a dominant western conference in 2013. He is now one of the best coaches in MLS and is en route to being put in the same breath as coaches like Bruce Arena if his domination with FC Dallas keeps up.
Pablo is currently in his fourth year and is in the same spot he was the first match he ever coached. In one of the worst years the Western Conference has ever seen, the Rapids look like a contender only on rare occasions, and even then only at home. The personnel has changed, and the coaching focus has changed, but past the rabbit’s foot of a year that was 2016, little else seems to have. History is repeating itself, but this time its future is taking a nosedive.