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Backpass: How Kevin Doyle got his groove back

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The Rapids have shifted the pieces around him for two years now, and on Saturday, they all fell into place.

Kevin Doyle had as many assists Saturday than in all of 2016. Groove: restored.
John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

If you read my column regularly, first of all, I sincerely apologize. But more importantly, you know I have often given Kevin Doyle a rough time. Considering his importance as both the team’s lone striker for two years, plus his status as a Designated Player, I think that’s well warranted. But here, and here, and here, and here, I was tough on Kevin Doyle. Hell, I was tough on him BEFORE HE EVEN SIGNED.

About that. Two things.

First of all, he really wasn’t fitting into the role and the formation that the Rapids chose. Doyle as replacement for speedster (and now DC United forward) Deshorn Brown was a weird fit. Deshorn used his ridiculous speed to generate a ton of chances in the final third, but was also frequently found taking any chance he got within 40 yards of the goal. He missed a lot. As a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1, Doyle was expected to create things with his back to goal or with his head on a cross. Doyle’s not small at 6’0”, 179 lbs. But he also isn’t Fanendo Adi (6’4”, 185) or Kenwyne Jones (6’4”, 187) out there. He’s fine in limited use a holdup guy, but it’s not his game. He’s a pure striker - dribble into the box, lace a pass at his feet, and watch him ping it in. It’s a little bit Wondo-poacher, a little last-minute-surprise like Thomas Muller. And he wasn’t exactly used for that.

And second, I wasn’t wrong. Through his first two seasons in MLS, Doyle had 40 appearances, 11 goals. Not awful, but not very good either. He only had four assists, too.

But for the past six or so games, I’ve watch the Irishman pretty closely. And think he, and more importantly, Pablo Mastroeni, have figured out how to get striker Kevin Doyle to produce in the most effective manner. Make him an attacking midfielder.

Here’s a bunch of gifs and pics to demonstrate.

#1

Mohamed Saeid drops deep to pickup the ball and bangs a long pass to Bismark Adjei-Boateng, who lofts a big one up to Dominique Badji. Badji’s size and leaping ability has made him into the target striker the team always needed, and over the three years he’s been with the team, he’s steadily improved at playing back-to-goal. But that’s not what we’re here to see. Granted, the quality of this gif for some reason is total garbage, so maybe you see nothing. I’m trying to get a better app. I’m having Apple problems. Bear with me through these troubled times.

Badji heads the ball backwards to Kevin Doyle, who was playing deeper into the midfield, midway between Boateng and Badji. Sure, you could say he’s doing a standard ‘second forward’ in the 4-4-2 type role. But after you see where he starts on all three of the goals below, you might rather choose to think he’s a late runner in the box coming out of midfield, and often is receiving the ball near midfield with the task of advancing through dribbling or passing into the goal zone. That is the role of a creative midfielder, and this lineup was a 4-3-3, disguised on the team sheet as a 4-4-2.

Most importantly, it worked. Let’s keep looking.

#2a

Before the gif starts, Dennis Castillo had received the ball and spun a 180 away from his defender, scooting a pass to Nana Boateng. Boniek Garcia and Wendell Clark both collapse on Nana, and he knocks it on to an open Mohammed Saeid. Mo blazes through the midfield and passes to Badji, who draws both Adolfo Machado and AJ DeLaGarza to him. Badji kicks it over to a wide open Dillon Serna.

#2b

Doyle is making the run into the box a few yards behind the play and Serna picks him out. Marlon Hairston is screaming in towards the back post, nearly level with Serna. The pass goes behind him to his left foot, which is bad and in a lot of games would kill the play. But Doyle puts up a fantastic effort and great display of balance, changes his plant foot, drags his left across the ball for the volley, and puts it about two inches inside the far post for the Rapids first goal. This is a deceptively hard goal to score- I bet if I tried this exact play 100 times, I’d screw it up 99 times. I suspect most soccer players would blow this more often than they’d score it, as compared with a ball to Doyle’s favored right foot, caught in stride. But that’s why strikers get paid so much money.

So there I noted that Doyle’s a striker. And, well, he is, but he’s also not. By having a second forward up top, and by pushing the wings wide, you have players that like to dribble or head the ball in spots that maximize their skill sets. Doyle is best as a late runner, or, as we’ll see up ahead, drawing in the defense and dishing the rock, like a proper CAM.

Here’s one more look at Doyle, as he calmly slides the ball into space for Marlon Hairston to finish as the Rapids pound the nail in Houston’s coffin.

The Rapids are now finally maximizing Doyle’s skill set. He will be tested more by different formations and in different ways going forward, and he won’t always have a 1 goal, 2 assist night - just because he was moved into the same spot as Giovinco and given a Jozy Altidore-like big body speedster (Badji) doesn’t mean he’ll turn into the league MVP. But I believe Kevin Doyle may have got his groove back.

Bad and Badji

Badji also had hisself a GAME against Houston, getting involved in all three goals. His role on this one was different than the last time, since he used his superior acceleration to blow past ‘hey I’m not fast enough’ center back Leonardo. Also of note - AJ DeLaGarza doesn’t stay on the run all the way to the end line, and DaMarcus Beasley also slows up instead of catching Marlon Hairston streaking through the box and closing off the pass to him. This was some nifty speed and great passing, but also, Houston was complacent and dumb.

Another thing:

The Rapids went consistently right up the gut with long ground passes, and Houston obliged. Generally, Badji, Hairston, and Serna pushed high and drew out the defensive line, Saeid came to get the ball and passed it up to Boateng, or in this case, Doyle. Doyle finds the pass that breaks the backline. It often happens because the size and speed of Badji make him a must-defend.

Badji is great if he faces a centerback/fullback combo that EITHER can’t match his speed OR can’t match his size. When he faces a team that has players that can do either, he’s less effective and the Rapids need to channel their offense through somebody else.

For example, tonight against Seattle, he’ll likely be wedged between Joevin Jones and Roman Torres. Torres has the size, Jones has buckets of speed. Badji will have opportunities if he and Hairston can catch Jones upfield and attack the backline together. In other words, there are teams in this league with the right guys to frustrate Dominique Badji, but Houston ain’t one of them.

Nana & Mo

Up above, we twice saw Mo drop deep to get the ball, pass up to Nana, and go right up the gut to Badji or Doyle. Here, we see the ball has swung out to Castillo. Castillo passes into Boateng, who has a man rushing on, big Colombian dude Juan David Cabezas. Here, he commits a ‘professional foul’, one of four fouls he got on the night. Strangely, he never received a card, while Mike da Fonte saw yellow for lightly tapping Cubo Torres in the 3rd minute.

Anyhow - Mo to Nana to Badji/Doyle was the order of the night. The other interesting thing was that it was Saeid coming deep for the ball, and not Boateng. I found that fascinating - normally you want your big, burly, dmid enforcer to come deep to the ball, in case something goes wrong, and so that your spritely, dribbly 5’5” playmaker can be in a more threatening position. The Rapids did the opposite, and it worked great. Clearly, Boateng can fly if you let him, but he had more of a quiet night on both sides of the ball. He’s clearly talented, and on this night he was a central cog in this machine that rolled over Houston, but I think he’ll need to be more harassing as a midfielder in future matches, and he’ll probably also need to sit deeper than Saeid sometimes.

All of this makes for fascinating questions now that Azira will be returning from his one-game yellow card accumulation suspension. Does Azira come into midfield for Saeid and push Mo out to left wing in place of Serna? That’ll be a net loss to the team’s central passing, as Saeid just does that so well. Of course, he does that pretty well from the wing, too. Is Boateng eventually going to replace Azira in a one-dmid lineup? Inquiring minds want to know.

Quick Hits

Sam Hamilton got into his 3rd MLS regular season match and 5th MLS match overall, coming on to spell Nana for the final 25 minutes. I love watching Sam’s game. Again, like Azira or Boateng, he’s not a harasser. He likes to cut off lanes and sit in gaps. He was part of the Rapids tight lines of defense that strangled the desperate Houston side for the final minutes of the game. TBH, I’m rooting for Sam big time to succeed, just because he’s a ‘local-boy-makes-good’ story. But also because his game is about reaction and reading, not pure athleticism.

There are a lot of ways to watch a game in person - passively, tactically, for the big feats, for the little nuances, watching one player, or watching 22 men move in formation. When Sam came on, I just glued my eyes to him to watch how he read and moved and played, and I was not disappointed. It’s easy to look at the stats and name a guy man of the match. But sometimes its more fun to zoom in and, you know, watch a guy play soccer the right way.

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Tim Howard made team of the week, and had six saves on the night - at least three were fantastical. Sometimes, it’s just fun to sit back and marvel at the technique of a master without any further commentary. Here’s one bit of Howard poetry for your viewing pleasure.

Rapids Sartorial Style Corner - Mekeil’s hair

Altitude Sports

You either like cornrows or you hate them. I’m usually more positive, but there’s something about the zigzag in this one that just doesn’t do it for me. That said, Williams has looked pretty not-good in his last three outings for the Rapids against Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and he looked good here. For luck’s sake, I’m good with these rows, Mekeil.