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Playing for tomorrow: Who might be in, out, or on the bubble for 2018

For some, there’s not much left to play for in the final 11 games of this season. For some, there’s everything to play for.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Besides pride, a huge chunk of this roster is playing for a job in 2018. For one, Steve Cooke is managing right now, and he’ll need to impress by way out-performing Pádraig Smith’s expectation if he wants to stay in Colorado. That’s rough. But maybe he’s the guy. We’ll handicap the field of other potential coaches some other time.

The players, however, are almost all playing for their jobs. I’ll break it down by tiers, with some explanation.

Totally and Completely Safe

Tim Howard, Stefan Aigner, Kortne Ford, Axel Sjoberg

Yup. That’s it. Aigner was obviously acquired for 2018, since he hasn’t even played yet while he acclimates and waits for his international transfer certificate from FIFA. Kortne Ford has been excellent in flashes and is a project for the future, and as a homegrown he does not count against the cap. Axel Sjoberg is young, cheap, and a top-rate defender if he can have a full season of health. Tim Howard is under contract until 2019 for more than $2.5 million a season. He wants to be in the US. That contract is completely and totally unmovable unless the team agrees to cover a big chunk of it - something they absolutely will not do. He’s also the face of the franchise and a major reason the team bagged a deal with Transamerica. Tim is burgundy for 2018.

Likely to Return

Bismark Boateng, Shkelzen Gashi, Marlon Hairston, Eric Miller, Mohammed Saeid, Sam Hamilton, Ricardo Perez.

Boateng and Gashi have shown quality when healthy, and are both potential building blocks for a re-tooled offense. Hamilton and Perez are young developmental players with low budget charges that can be stashed in Charlotte or on loan elsewhere until needed. Miller and Saeid are both above average guys with MLS experience. Even if you can upgrade over either of them for the starting XI, these players are core guys you want around to fill out the middle of the roster. Hairston... he’s fast and still developing, and he might be the next Joevin Jones at fullback. Might. You hang onto that savings bond until it matures, kids.

Guys on the bubble, with something to prove

Micheal Azira, Dominique Badji, Luis Gil, Alan Gordon, Jared Watts, Zac MacMath, Dillon Serna, Caleb Calvert

Badji: see Backpass this week. He’s at least a potentially valuable bench piece for a bargain price. Gil was probably acquired as a financial move more than for his potential, but he can play his way into a job if he gets a few starts before the season wraps up. Alan Gordon is what he is - a big target striker for the 75th minute and beyond. But he needs to stay fit, and healthy, and in-form, or he’ll be someone else’s target striker in December. Jared Watts has certainly been shaky enough in 2017 that the Rapids may not feel the need to keep him. Micheal Azira defends about as well as any MLS midfielder ever. Maybe that makes him a bench asset going forward, or maybe he lacks the offense to be back next year.

MacMath is too good to be a backup, and he needs to be sold in a season when he’s put in minutes and other team GMs can see that he’s worth a couple bucks. Still, I’ve been saying that for a year and a half now, so who the hell knows.

Caleb Calvert. I can’t figure him out exactly. He’s quick and fine with his feet, but it’s not a defining characteristic. He’s big, but I haven’t seen him dominate in the air. He gets into the box, but as yet he hasn’t found a Wondo-esque nose for goal. He’s still very young - he can’t even buy beer until just after the season ends. So that means he’s likely to get another chance, although I think if another team fancies him and can offer the Rapids a deal that goes with a high draft pick or a stack of TAM, he’s movable. What with his lack of playing time and all of the scouting concerns I expressed above though, I’m not sure he’s as valuable as we’d like.

And Dillon Serna. Putting him on this list breaks my heart too - he’s a RapKid, a homegrown, a guy we all cheer extra loud for. But next season he’ll be 24. He’s a 5’7” left-footed winger with 8 goals and 6 assists in 3,253 minutes and 65 appearances. In five MLS seasons, he’s never been able to rise above being a spark-plug off the bench. I think he’ll keep a spot for 2018. But there’s certainly no guarantee.

Not likely to return

Bobby Burling, Mike da Fonte, Kevin Doyle, Josh Gatt, John Berner, Mekeil Williams, Dennis Castillo

Burling’s odometer currently stands at 13,500 minutes in 11 MLS seasons. At 6’5” and nearly 200 pounds, that’s a lot of wear and tear on a big body. Bobby was out six weeks in 2016 with a knee injury, and has been out for 4 to 6 weeks for the last 8 to 10 weeks after breaking his foot in a US Open Cup match in June this year. He might have another year in him, but he’ll be 33 in October, and maybe his body is telling him it’s time to move on.

Mike da Fonte got a great shot with the Rapids, and I think he might still be an MLS-level player, especially as the league expands to 24, 26, and 28 teams in the near term. But he probably won’t be back for a Rapids team that needs upgrades at virtually every position, including back line utility man.

Kevin Doyle never was, is not currently, and never will become, a top-echelon striker in MLS. He is well regarded by media types as a good interview and a really charming guy. He also made a million dollars a year, something that I will never do. He can be a valuable addition for someone, maybe in Ireland, or on a second or third tier team in the US or England that wants him to school the younger attackers. But not at $1 million per annum. His contract expires after this season, and I wish him well. His departure will give the Rapids a big chunk of TAM - around $700,000 - to use on the player of their desire. I’m sure Pádraig has binders full of candidates.

Joshua Gatt is fast as hell, but he doesn’t pass and can’t hit the broad side of a boat with his shot. If he’s going to stick with this team for 2018, he must make an impact, right now.

John Berner has only five starts for the Rapids in the five years since he was drafted in 2014. Meanwhile, beginning next season, the Rapids could choose to add homegrown Rapids Academy player and Stanford Cardinal goalkeeper Andrew Epstein to the senior team when he completes the Fall NCAA soccer season. Epstein won two national championships with Stanford. I think it likely the Rapids bring him up upon graduation, but as successful as Epstein has been, he’s also never received a USMNT call-up at any level, so perhaps he profiles as an MLS-caliber footballer, and perhaps not.

Maybe Mekeil Williams is a good fullback. Maybe he made a couple mistakes at inopportune times. Maybe shifting him to the left and right sides interchangeably was bad. Maybe he got bad instructions from Pablo Mastroeni. Still, Mekeil inherited the starting spot at fullback and played his way out of a starting position. The Rapids have lacked a suitable left back since Marc Burch was traded to Minnesota. It will be a key position to upgrade in the offseason, and as a result, Williams won’t’t factor into the future of this team, I’m sorry to say. We’ll be breaking up the Instagrammable hijinks of Mekeil, Dom and Marlon, I know. Thems the brakes.

I like Dennis Castillo and think he could be a solid fullback someday. And although he’s inexpensive and he shows promise, he also occupies an international slot for the Rapids, and those are somewhat valuable. If Castillo’s going to stick in MLS, he needs to make a jump forward, and he needs to get a green card. His best bet to stay with the Rapids long term is a season-long loan to a top club in his native Costa Rica. Saprissa, Herediano, and Alajuelense have all produced truck-loads of MLS players, and the quality level in the league is high enough that it would aid his development but probably reasonable enough that he’d see the field.