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Backpass: It’s gone quite pear-shaped

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A deep dive into why 2016’s late winners have turned into 2017’s late collapses. Also a few words on fan frustration.

Gordo, we feel you.
John Babiak, @Photog_johnb

Although the season was probably too far gone regardless of the result Saturday, Vancouver’s late equalizer might really be the best symbolic dagger into a season that was pretty much dead anyways. After going up 2-1* on a Kevin Doyle goal off a beautiful run by Mohammed Saeid and an amazing backheel from Marlon Hairston at the 54th minute, the Rapids went into a defensive shell for the final 30 minutes. After absorbing wave after wave of Vancouver attacks, they surrendered a free kick after Marlon Hairston made a really dumb challenge. Cristian Techera hits it perfectly to Fredy Montero, Vancouver scores in the 76th minute, and the Canadians got an important point on the road in order to keep chasing the playoffs.

Taking a look at the play itself is kinda painful, so if you need to save your psyche, scroll down.

One of two things happened on this play. Either:

  • Eric Miller, Kevin Doyle, and Jared Watts all simultaneously lost their markers while also assuming that for three Vancouver players to get to the far side, they must be offside, while only Axel Sjoberg and Mike Da Fonte are in the fight, or
  • Miller, Doyle, and Watts were all playing their men for an offside trap, while Sjoberg didn’t get the memo and has mistakenly played the whole Vancouver line onside, which is quite a f***-up if it’s true.

There is irony here in that Colorado got a very late equalizer on the road against Vancouver just last year on an Axel Sjoberg header, and here Vancouver reciprocated. You could call it ‘karma’ or ‘revenge’ or ‘sloppy defending’. You decide.

But it got me thinking about the essential differences about why 2016 is so different than 2017.

Late and Great in 2016, Late and Not Great in 2017

The Rapids had a 15-13-6 (WTL) record in 2016 for 58 points. In 2017, they have a 6-3-12 record. They are on pace for 9.72 wins, 4.86 ties, and 19.44 losses, for a grand total of 34 points. It’s time to start taking a look at why this year is so different than last year.

Last week I mentioned this stat:

The Rapids have 20 goals for, 29 goals against right now. At this point last season, the team had 23 goals for, and 14 goals against.

So, in really simple terms, we’re allowing more goals in 2017 than in 2016, and we’re scoring fewer goals. That is a pretty simple indicator that your team is worse because your offense is bad and your defense is bad.

But that’s probably too simplistic to be of much use. There’s another trend worth looking at, and it’s related to Vancouver’s late goal. It got me thinking: gee, the Rapids were really big on the late winner in 2016, notsomuch in 2017. And we’ve lost or been drawn a few times at the death this year. To what degree is that anecdotal observation true? So I did the math and here’s what I found.

Last year, the Rapids won seven games on a late winner, and only lost once on an opponent’s goal after the 70th minute.

This year, the number of late winners is down: the team is on pace for only 3.24 late wins. Both of the Rapids late winners came on the head of Alan Gordon, so that’s cool. You remember at least one of ‘em, because Gordo ripped off his shirt and dove into the C38 section, in what might end up as one of the highlights of the season. But the team used to do that with regularity - opponents’ sphincters certainly tightened against the non-stop Rapids, who wanted to kill you in the 80th minute last year.

This year, somehow, the tables have turned. As you can see from the red circles, the team has lost the match on an opponent’s late goal five times this year. Those were losses against RSL on 4/15, Minnesota on 4/23, Orlando on 4/29, Vancouver on 5/5, and Philadelphia on 5/20. Colorado is on pace to lose it late a total of eight times this year - more a full reversal from us ‘winning seven games late’ that happened last year.

That’s five points the team has dropped in the final 20 minutes. If the team had simply held on for draws in those five games, we’d have 26 points, good enough for 8th place. That ain’t good, but at least we’d be talking about what we needed to do to get into the playoffs, instead of when the Broncos pre-season is coming.**

That last red circle is also damning. First, the Rapids are losing more games this year than last year (duh), but also, a much larger percentage of the losses are coming late. In 2016 only 16.7% of losses (one out of six) came on late goals. In 2017, 41.7% of losses (5 out of 12) came when the opponent pulled the smash-and-grab.

What is the reason? I can’t say for sure. There are four possibilities I can think of.

1. It’s a tactical problem.

The Rapids shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, as well as some other late-game approach that Pablo is employing, is back firing. Perhaps in each of these games, Colorado was going for the win and instead opened themselves up more, and took an L instead. Maybe Pablo is playing so defensively that he’s inviting teams to attack. Maybe the formation is inviting the problem. It’s possible, but this isn’t my favorite theory.

Mlssoccer.com‘s Matt Doyle explained this well, at least as it related to this game against Vancouver:

The Rapids had the lion's share of possession and, generally speaking, the better of the run of play right up until they took a deserved 2-1 lead in the 54th minute. Then they just dropped deep into a shell, invited Vancouver forward and eventually conceded the inevitable equalizer in a 2-2 draw at Commerce City. They had over 65 percent of possession in building a 2-1 lead, and down around 40 percent in squandering it.

It all makes sense, except my sense is that the team did exactly the same thing last year, and it worked - they could get a goal in the 75th and hang on, no prob. This year, not so much. Like I said, not my favorite theory.

2. It’s a personnel problem.

This traces the original sin to the sale of Marc Burch and Sam Cronin on March 30th. After they left, things fell apart. The Rapids still haven’t found a suitable backline replacement for Burch; although Da Fonte had a good game this past week, he’s been up-and-down this season. And without Cronin harassing, Micheal Azira isn’t intercepting like he did in 2016, and he doesn’t have the same effectiveness. The backline has mixed and matched players all season, and nobody looks as good as in 2016. Mekeil Williams didn’t make the 18 this week, Eric Miller has been inconsistent, Jared Watts looks like he’s reverted to ‘work in progress’ Watts from 2015 instead of ‘Sjoberg’s hard tackling, slick passing sidekick’ Watts from 2016, and Pablo has dropped Kortne Ford from the starting spot for some reason. The defense isn’t as strong this year, and the collapses just happen to come late.

3. It’s a mental problem.

People who think tactically (like me!) sometimes think the mental side of the game doesn’t matter. Listen, the starting XI of every MLS team are physically and technically only a hairs width apart. These guys are physical specimens, trained with the highest degree of scientific precision, and the differences from team to team are small. I know because a) I’ve seen practice and man is it intense, and b) I’ve stood three feet away from Tim Howard and Dom Badji with their shirts off. It was like being in an elevator between Hulk and the Thing at Denver Comic Con.

Whatever is wrong with the team is psycho-emotional. They lost a few games early, lost confidence, and never regained it. Their captain was traded and the tone is off. Their brains are operating in negatives instead of positives; fear instead of confidence. And the final 20 minutes has shifted from ‘now we got ‘em!’ to ‘gee, I really hope we hang on’.

There’s no way to prove this, but I think I favor this notion at least as partially at fault.

4. It’s a fluke.

The difference between a goal and a save, or bouncing in off the post instead of out off the post, can be very small. When you average shots out over a season, they can be instructive as to whether teams take enough shots, get quality chances, or finish well.

But. (But!) If you trim those chances and shots into just the final 20 minutes of a handful of tied games, chance plays a greater role. This is all a fancy way of saying ‘live by the sword, die by the sword.’ If you plan to keep games close until the final 20 minutes, you have a smaller margin for error than a team that has a different tactical plan. Some years, keeping it close will result in lots of late winners, and in other years, it will result in fluky losses.

There is great debate in the soccer stat-nerd world as to whether variations in expected goals, xG, denotes ‘good luck’ or ‘good finishing’. Case in point, look at the graph headings in blue:

I’m offering a corollary to that principle: tactically playing for late goals for increases the role that luck plays with your team. The Rapids were overly lucky in 2016, and have regressed in 2017 in a big way.

...

I can’t know whether any of this is true, and I submit that it’s a mixture of all four. Your opinion of the prime culprit is your own Rorschach test as to the role that fate, talent, coaching, and mentality plays with the game.

The Fans are Not Pleased

We’ve got to talk about the mood of the hardcore Rapids fans right now. It is not good.

Last week there was a question in the Colorado Rapids Discussion Group on Facebook asking how many of the faithful were renewing/not renewing their season tickets. Of 43 respondents, 15 said they were not renewing, and handful more were either on the fence, cutting back on how many seats they have, or reducing from a full to a partial ticket plan.

At the C38 tailgate last weekend, the mood amongst fans was pretty positive overall—probably because it had been over a month since the last home game—but in speaking to lots of C38 diehards, folks were overwhelmingly pissed off at Pablo, the Front Office, or both. The mood was ‘we like our C38 community, we love this team, but KSE and the team don’t care a whit about any of it.’

The team’s transfer window hasn’t bolstered spirits much either. The Rapids have spoken for months about needing a number 10 - in fact, it was strongly implied that the sale of Cronin and Burch was made in order to horde TAM and GAM for the transfer window. The hope amongst fans was for a Nicolas Lodeiro or Miguel Almiron-type player. And then the team went out and got... a 30-year-old wide midfielder. In explaining the move to the Denver Post’s John Meyer, Padraig Smith described the acquisition like this:

“We’ve got an incredibly talented ‘underneath’ winger in Gashi, somebody who starts wide – plays on the outside – but is very capable of coming underneath (behind the forwards) almost as a creative 10.”

We thought we were going to get a number 10. Turns out the plan might be to get another winger to add to the 5 we already have (Gashi, Serna, Hairston, Gatt, Saeid) and pretend one is a central attacker. I wasn’t thrilled with this quote.

Similarly, fan reaction is that the team didn’t use the transfer window and the team still has a DP slot available but KSE is too cheap to use it. I’m not sure I agree yet, but that’s what people tell me.

And both Rapids twitter and the Burgundy Wave commentariat are in fairly open rebellion. The team hasn’t announced the date of the Meet and Greet for season ticket holders and the players, leading some to think that it’s being sprung with short notice at an awkward time, perhaps to minimize fan involvement.

Fans are also pretty royally ticked that there’s no way to address any of this frustration and disappointment to the team. Some hope C38 will do it, but their letter earlier in the year was apparently not well received by Rapids higher-ups, and I think there may be no reason to re-open that wound again for them.

It may not yet be time for something like a town hall, since the team hasn’t been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but there doesn’t seem to be much of any comment coming out of Commerce City’s offices. Also, based on team history, the odds the fans actually get a live town hall is virtually nil. A phone town hall is, uh, a bad alternative.

Fans want to know that we, the fans, are in this together, alongside the team and the players - that everybody feels equally deflated by the Rapids struggles. It is the one reason why I absolutely, positively love and respect Pablo Mastroeni. Like him or hate him, I think none of us can deny that he cares a ton about this team and he wants to win more than anything. Silence from the FO means I don’t actually know if they understand how I feel. The overwhelming feeling I sense from fans is that KSE grooms its operation to maximize profit and loss, and the fans are just so many cash machines for Stan Kroenke’s multi-national entertainment conglomerate.

While that seems pretty par for the course for the NBA, supporter culture means that soccer is supposed to be different. Things have taken a bad turn this season, and it’s important that somebody own it. The team was proud of signing up a record number of STHs this season, but unless they want to see a record number in terms of a decline in STHs, somebody’s got to start talking to the fans like we’re not idiots.

Last Note

It was great to pal around with Steve Bernasconi of The Soccer Tour last weekend. Dude is driving across the US, seeing as much MLS, USL, NASL, NPSL, and USPL soccer as he can. Living the dream! Steve was a helluva nice bloke and I was honored to hang with him in section 117. We’ve got an interview with Steve coming up this week, and you can also follow his amazing adventure at thesoccertour.com. Safe travels Steve!

— — — — — — — —

* Full recap is here. I already wrote it once, so if you want to see how it got this way, I ain’t writing out for you all over again.

** Note: I don’t like throwball, so I’m not distracting myself like this. I instead distract myself with mixed drinks and playing FIFA.