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Backpass: Strides

Colorado wins! What does it mean?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Houston Dynamo
More of this, please.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the Rapids win on the road.

Colorado went into Houston with an 0-3-8 road record this season. In a lost year without a shot at the playoffs, it may seem like little consolation to break a duck like this. But remember back to 2014 and 2015 when the Rapids narrowly averted setting the MLS record for winless matches in a row. So winning, even in the twilight hours of a bad season, still feels good, if only to keep the team from ending up on an ignominious list like this.

Tactically, this game was really interesting. The Rapids want to be an offensively minded team, but haven’t quite figured out how to do that successfully yet. They were facing a Houston team that loves to play a hyper-charged 4-3-3 counter-attacking offense. All Houston wants to do is hang out, sit deep, let their opponent have the ball, and then bomb forward with speedsters Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, and then feed pop-up finisher Erick Torres in the box.

Houston does not want to have possession, so Steve Cooke and crew... gave them all of the possession, and cut their counter-attacking legs from under them. The Dynamo finished with 64% of the possession and 18 shots on goal, but only 3 were on target. Colorado also let them pass the ball all they wanted until they reached the final third - Houston beat the Rapids on passing percentage 83% to 63% . All of this demonstrates that you don’t need the ball to win if you have a plan and stick to it.

The Rapids plan was... Pablo-esque. The team went to a deep-sitting 4-2-3-1, and installed Jared Watts back at his original drafted position as a defensive midfielder, alongside Micheal Azira. Here’s a defensive chart:

Wattsy had 9 defensive actions and covered a tremendous amount of ground on the night - so much that the Houston commentary team, when Watts was subbed off, remarked ‘I’d love to know how many miles he ran tonight... wow.’ Azira was left to his old role of clogging passing lanes. And Marlon Hairston dropped so deep that he often acted as a fifth defender, leading the team in defensive actions overall with 10. Kortne Ford and Axel Sjoberg did excellent work on the night as well.

What does this mean for the future?

This is a conundrum. The Rapids have been better from 2016 until now when they concede possession and play defensive football. I’m basing that on 2016’s record-setting defensive team, and the few games this season when the Rapids have played a conservative and defensive brand of football.

But see, the problem is, it has already been announced that we’re not doing that anymore. The team will need to become more attacking and more open in the Padraig Smith era. So, winning in an extremely defensive contest doesn’t really tell us much. This team is not terrible. This team can win. But can it win by playing on the front foot? By playing beautiful soccer? While outscoring an opponent 3-2? Right now, the answer is no. This game, then, only helps us to know that the players are good, and professional caliber, and that defensive soccer can get the job done when you need it. It also tells us that Steve Cooke is a clever cat.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us much going into 2018. The way we won on Saturday is not the way we will be winning in 2018, at least not in most games.

Aigner’s Pass is beautiful. Badji’s finish is beautiful.

Hold me while I softly weep. Watch Marlon blast his retro-rockets to drive the ball forward. Watch him calmly survey the scene like a veteran #10. Watch Serna pull defenders off of Aigner in a clever move. Watch Aigner ping it with German precision to the foot of Dom Badji. Watch Badji finish flawlessly for a team-leading 7 goals. Pass me the tissues.

What is Dominique Badji?

The end of the season means that Dom Badji is about to become a question that Padraig Smith, or potentially every other MLS GM, needs to answer. Is he a still-developing talent? A starting-MLS caliber striker? A valuable bench piece? A guy with all the pace and size, but without the finishing chops? Badji has 7 goals, and an xG (expected goals, the number of goals an average player that took shots in those positions would score) of 7.31. So he’s a good, but not spectacular finisher - David Villa has 19 goals on a 12.33 xG; Diego Valeri has 17 goals on a 10.42 xG.

Meanwhile, the Rapids have been an *above-average* MLS team in creating goal-scoring opportunities, AKA Key Passes and Assists - they are 8th in the league in total chances, with 314.

Care of

So Badji is scoring, and getting into position to score. The Rapids tactically may have been taking the wrong shots, or getting the ball to other, lower-percentage finishers. Kevin Doyle’s numbers aren’t that good, and neither are Joshua Gatt’s, but neither explains our overall offensive problems.

I can’t really definitively answer this question. I can only ask it. It will take significant analysis and self-searching to figure out what players will make the 2018 Rapids better than the 2017 iteration. Personally, I’m inclined to say that Badji,with the right guys around him and in a two-striker system, could blossom into a 15 goal scorer in this league.

If the Rapids give him the chance.