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Rapids Cap-ology for 2018 Part 1: Current Roster & Defense

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What we have, and what we need, going into the 2018 season.

Can the Rapids use the winter transfer window to leap ahead of the competition in 2018?
John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

It may seem that MLS soccer is in a deep slumber at this very moment. The training fields are covered in snow. The stands at Dicks Sporting Good Park are silent each Saturday. MLS teams are still six weeks away from footballing action. But in the General Manager’s office, nothing could be further from the truth. The Rapids front office is most certainly working the phones, fax machines, and emails to clubs across the globe to bring in the players needed to make the 2018 MLS Season a successful campaign.

The Rapids roster is at it’s low point: the team let go of a number of players at the end of the 2017 campaign, but has yet to make significant moves to fill out the roster for 2018. So I come before you, once again, to take a closer look at what the Rapids have, and don’t have, going into the 2018 season.

This article is called ‘cap-ology’ out a misplaced sense of fidelity to my own, essentially non-existent, branding. In past years, the Rapids had a small-ish warchest under the MLS salary cap with which to work. But this year, the team has a whole lot of money to play with in order to add some significant talent to the team. I already fleshed out those financial details a few weeks ago in broad strokes. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the specific positions and skill sets the Colorado Rapids in 2018 to compete and win against the best teams in MLS and the Concacaf Champions League.

What the roster looks like right now

Take a gander at our current roster, including all the known salary data and contract lengths. (If you want to know how the Rapids got to this point, or how much salary cap space the team has, check out this article from November.)

The first 20 spots on this roster posted below are termed ‘Senior’ team, slots 21-24 are called ‘Supplemental’, and slots 25-28 are called ‘Reserve’. Supplemental slots contain players on Homegrown or Generation Adidas contracts, Reserve slots contain players earning league minimum, and neither count against the cap. For all the details, click here.

Those empty slots from 15-18 are the open spots the Rapids need to fill with free agents, transfer signings, SuperDraft picks, or by promoting current youth academy players, in the next eight weeks.*

Rapids Roster and Salary Data, 2018

# Name Position Age Contract Length 2017 Contract Effective Budget Charge Special Status?
# Name Position Age Contract Length 2017 Contract Effective Budget Charge Special Status?
1 Tim Howard GK 38 2018 2,475,000 505,625 DP1
2 Zac MacMath GK 26 150,000 150,000
3 Eric Miller D 25 2018 86,554 86,554
4 Axel Sjoberg D 27 123,350 123,350
5 Jared Watts D 25 2018 75,000 75,000
6 Micheal Azira M 30 116,625 116,625
7 Johan Blomberg M 30 2018, 2019 ? ? INTL1
8 Nana Boateng M 23 341,246 341,246 INTL2
9 Shkëlzen Gashi M 29 1,668,750 505,625 DP2, INTL3
10 Marlon Hairston M 24 110,004 110,004
11 Stefan Aigner M 30 2018, 2019, 2020 ? ? INTL4
12 Dominique Badji F 25 2018, 2019 65,000 65,000 INTL5
13 Jack McBean F 23 65,625 65,625
14 (Edgar Castillo) D 31 2018 (Loan) ? ?
15
16
17
18
19
20
21 Caleb Calvert F 107,500 0 HGP
22 Kortne Ford D 76,996 0 HGP
23 Ricardo Perez M 54,254 0 HGP
24 Dillon Serna M 85,600 0 HGP
25 Mike da Fonte D 65,004 65,004
26 Sam Hamilton M 2018 65,004 65,004
27 Kip Colvey D 23 65,000 65,000
28 Deklan Wynne D 22 ? ? INTL6?
Total: 5,384,654 2,144,654

First thing to note about the above roster is that it includes Edgar Castillo, currently the left back for Monterrey in Liga MX, in parenthesis. That’s because although Sam Stejskal reported that he had been signed on a loan deal to Colorado, neither MLS nor the Rapids have yet announced the deal. It is virtually assured that Castillo will be with the Rapids, but I didn’t want to jinx it.

What do the Rapids have to work with?

The Rapids have a DP slot and a lot of TAM to play with for some of their other slots as well. Potentially, that means Colorado could be bringing in several expensive players to fill a number of spots in the roster.

The team has used 6 of its 7 international roster spots. That might imply that Colorado can only buy one foreign player in the next few weeks, while spending the rest of their roster budget on American and Canadian players within MLS. But in all likelihood, the front office will send recent acquisition and New Zealand international Deklan Wynne out on loan for the season, freeing up his international slot (we know he will at least be loaned out for the first half of the season). Additionally, international slots are trade-able, and a number of MLS teams are sitting on a pile of yet-to-be-used international slots, like Sporting KC, LAFC, LA Galaxy, and Columbus Crew. If a team isn’t going to use their slot, they can trade it for a domestic player, a draft pick, TAM, or GAM.

It looks like the Rapids have to add between 3 and 5 players to this roster before opening day. One or two could come via the MLS 2018 SuperDraft, which takes place this January 19th (first two rounds in Philadelphia) and 21st (third and fourth rounds via conference call). Although there are four rounds to the draft, teams almost never sign more than one or two draftees to an MLS contract.**

Another spot or two could be taken by a Homegrown signing. Last year, the Rapids signed academy players Ricardo Perez and Kortne Ford. I’m going to take a look at the academy in depth later in the week, but in short, I think there’s a 50-50 chance the Rapids add one youth player to the Senior roster.

In financial terms, the Rapids have already allocated somewhere between $3.0 million and $3.5 million*** on the current roster; $2.2 million in known spending on current players, plus the unknown salary charges of Stefan Aigner, Johan Blomberg, Kip Colvey, and (probably) Edgar Castillo, along with amortized transfer fees.

That leaves the team with:

  • between $500,000 and $1 million in space under the expected MLS salary cap of $4.0 million,
  • $500,000 in GAM,
  • another $1.2 million in league-allocated TAM, and
  • another $2.8 million in discretionary TAM that would come out of the pockets of KSE itself.****
  • An open DP spot.

That’s a lot of money—more money than I think the Rapids will need for their roster building.

The Rapids depth chart

With that, let’s take a look at the depth chart for the Rapids, position by position. In the past under Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni, a 4-2-3-1 formation dictated the positional needs of the team. Under new Head Coach Anthony Hudson, there is strong talk that this team will line up in the 5-3-2 formation that Hudson employed with the New Zealand national team. So let’s go ahead and make our picks based on that.

Goalkeeper

Status: Deep. In need of a 3rd stringer with an eye toward 2019, though.

Both Tim Howard and Zac MacMath are quality keepers, and although it seems like Tim Howard is in the requisite decline that you’d expect of a man his age, he can still perform at a high level. Still, late in the 2017 season, Zac MacMath was the better option, and I expect that will be true in 2018. Whether Anthony Hudson truly declares that either keeper could be the opening day starter is a good question.

The Rapids released 3rd string keeper John Berner in November, so they’ll need somebody good and cheap to stash with USL affiliate Charlotte Independence in case of emergency. Charlotte’s current starting keeper, 26-year-old Cody Mizell, is a good option, and he was signed to a short term contract for the Rapids last year when both Tim Howard and John Berner were hurt. Another possibility is Rapids Academy keeper Kainoa Likewise. He was on the roster for Charlotte in 2017, but saw no game time with them. The Rapids could sign him to a senior team contract and stash him back in North Carolina.

Whoever gets signed to be the number three is essentially auditioning for a more serious job in 2019, as Tim Howard is fairly certain to be retiring at the end of this season when his Rapids contract comes to an end.

Fullback

Status: Very deep. What does it mean for Dillon Serna?

As the Rapids likely take on a shift from the 4-4-2 to the 5-3-2, the role and importance of their fullbacks becomes elevated. In a 5-3-2 offense, wingbacks are expected to do almost the same job as a wide midfielder offensively, but also race back and defend as well. That means that the Rapids two pacey wide midfielders, Dillon Serna and Marlon Hairston, are likely taking on a shift in their prior responsibilities.

The good news is, it won’t be entirely new to either of them. Hairston played right back in a number of games in both 2017 and 2016, and looked good doing it. In 2016, Serna played left back for the USMNT U-23 team. This formation might be perfect for both of them, either as starters or off the bench in the 70th minute when the starting winger is gassed.

If we presume that Serna and Hairston will play as wingbacks, Colorado currently has seven (!) fullbacks on the roster: leftbacks Edgar Castillo, Dillon Serna, Kip Colvey, and Deklan Wynne, rightbacks Eric Miller and Marlon Hairston, and utility defender Mike da Fonte. This is the deepest position the Rapids have by far, even after loaning out both Wynne and da Fonte.

There are some big questions that remain, though: Can Serna do the defensive dirty work required of the position? Can these players elevate their games to meet the needs of this demanding new formation upon them? And most importantly, will a formation predicated on running non-stop windsprints up and down the flanks work at 5,000 feet in elevation?

Centerback

Status: Thin. But what we’ve got is a good start.

If Colorado had to play just one game tomorrow, they’d be fine at centerback with the three guys they’ve got on the roster: Axel Sjoberg, Kortne Ford, and Jared Watts.

Sjoberg was a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year in 2016. He had some early injuries in 2017 and never quite rebounded last season, but if he’s healthy, there’s no reason Sjoberg can’t be back to his top-quality form again. Ford looked great in his rookie campaign, and if he can build on that for 2018, the Rapids will be tough to break down. Watts was Sjoberg’s backline partner in that dominant defensive 2016 team, and so he too has shown that he can get the job done. There are certainly some doubts, though, considering he was less-than-reliable in 2015 and 2017.

Take all of that into consideration with the increased difficulties that come with the 5-3-2 as it applies to centerbacks. In a 5-3-2, they have a little less ground to cover when playing carefully and defensively. However, if both wingbacks are caught out in the opponent’s half during a sudden counterattack, the centerbacks in this situation can find themselves pretty exposed and needing to both cover a lot of ground and react seamlessly and with coordination. The middle of the three centerbacks is also often tasked with stepping up to close off passing lanes, or staying back and directing the other defenders. I think this could be Watts? But also, maybe not.

Whether we envision Watts starts on the backline or not, the team doesn’t have any other centerbacks to choose from other than these three. Moving Eric Miller to CB is a possible option, and he has played there before in both 2017 and 2016. But even still, the team will need one more centerback to get them through a 34-game season MLS season, a US Open Cup run, and the added strain of CONCACAF Champions League. A veteran CB with experience marshalling a 5-3-2 backline would be ideal. Someone already in MLS, like Steve Birnbaum or Tim Parker, might work. Or you could go the other way, and go get a great kid or two out of the 2018 SuperDraft. Put Ford/Sjoberg/Miller across the back, make Watts your utility replacement, and let Noobie McPeachfuzz jump in if we need him.

You could also try for the home run and spend big on a highly-talented upgrade: go get a TAM or DP-level centerback from abroad, like Montreal did when they signed Laurent Ciman or the Galaxy did in getting Jelle Van Damme. It’s a big change from the way most teams do —most spend big for attackers and get their defenders cheap—but maybe doing it differently is the best advantage we can gain.

Everybody’s always banging on about the Rapids using their DP slot to get a creative attacking midfielder, but those guys are rare, and super expensive, and we tried that with Gabriel Torres with little success. I’m starting to doubt whether a good moneyball-type team should pay a seven or eight-figure transfer fee plus an ungodly annual salary for an Argentinian guy that could either end up being Miguel Almiron or Gonzalo Veron. The team was one game away from MLS Cup in 2016, and we did that on the back of our defense; maybe we try and do more of that. I dunno, man.

...

That’s it for part one. Tomorrow in part two, we’ll take a look at the Rapids roster needs at midfielder and forward.

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* The team can have up to 20 players on the ‘Senior’ roster, and need a minimum of 18. You can see how they assigned their players last year here, if you scroll down a little. This is a cool added level of transparency that MLS introduced in just the last four months; in the past, senior/supplemental/reserve roster status was not disclosed publicly.

** The Rapids have signed either 1 or 2 players from the SuperDraft to the Senior team in the last decade. The exception was in 2015, when the team signed Axel Sjoberg, Joe Greenspan, and Dominique Badji. Not a bad haul.

*** This amount does not take into account possible pay raises for players currently on the books. Dom Badji almost certainly got one in his new contract, for instance. That overall amount probably won’t be more than $300,000 in total, though, so don’t sweat it kids.

**** The Rapids have $2.2 million to spend on 5 players, plus one DP slot. That’s a lot of money, even before they’d need to dip into their discretionary TAM of up to $2.8 million. I don’t think they’re gonna touch that money, to be honest. To understand the difference between regular TAM and discretionary TAM, check the article I wrote on the subject, ‘A Wrinkle in TAM.’