The day we’ve been talking about since the end of the 2016 season is almost here. Our Colorado Rapids are taking on Toronto FC for Leg 1 of the CONCACAF Champions League THIS TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 20TH. (No matter what you think is going to happen, you should probably get tickets and be there.)
While the Rapids have been spending most of the last three weeks down in Arizona scrimmaging MLS and USL sides, Toronto scheduled a two-week road trip to face some of the top Liga MX clubs (more on Toronto’s preseason to come on Monday).
As the match approaches, many of us have been thinking about whether or not the Rapids are ready to take on the 2017 MLS Cup Champions. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons for our Burgundy Boys going into Tuesday’s match.
We all know that jumping into Champions League with a short preseason, a new head coach, and a bevy of new players is not ideal for Colorado. Toronto, on the other hand, is coming off an MLS Cup win (which you could argue hurts or helps them) and has mostly the same squad as last year.
As Charlie4Rapids mentioned in the comments of another post, FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings puts the Rapids in 443rd place out of 453 clubs (the worst ranking for an MLS club) and puts Toronto at 185th place overall (the best ranking for an MLS club). The ratings are based on offense, defense, and a collection of stats that they use to determine and overall Soccer Power Index. (Read more about their process). Again, not ideal.
We still don’t have a striker and are therefore sitting with a very similar offense to last year—which was tied for last place in MLS for goals scored in 2017. We’ve been waiting (and begging) for a striker since November and word has it that someone is coming soon, but the reality is that either way, he will not be here by Tuesday.
As much as we use altitude to our advantage, the Rapids have been in Arizona for most of the last three weeks, playing at 1,300-2,300 feet in elevation. Toronto hasn’t been playing consistently at altitude, either, but did have a match against Club America in Azteca (they lost 6-3).
And maybe the biggest factor in all of this—how much does this game really mean to the Rapids?
While there have been plenty of quotes from both Executive Vice President and General Manager, Pádraig Smith and Head Coach Anthony Hudson about how pleased they are with the fitness and play during the preseason, after the match vs. Phoenix Rising FC on February 14th, Hudson said: “We have to make sure that we continue to push the players physically and tactically—and also prepare for the Toronto game—but bottom line is we cannot compromise our preparation for New England. First game of the season is most important to us and we have to make sure we’re ready for the start of the season.”
In his letter to the fans at the beginning of the year, Hudson said that he has two goals: “to be a perennial playoff team” and to “bring another MLS Cup home to Colorado.” While I won’t put words in his mouth and say that this upcoming game doesn’t matter, it does sound like Hudson’s focus is on the regular season.
Smith had a slightly different take in an interview for CONCACAF’s website, saying: “They’re [Toronto] a wonderfully talented group of players and I think they showed last year how strong a team they are. We’re excited to face them in these opening two fixtures of the season. It’s going to be a big challenge, but I think it’s exciting for us, exciting for the league and hopefully we’re going to see two good games over the next couple of weeks.”
From the players’ perspective, this game is important. “We are fine-tuning all the details for the match against Toronto,” Edgar Castillo told CONCACAF.com. “We want to go in strong. Playing in the Champions League is a plus for any player and, personally for me and my teammates, this tournament means a lot.”
First, you can’t put much stake in preseason, and this is a benefit for the Rapids. They’ve taken the opportunity learn how to work together and there were some glimmers of hope in the preseason match I saw vs. Phoenix Rising FC.
For one, Jack Price was doing a great job of managing the midfield and getting the offense started. His passes were on point and I’m excited to see what can do this year. The offense did look somewhat disjointed, but I thought the players looked fit and I could see the 3-5-2 coming together (we actually had multiple players crashing the box trying to score!).
On defense, we have some really great pieces in place as well. Edgar Castillo hauled it up and down the field and while I don’t remember seeing a ton of offense generation, he did close down spaces and put pressure on Phoenix defensively. Tommy Smith held off Didier Drogba and Kortne Ford doesn’t look like he skipped a beat since the end of last season.
Practices are more organized and faster-paced than ever before, and we aren’t seeing as many injuries as last year. There are a couple players with minor tweaks (i.e. Gashi’s calf), but for the most part, the guys should be ready fitness-wise.
The Rapids are one of the best teams in the league at home, and this definitely works in their favor. (Dick’s Sporting Goods Park isn’t called a fortress for nothing.) If they can hold Toronto here in Colorado, the Rapids could really play spoiler for TFC, considering that we tied them in Toronto last season. Granted, they were missing a few key players and regular season non-conference games don’t mean quite a much, but it gives me a little bit of hope.
Last, but not least, this is their first chance to show us what they’ve got.
All we’ve been doing since Hudson’s appointment is speculating. And wondering what may or may not happen in CCL and in the MLS regular season. Tuesday will be the Rapids’ first real chance to show us what our club looks like in a 3-5-2. What these new players can do. What our new head coach can do.
This also reminds me of a similar conversation about the US Open Cup in that does it really matter? Do we actually care what happens or do we want to focus on the regular season? For me, whether they win, draw, or lose, I just want to see something different. I want to see the effort and I want to see this new Rapids Way in action. I’d love to see a solid defense but also something happening on offense and things starting to come together.
Bottom Line: I’m so excited that soccer is back and I’m ready to see what the new Rapids can do in a game that means something against a really good team.