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Backpass: The Cold Open

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We didn’t beat the reigning MLS champs, but the takeaway was still positive for the Colorado Rapids.

John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

Any first game of a season is fraught with challenges, even under the best of circumstances. There’s the extra adrenaline from the game. There are a few new players you’re getting to know. There’s the recalibration of the body to the rigors and demands of the game. And there’s that overall sense for players that everything—timing and shooting form and first touch—isn’t quite there yet. And that’s all under the best circumstances.

Add to that a new coach, a new formation, a starting lineup with six brand new players, a game in a knockout cup, the team’s first 90 minutes at altitude after three weeks in Arizona, a game against the defending MLS champs (who also happen to be possibly the best team in MLS history), and do all of that on the coldest night of the year in Colorado, and you’ve got one of the most challenging opening games in Colorado Rapids history.

Considering all of that, I’d say the ballclub did pretty well Tuesday night.

Yes, we lost. I was disappointed too. I can’t say I was surprised, though, based on all the mitigating factors I just mentioned.

I’ll add to that something that Head Coach Anthony Hudson said at the post-game press conference:

“It’s a tournament that we respect. It’s a fantastic tournament. The reality is also that we are a team with half new players. We’re three and a half weeks into pre-season, and the priority for this new team is that we’re ready for this new season.”

Hudson was careful not to say ‘we weren’t expecting to beat TFC’, but basically, one could extrapolate that Hudson was... not expecting to beat TFC. This game was squarely conceived of as a pre-season match: a hard one, and an important one, but not an essential one. This team has many things to work on and many hills to climb in what is essentially day one of an all-new Rapids.

In the movies, the ragtag team of plucky upstarts and castoffs comes together and beats the favorite. In real life, though, rebuilding takes time. I’m with Coach Hudson. I’m disappointed that the Rapids lost, but overall, I’m encouraged by a lot of the things I saw in this match.

The First Half in Three Plays

The Rapids had 6 shots, 6 crosses, 5 key passes in the final third, and 2 corners in the first half.

Meanwhile, Toronto had 4 shots, 4 crosses, 4 key passes in the final third, and zero corners.

These stats convey that the Rapids had the better of the attacking chances. TFC bested the Rapids in possession 65-35%, but a significant amount of that possession was swinging the ball around the back line, pinned in their own half by an aggressive high press.

The press and the Rapids attacking acuity caught TFC off guard at the start. Rapids fan Meghan Kavanaugh said it best:

Take a look at the Rapids’ first-half shots:

Those long shots from Jack Price (#19), Edgar Castillo (#2) and Enzo Martinez (#90) were all low percentage tries. But the three inside the box were all quality opportunities that very well could have fallen for goals. So let’s look a little closer at each one.

First chance: 20th minute, Jack Price to Jack McBean

Jonathan Osorio fouls Jack McBean, setting up a free kick. Jack Price stands over the ball and whips in a great ball to Jack McBean (there are a lot of Jacks on this team now) for a header that the American Jack couldn’t properly square up.

This was the New Rapids first free kick opportunity—the first chance for fans to see Jack Price step into a role that used to belong to Mohammed Saeid or Shkelezen Gashi—and Price was wicked accurate. This was a minor moment, but still a good one.

Second Chance: That Badji miss in the 27th minute

Before we talk about the miss, let’s talk about the build up. At 26:01, Justin Morrow makes a bad pass from the left wing. Marlon Hairston steps in front of it and begins this sequence. He sends the ball into Dominique Badji, who taps it to McBean, who feeds Jack Price. Price dribbles to his left and passes to Edgar Castillo. Castillo, Price, Deklan Wynne and Nana Boateng play a quick game of 4 v 2 along the East Stand at Dick’s, quick passing their way around the TFC defense and drawing the opposition out to their side. Then, with TFC shifted over, the Rapids swing the ball back from the left to the right: Wynne to Tommy Smith, Smith to Kortne Ford, Ford to Marlon Hairston, Hairston to McBean, McBean to Badji.

Badji makes a run past his defender, who’s been caught out in a bad spot because of the rapid-tempo ball movement, and gets eliminated. Dom is one-on-one with Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono with the whole goal before him and... he hits it right into Bono’s gut. Attack snuffed out.

Still. That’s a 13-pass buildup that swung the ball from winger to striker to midfielder to winger to centerback, along the backline, across to the opposite winger, up to the striker and in to create a fantastic chance. You never saw this in the Mastroeni era! Never! This was not the way the team moved the ball: d-mids never moved up this high and centerbacks and wingers were much more disconnected. If a striker like Kevin Doyle dropped deep, he was likely unsupported in the attack or didn’t have the right instincts in what his next move ought to be.

The Rapids pulled apart the Toronto defense and then hit the gaps here. It was a pity we didn’t score, but it looked, at long last, like a Rapids team that had an offensive plan of attack.

Third Chance: Hairston to Badji for a hard-headed chance

I won’t belabor this description, but again, we have ball movement across the backline. The play is spearheaded by Jack Price and involves McBean and Badji coming deep to get involved, then peeling off to head into the box. Marlon Hairston swings a fierce low cross onto the head of Badji who gets one off with venom, but the keeper stops it.

All in all, these attacks have a different look than we saw in the past. There’s a plan. It involves a large number of players. It moves the ball across the field rapidly. And, most importantly, it creates chances.

These are all things that fans should feel encouraged by. Yeah, it’s true that Badji didn’t finish his chances, and that’s frustrating. But there’s an old adage that defenders are typically ahead of strikers early in the season. It takes a lot of repetition and practice for strikers to get the timing right, and for the Rapids, it’s not there yet.

But the scoring touch WAS there for Toronto FC

In the second half, Toronto made adjustments, the Rapids were a little tired, and the technical ability of TFC’s top players like Osorio, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Marky Delgado were on full display.

Goal 1 in the 55th minute:

Giovinco is inadequately defended here as he gets a free run and cross. You can’t do that. And then, a lack of back-post defending. Dammit. It’ll getcha every time.

Tim Howard stopped everything that was right at him. But go look at that goal again. It looks like something that demanded a good reaction save, or quicker movement. Or, as Matt Doyle put it:

Ouch.

Goal 2 in the 73rd minute:

Uuuuuuucccccchhhhhhh. The defensive line all drops together while marking space, but not marking players, allowing Giovinco to sneak unmarked to a spot 10 yards out and directly in front of goal. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? Nobody marked the best player in MLS as he came into the box? Granted, he needed a ridiculously talented half-volley to score. But if you’re Giovinco, that’s like tying your shoes.

It seems to me that the defense is also shifted too far over to the strong side: Enzo Martinez and Marlon Hairston are the nearest defenders, and probably should have done better when Brazilian fullback Auro strikes that ball. But Tommy Smith is probably the right guy to be marking the center channel, and instead he’s nowhere, or marking the same space as Deklan Wynne. It’s a lack of communication and a lack of familiarity, and I expect better from a seasoned defender. I think we all will expect better in two or three months.

The Tactical Adjustments

In the post-game presser, both coaches talked about how things changed from the first half to the second. Anthony Hudson said “we found ourselves getting a little stretched in the second half”, and also saw the team go into a noticeable slump 10 minutes into the second half as “the legs got a little tired.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney remarked that the team “got a little bit too spread out in the first half, and then we reorganized ourselves a little better in the second half.” It sounds like both teams will be thinking about spacing and defending a little more for the second leg. But overall, it felt like the veteran team made adjustments, and the team of newbies started to fall apart, both tactically and physically. Not great, but also a relatively predictable result for a team that has played together for three weeks, facing the TFC juggernaut.

Quick Hits

Coach Anthony Hudson played his starting XI the full 90 minutes. When asked about it, Hudson explained that the decision was about getting the players match-fit for the regular season. He chose to do that as part of his approach to this game as a pre-season match, and not a season-defining knockout tournament. Running all the starters the full 90 makes a lot of sense if you believe that this game was part of the pre-season. I think for a lot of people, that’s a very big ‘if’...

The Rapids starting lineup for this match was Tim Howard; Kortne Ford, Tommy Smith, Deklan Wynne; Edgar Castillo, Marlon Hairston; Jack Price, Nana Boateng, Enzo Martinez; Dominique Badji, and Jack McBean. That’s the same lineup the Rapids used in their final game in Arizona against Phoenix Rising FC. The bench for this match was Danny Wilson, Dillon Serna, Johan Blomberg, Sam Hamilton, Stefan Aigner, Niki Jackson, Zac MacMath.

The players on the roster that were not in the 18 were Andrew Dykstra, Caleb Calvert, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts, Micheal Azira, Eric Miller, and Ricardo Perez. Shkelzen Gashi was held out due to a calf strain and Kip Colvey sat out due to a quad issue. What we’re seeing is the first knockings of the Rapids depth chart, and four members of the 2017 defensive core are on the outside of the lineup, looking in. This is something worth keeping an eye on.

Oh yeah. Hey kids. Soccer’s back.