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Enter 2019: Great Expectations

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What can we expect in 2019?

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

There are no two ways to say it… the Colorado Rapids are coming off of their worst-ever season. After a historic low for points per game after the shootout era came to a close (the Rapids earned a dismal 31 points) and finishing the season second-to-last in the Western Conference, we need to improve by leaps and bounds in order to compete against the new MLS 3.0 powerhouses like LAFC and Atlanta United.

To be fair, the offseason has already shown significant improvements. To summarize what has happened so far:

Out

Options Declined / Out-of-Contract:

  • Giles Barnes
  • Yannick Boli
  • Caleb Calvert
  • Kip Colvey
  • Mike da Fonte
  • Andrew Dykstra
  • Sam Hamilton
  • Enzo Martinez
  • Jack McBean
  • Ricardo Perez

Traded:

  • Zac MacMath (to Vancouver for Mezquida)
  • International Roster Spot (to FC Cincinnati for Kamara)

In

  • Nicolas Mezquida – Midfielder from Vancouver
  • Kei Kamara – Striker from Vancouver
  • Clint Irwin – Goalkeeper from Toronto FC and former Rapids player
  • Andre Rawls – Goalkeeper from NYCFC
  • Diego Rubio – Striker and young Designated Player for Sporting Kansas City
  • Keegan Rosenberry – Right back and USMNT player from Philadelphia Union

With what appears to be a fairly significant roster overhaul, let’s take a look at what our expectations should be for 2019.

Offense

Our offense in 2018 wasn’t stellar. In fact, you could say it was abysmal. In regards to the rest of the league, we were the lowest for goals-for, with just 36. This might have been an improvement compared to 2017, where we only scored 31, but compare this to offensive powerhouses Atlanta United, who managed to score a whopping 70 goals in the regular season, 31 of which came from Josef Martinez alone.

Largely due to the Rapids having a lack of talented starting strikers for the team, our forwards included players like Joe Mason (3 goals, no assists), Jack McBean (2 goals, 1 assist) and Yannick Boli (2 goals, no assists). We were hurting for a lethal striker. The closest we had was Dom Badji, who put up a respectable 7 goals but was traded halfway through the season for Kellyn Acosta. In my opinion, the Rapids haven’t seen that lethal striker since we had Conor Casey, who put in 16 goals in one season and has been a club record since 2009.

In the offseason, we’ve seen two strikers come in, both of which are proven threats in MLS. The first being Kei Kamara, one of the league’s greatest ever strikers. He’s been a force to be reckoned with, as he’s played with San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City Columbus Crew, Vancouver Whitecaps, and has seen some time in the Premier League with Norwich City and Middlesborough. Last year, over his 28 appearances with the Whitecaps, he scored 14 goals. That’s going to pay off dividends for us, as we’re looking to him to be a 34-game starter. With Kamara, we may finally have a double-digit striker again.

The next striker we brought in is Diego Rubio, the young Chilean striker who was with Sporting Kansas City. We got him as part of a three-way trade with the New England Revolution, where we traded Edgar Castillo in return for Kelyn Rowe (in my opinion the best player involved), then turned Rowe around to SKC along with $300k of Garberbucks™ for Rubio. Fans love Castillo, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad trade. Castillo was clearly too expensive for the Rapids, and we managed to get something for nothing out of him. But the fact that we had to trade Kelyn Rowe, who is one of the most versatile and talented players on MLS along with cash for a striker who didn’t get to properly compete in SKC is a bit disappointing. You can argue that we were needing to sign a second serious starting striker and this let us do that, but I still think we got cheated just a little bit.

So we’ve gone from relying on strikers who were playing in the USL or fresh out of college to two proven strikers who should play well for us. Without having seen what kind of player dynamic the two might create up to, it’s hard to say what kind of performance we should expect from them. Ten goals apiece? Twenty or more between the two of them? It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, on paper we are posed to be a much more powerful offensive threat than the 2018 team.

The #10 spot

How long have we been saying we need a dedicated #10 player? Four years? More? This position may have been inadvertently given to our new player Nicolas Mezquida, but he feels like more as a band-aid than a true starter. Everyone knows that we won’t be able to bring in any serious high-cost player until both Tim Howard and Shkelzen Gashi are off our payrolls, i.e. starting in the 2020 season, but in the meantime, Mezquida looks like he might be able to fulfill that role for us. He reminds a lot of fans of Enzo Martinez from last season: he’s a dribbley midfield player who can play the number 10 spot and has a Transfermarkt value of $850k. That is certainly nothing to sneeze at. He might have failed to impress ex-Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson, but that’s not to say that he isn’t a talented player. We can certainly understand that certain players do not get along well with coaches but can flourish under others.

We may not get the ultimate, highest-tier-possible #10 player for this season, but early signs are that Mezquida will be at the least serviceable in that position. If we have a healthy Gashi, the two could be trading off for that spot with whoever is the healthiest and most rested getting the start and then having the two swap at around the 60th minute or so.

Defense

Despite the large sums of money used to bring in Tommy Smith ($600,000) and Danny Wilson ($500,000) last year, both players ended up being a bit of a disappointment. While its cool that Smith helped to score four goals as a centerback, it’s more than a little bit embarrassing that our centerback ended up being our Golden Boot winner. On top of that, the season total of 63 goals allowed goes to show how weak our entire back line was. Hard to believe that we went from a league-best 32 goals allowed in 2016 down to almost double that number in just two years.

While we haven’t seen much promise in the future of the back line from 2018 (with the exception of Kortne Ford, long may he reign), we have seen a huge improvement in our right back position. As much as I feel cheated with how SKC got the best player and $300,000 out of the trade, I feel like we cheated Philadelphia Union just as much. Keegan Rosenberry is a 25-year-old right back who came out of the 2016 MLS SuperDraft as the 3rd overall pick. That same year, he went to the MLS All-Star game and got second place in the Rookie of the Year award. He’s a genuinely talented player who has gotten called up to the U.S. Men’s National Team, where there is no shortage of competition for the right back slot. DeAndre Yedlin might still have something to say about that as he is still the de facto starter, but the point still stands.

In addition, with the announcement that Edgar Castillo is officially off our roster and will be spending 2019 with the New England Revolution, we now have a somewhat glaring hole in our left back position. While we have seen players like Dillon Serna play in that position, this coming season may be a chance to show off one of our young Homegrown players, Sam Vines. He played almost all of 2018 down in Charlotte with the Independence. In September, he was called up to the U-20 USMNT, playing up an age group. He may not be fully prepared to be an MLS-caliber starter for 34 games, but I believe that we should at the least give him an opportunity to earn the starting spot next year. If he isn’t the starter, we have Serna and Deklan Wynne.

I’m still not anticipating any major announcements coming for more reinforcements for the back line. Despite some fan complaints, Tommy Smith is here to stay. Ford, when healthy, should be the other starter. If we can hold on to Axel Sjoberg, I’m not expecting another starter coming in to help out. Rosenberry will be a huge help and we may see the emergence of Vines as we enter the next season.

The Rocky Mountain Cup

I have a deep hatred for Real Salt Lake, but for as much as I hate them, it is hard to deny that this ‘rivalry’ hasn’t been much of a rivalry in the last few years. Even in our turbo-dominant 2016 season, we failed to get the cup. 2017 saw our unbeaten streak at home come to a bitter end thanks to RSL and of course, 2018 had the Game that Shall Not Be Mentioned. It has been too long since the Rocky Mountain Cup has come to breathe the wonderful mountain air, instead of the diseased and toxic atmosphere of Salt Lake City.

One thing that has not gone unnoticed by fans is that the players joining the Rapids have been promoted by showing goals against RSL. Seeing a proven scorer like Rubio, or an out-of-nowhere goalscorer like Rosenberry, scoring against RSL is a wonderful thing to see. With a new coach and many new players to the team, its important to still hold on to the rivalry that is so important to the fanbase.

Now, that’s not to say it will be easy. RSL is, as much as we’d like to disagree, a very solid team. Especially at Rio Tinto Stadium, where we still have not earned three points. But 2019 may be the first time where we will only play a home-away series, instead of the unbalanced rotation of two homes and away, or one home and two aways. This has always favored RSL heavily when they host twice with their historic record against us at their home stadium. Seeing more of a balance starts to push the balance slightly more in our favor. With it being less likely that the Rapids will play twice in Salt Lake City, this feels like a chance to take the RMC back. We can wipe the taste of that game out of our mouths, and take back that piece of hardware that we haven’t seen for four years.

Let’s just hope that they treated it better than Atlanta did with the MLS Cup.

The U.S. Open Cup

I know that a lot of people don’t really care about the U.S. Open Cup; particularly fans who watched the Rapids lose out badly in the last few years. Last year, we played Nashville on the road—against several former Rapids players and ex-coach Gary Smith—and walked away with our tails between our legs. It may not matter in the grand scheme of MLS and league play in general, but I’d still like to see us try to put forth a decent effort at going for the Open Cup this year. Maybe not to the finals, but at least a decent effort. Let’s see us win against a mid-tier USL team, and maybe against a sleeping MLS team too.

There is always serious competition for hardware in the Open Cup, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see the MLS Cup come back to Colorado next year. It does, though, give Anthony Hudson an opportunity to give some minutes to players who don’t see the field much. It also gives us a chance to see some teams which we otherwise wouldn’t see, i.e. USL teams. It isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, but I’m still hoping that we can get something come out of this.

Playoffs

Even mentioning the word “playoffs” around Rapids fans can leave a bad taste in their mouths. We absolutely crushed it in 2016, but the following two years we didn’t even get close, finishing 2017 and 2018 just a single slot above the lowest-ranked Western Conference team.

This year, we’re seeing a change to the MLS playoff format, where they now let in 7 teams per conference as opposed to 6. With a total of 24 teams, that’s almost 60% of MLS making the playoffs. While we may be less likely to see them play at DICK’s Sporting Goods Park, it is more likely that we get in the playoffs to begin with.

However, the past years haven’t done much to instill confidence in us.

For 2019, I don’t think that if we miss the playoffs, it spells the end for us. Rather, I think that an acceptable benchmark would be for us to be fighting for a playoff spot. If we end up out of the playoffs, but if one loss went to a tie and we would have been in, that’s fine with me. For years, I have been saying that the benchmark should be about an even split amongst wins, losses, and ties. Over three games, we’d get four points total; three points from a win, no points from a loss, and a point from a tie. With a PPG of 1.333, and comparing that to the last few years, we’d be just slightly below the playoff contenders. In the Eastern Conference, we’d be just below Montreal Impact, and in the Western Conference, we’d be below LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps, but more importantly above Houston Dynamo, Minnesota United, and San Jose Earthquakes.

I think it would be naïve to expect the MLS cup or conference championship in the next few years. Anyone who thinks that Hudson should be fired if we don’t achieve those kinds of lofty expectations should take a deep breath and seriously think about what a fair expectation should be. Do we expect to do a full 180-degree turn, and suddenly become the powerhouses of the Western Conference? Or would it be more realistic to expect us to go from a dismal 11th place finish to something closer to the 7th or 8th place? Don’t forget, as much as we are trying to improve every year, each and every team in MLS is trying to improve as well.

The new season is coming quickly. Preseason starts at the end of January, followed by the home opener against the Portland Timbers on March 2nd. With hopefully a few more changes coming to the roster prior to then, what do you think is fair to expect from the Rapids this season? Do you think the playoffs will happen, or will we be missing out for the third year in a row? Sound off in the comments below!