*Note: I fell sick immediately after returning from the Vegas trip. While most of my writing may normally seem like the fever dreams of a madman, I didn’t particularly feel up to it until recently.
The Colorado Rapids traveled to Las Vegas on February 16th to play a couple of preseason games against Las Vegas Lights FC, a USL team whose first season was in 2018. I had the opportunity to travel down and see the afternoon matchup played live. The closed scrimmage resulted in a 3-0 win for the ‘Pids and in the open, 90-minute match, both teams walked away with two goals apiece.
What does this mean for the good guys as we go into the 2019 season?
First things first, don’t read a whole lot into the 2-2 tie. Overall, I felt like if we had actually wanted to win, we would have. Immediately after the first goal the Lights put up, Serna turned it on in a big way and tied it up shortly after. This seemed indicative of how the Rapids were trying to put more of a challenge in front of themselves while simultaneously keeping the game in control.
Both goals for the Lights came off of set pieces and we weren’t exactly playing the best lineup available. I was a little surprised to see Andre Rawls get the start over both Tim Howard and Clint Irwin, especially because he had just played in the first scrimmage. Editor’s note: Howard was a last-minute scratch during warm-ups and Irwin had been dealing with a minor injury throughout preseason.
What was exciting was that we got to see both Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio up top, as well as newcomers Nicolas Mezquida and Keegan Rosenberry, all of whom looked somewhere from decent to really good.
From the opening whistle, it seemed that the Lights were playing a more physically aggressive game than we were. I’d sort of compare it to what you might see in a minor league hockey game. If you’re a USL player, your dream is most likely to move up to MLS. To do so, you need to get noticed. To get noticed, you got to do something that makes you stand out compared to the rest of your teammates. How might you go about doing that, particularly if you are a player who doesn’t score goals? By going for some of the more aggressive and riskier tackles.
This was made evident by some of the big tackles made, in particular, on Diego Rubio. If you haven’t seen him yet, Rubio is a big guy. He is a very large and physical striker who can’t be easily muscled off the ball. He got repeatedly thrown to the ground by Lights players, and they rarely—if ever—got called on it. I distinctly remember a tackle that seemed like one of the Lights players had gotten him into a bear hug from behind and straight up threw him to the ground. It ended in a pretty big fight between both teams, though fortunately no cards were called. Rubio looked solid for the most part and I’m definitely excited to see what he can do this season.
Another new player we should pay attention to is Nicolas Mezquida. Biggest thing I noticed from him is that he’s quick. He repeatedly beat several players to the ball and he scored an absolute golazo in the game. For the most part, he’s still an unknown, but if the game is any sign of what he’s got to give, we’re in a good spot.
That’s not to say that the Rapids looked perfect. One player I was kind of disappointed in was Kellyn Acosta. For a player that recently got a substantial raise (rumor is ~$800,000/year), he seemed pretty invisible on the field. This may have been the tactic from Eric Wynalda, though. How would you stop the Rapids? Shut down their midfield and their star player. It seemed like the Lights were intent on making Acosta as quiet as possible.
Overall, I saw a lot in the match that is instilling confidence in me for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, we still have a big question mark at leftback. We aren’t necessarily short on depth here, but I’d like to see Sam Vines get the start, or at the least a chance to prove himself. Otherwise, I actually do like seeing Dillon Serna in that role as well. Serna is always an energetic spark on the field, and if we’re looking at turning on our offense he would be a great choice to help out in that role. We’ve also got Deklan Wynne available and we even saw Sam Nicholson play that role for a bit during the match.
Between the preseason matches, our estimation of injuries, and our current expectations on players going out on loan, I think we have a pretty good estimate of how we’ll be playing in 2019. Certainly, the offense has improved greatly, as Kamara and Rubio look to be a far more effective striker pairing than any combination of Badji, Mason, Boli, or McBean could have ever been. We may have some questions in the defense and the optimal midfield choice, but at this point, it’s almost impossible to say that we haven’t vastly improved over where we were at the end of 2018.
The Rapids open the season on March 2nd as we start things at home against Portland Timbers. We hope to see everyone there to support our 2019 Rapids!