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How Chris Sharpe became a set-piece master and why that might be the key to the Rapids’ success in the playoffs

The Loons are one of the top MLS teams at defending set plays. The Rapids are on a roll executing them.

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

As a member of Colorado Rapids coaching staff, goalkeeper coach Chris Sharpe has worked under six different head coaches, starting with Oscar Pareja in 2013 through his current boss, Robin Fraser.

“It has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I have had very good relationships with them all,” Sharpe said. “Understanding different (operating) systems, different styles of play, and the positions, and the roles of the goalkeepers specifically, from my coaching position within those styles has been very good in my development as a coach. They have all been very good to me, and obviously now with Robin at the helm, it has been wonderful and most enjoyable for me.”

As an assistant coach, Sharpe has been maintained his longevity with the club, and in a position often faces a revolving door. When the head coach departs, typically so do the assistant coaches. The Rapids have had their fair share of skippers in the past decade, yet somehow, Sharpe keeps avoiding the exit door.

Sharpe credits his tenure to his goalkeeping coaching role that is very specialized. “It is a niche position and different to the other roles, very personal, and one-on-one,” he explained in a recent interview with Burgundy Wave.

Though tending to the first team’s squad of goalkeepers, developing rising ‘keepers in the Academy, and evaluating elite goalies at Colorado-based U.S. Soccer Youth National Team Identification Center camps have been the leading roles for the Aussie, managing the team’s set pieces and free kicks—and of course, defending them—are responsibilities that he has grown into in the recent years. It all started, in so many words, when he raised his hand, similar to when he became a U.S citizen in 2018.

Who wants to be in charge of set pieces

In 2014, then-head coach Pablo Mastroeni asked his staff who wanted to take on the role of managing the attacking and defense of set pieces. Sharpe expressed his interest and was assigned the new responsibility.

Sharpe readily admits that he didn’t bring much experience to the table. He started from his comfort zone by leveraging his experiences as a one-time goalkeeper who often positioned the defenders in front of him when his opponents were executing their set plays, but not a whole a lot on the attacking side. “I thought to myself, defensively, I have a good grasp of it. I want to get better on my side on the attacking pieces. So I did some research and went through a bunch of teams that have been successful on the international side.”

Sharpe is keen on Napoli, Ireland’s National Team, and FC Midtjylland in Denmark. He also is a fan of Bayer Leverkusen, calling the Bundesliga side very well-run. Sharpe also took some inspiration from Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and Everton’s Carlo Ancelotti.

He also did his research on MLS sides. “Last year I dug in even deeper in the off-season and started looking at every team in MLS. How they set up their defending side, and how we can set up stuff to break them down. The 2018-19 season transition was really good for me because I saw a lot of things that I had not seen previously in the way teams in the MLS set up,” he added. “I’ve watched Red Bull Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg who set up a lot of good attacking options in their set pieces, which obviously MLS’ New York Red Bulls did as well.”

And all of Sharpe’s hard work has paid off. From Mastroeni and Steve Cooke to Anthony Hudson and Conor Casey to Robin Fraser, coach after coach has asked him to continue to run set pieces.

“Sharpie is maybe the hardest working person I’ve ever seen at set pieces,” Fraser said of the assistant coach. “He is so diligent in how he analyzes opposing teams and he’s in constant conversations with the players throughout the week based on things that we’re going to see. His attention to detail is like none I’ve ever seen... I think his points are absolutely brilliant. It’s a real weight off a head coach’s mind if you have somebody who’s that dedicated to it and he’s been really amazing for the team and the record speaks for itself.”

Sharpe admits that he’s taken a real liking to set pieces as his responsibilities have grown over the years. “As we know, set pieces have become a pretty big piece to the football game in the last 4-5 years, much more so than when I was first coaching... It has become part of my everyday process for the first team. It is not a small piece anymore, and it has become a big part of what we do, and a big part of what I do. Goalkeeping is my number one, I love that part of it, that is my absolute favorite piece of it.”

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Collectively, Sharpe’s expanded role has translated into success for the Rapids.

“It really showed last year,” he said. “[Jack] Prices’ delivery was fantastic, and we had some really good movement and big strong guys in the box that helped. We led the league in [set-piece] goals last year and I believe we are up there this year.” Last season the Rapids had a league-high 17 goals on set plays. This year they had nine set-piece goals for (six corners and three indirect free kicks) and six against (four corners and two indirect free kicks).

Defending against set pieces is just as important as scoring them

“Set pieces have, in the last five years, become very important in scoring goals. The defending side is just as important because it sets a foundation,” he explained. “We see what their runs look like, see how they set up, where they finish and then find the best way to break them down, and ultimately stop them, get the ball and get down the field quickly. We use the terms- taking defending moments and turning them into attacking transition.”

On defending corners, the players on the pitch have to be sure they get the match-up right, getting on rebounds, paying attention to the top of the box, closing spaces, etc. “These are little things that have become very important,” he said.

Putting it all in action

Prior to a match, Sharpe will look back at the five previous games their opponents have played. He cuts dozens of video clips from the games—both attacking and defending set pieces. The coaching staff and team study them.

Sharpe delivers a presentation two days before a match and may send video clips to the starting players and select matchday substitutes. He also prepares folders for each player that contain illustrations the set plays and defensive schemes. The day before a match, when training sessions are closed to media and general viewers, the team will run through attacking and defending routines, in hopes of optimizing both.

On game day, 3-4 plays are posted on a locker room whiteboard and code names are given to each one. Sharpe picks a player to make those calls during the match and it is then up to that player to make the call in the moment.

During the match, Sharpe intently watches set plays on both sides of the ball and takes notes on the fly. If he sees a weakness that he can exploit, he will communicate it to a field player—usually through a shout across the pitch.

We saw that in action against the Seattle Sounders. Sharpe noticed saw a breakdown in their defense on previous Rapids set pieces. Sharpe communicated to Cole Bassett to reposition himself during an attacking free kick. He believed the move, different than what was called, would cause Seattle to struggle while adjusting to it. More so, it would put Bassett in a dangerous spot.

And when Jack Price’s yet again perfect delivery found an unmarked Cole Bassett, he promptly found the back of the net. Bassett revisited the goal after the game during a video interview with media. “I actually wasn’t supposed to start offsides. My role was supposed to go near post but he said start offsides and drift back post or towards the middle area. It worked out to a tee. They didn’t know how to stay with me once I was offside so I hopped back in the line and Price puts it in a perfect spot,” the young midfielder said.

Will Chris Sharpe’s preparation of the Rapids make the difference against Minnesota United?

During the next 48 hours, Sharpe and the Burgundy Boys will be rehearsing their set plays and defensive strategies ahead of Sunday’s opening playoff match versus Minnesota United (Watch on ESPN at 5:30 p.m.).

With snow in the forecast and a game-time high of 25 degrees, the tempo of the game may be a bit slower and the outcome just may hang in the balance of successfully defending or generating a scoring set piece.

But Rapids head coach has confidence in Sharpe and his players.

“In terms of what he does differently, or what he does for us, the amount of time that he spends analyzing our set pieces, opponent set pieces, is pretty amazing. And so when he speaks, it’s not like he’s guessing—he’s the absolute authority on what other teams are going to do and what we’re going to do. And there’s just no doubt about it. Both he and Neil [Emblen] spend an amazing amount of time in watching video and analyzing opponents and doing everything they can to get our group prepared for what they’re going to see on the weekend,” Fraser said.

The Rapids will have their work cut for them, as MNUFC have only allowed two goals on corner kicks the entire season, two on indirect free kicks, and none on direct free kicks.

Perhaps Sharpe, a ballet master of sorts, will once again pull a game-winning dance script from his catalog that will advance the Rapids into the next round of the playoffs.