In 2020, the Colorado Rapids took a big step forward as a club by qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016. They played exciting, attacking football, and were led by a young core of players like Sam Vines and Cole Bassett.
And things look to get even better in 2021, as young players like Auston Trusty and Jonathan Lewis could potentially become break-out stars. Even with such a bright future, the club added a few more pieces this year—three, to be specific.
First, the club acquired veteran winger Michael Barrios from FC Dallas. Then, through a series of moves, they drafted highly-rated midfielder Philip Mayaka third overall in the MLS SuperDraft. And finally, the club permanently added goalkeeper William Yarbrough, who was on loan from Liga MX’s Leon last year. With these three pieces, it seems the Rapids are finished bolstering their roster ahead of 2021. Let’s see how it has shaped up.
Firstly, in goal, the club looks exactly the same. With the permanent acquisition of William Yarbrough plus Clint Irwin’s contract extension, the Rapid’s number one and two goalkeepers will be the same in 2021. Further down the depth chart, veteran Andre Rawls enters the final year of his contract, while Homegrown player Abraham Rodriguez will get more experience with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks this year.
The backline also sees no major changes, with only Deklan Wynne and Abdul Rwatubyaye leaving—neither of whom played a minute for the Rapids last year. The fullback positions are a lock, with Sam Vines and Keegan Rosenberry both obvious starters. Their backups, Steven Beitashour and Jeremy Kelly, are both capable MLS players. There have been some doubts about Beitashour’s age and while he hasn’t yet played a minute in burgundy, he has the MLS experience and has proven to be a quality fullback in the league.
The centerback position, however, may be a bit more open. The club re-signed 2020 starter Danny Wilson (much to the chagrin of the fanbase) earlier this winter, while Auston Trusty will look to displace Wilson as Lalas Abubakar’s centerback partner. I am in favor of Trusty starting, assuming he performs well in pre-season and training. Trusty is the younger option, and while he lacks the distribution of Danny Wilson, Trusty seemed much less prone to defensive mistakes and seemed to have improved every match. Consistency may be the key to unlock Trusty’s potential.
Drew Moor will be the backup option at center back, along with whoever loses the battle for the LCB position. Kortne Ford has been ravaged by injury, but hopefully he finally sees the field again in 2021 as well.
Robin Fraser has his work cut out for him at center midfield, as he has at least four starting-caliber players in the position.
The two expected starters are Kellyn Acosta and captain Jack Price, but they will have plenty of competition. Collen Warner’s contract was extended this winter, but he likely won’t get many minutes, especially following the drafting of Philip Mayaka. Many experts projected that Mayaka would go first overall, but he fell to the third pick, which the Rapids had traded to acquire. Mayaka may not start in 2021, but expect the Kenyan to play some serious minutes.
Cole Bassett can also play as one of the two “defensive” midfielders in Fraser’s 4-3-3, but he was extremely dangerous and valuable as the farthest forward midfielder, playing as a 10 or center attacking midfielder. Bassett will be backed up by Nicolas Mezquida in this position, along with Younes Namli. It’s no secret Bassett has been the subject of intense European interest, so if the club cashes in on him and he is transferred to Europe, Namli will man this role.
Since the European transfer window is now closed, it’s fairly safe to assume that Bassett isn’t going anywhere at the moment, which means Namli will most likely play as a right winger. I loved Namli on the right last year, as this position enabled him to cut inside on his stronger left foot or take on defenders 1v1 with his slick dribbling and skill. Michael Barrios is primarily deployed as a right winger, but can also play the left side just as effectively.
Assuming Namli plays on the right, that leaves the left wing position wide open, and with abundant competition. The previously mentioned Barrios is my favorite for this position, but there are at least four options in this role.
Jonathan Lewis has proved to be best utilized as a super-sub so far in his career in burgundy, but recently turned heads with a brace against Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly with the USMNT. Maybe he’s hit another level?
Then there’s Nicolas Benezet, the French winger who was acquired last winter. He played fewer than 500 minutes for the Rapids in 2020, but maybe in 2021 he can become more settled and make the left wing role his own? With Toronto in 2019, you can see he is clearly capable of the spectacular—it’s just a matter of getting it out of him.
The final option is 2019 MLS Rookie of the Year, Andre Shinyashiki. But Robin Fraser has made it pretty clear that both he and Shinyashiki himself see Andre as a striker. The dark horse candidate is Matt Hundley, but I expect him to spend more time on loan in the USL. Young and vivacious Argentinian Braian Galvan played as a backup to Namli on the right in 2020, and I assume he’ll play the same role in 2021, but hopefully gaining a few more minutes and chances to impress this year.
Then there’s striker—the position that essentially every Rapids fan (including myself) was hoping and expecting to be upgraded this winter. General Manager Padraig Smith told the Burgundy Wave they were looking at options, but as pre-season inches closer and closer, a new arrival seems more and more unlikely.
Despite this, I am confident that Diego Rubio and Shinyashiki will fill this role in 2021—an opinion that’s become increasingly unpopular among the fanbase this winter. I am not too worried about Rubio this year. While 2020 was undoubtedly not a good year for goal production for Rubio, I think with such a potent attack behind him, the Chilean will improve. His best performances in burgundy have come as a second striker, usually behind Kei Kamara, but when Kamara was traded last fall, the striker duties fell to Rubio. Rubio is a completely different forward from Kamara, though, and perhaps this is reflected when their goal-scoring stats are compared.
That being said, Rubio is immensely valuable to the Rapids, even without goals. On the defensive side of the ball, the 27-year-old is a ruthless presser who causes turnovers in threatening positions. On the attacking side, he isn’t as directly dangerous as Kamara, but I’d argue he’s a much better fit with Fraser’s system. He links up play well and creates openings for others with his movement and passing. And, when in front of goal, Rubio is unquestionably a good finisher. Plus, he is more than capable of a strike from range, as he reminded us against Real Salt Lake last year.
Rubio’s biggest downside so far in his Rapids tenure is his inconsistency. In some matches he will play brilliantly, other matches he’s invisible. Hopefully with a strong attack backing him, Rubio will become more consistent. I am confident he will, and if not, there’s always Shinyashiki. And if neither is performing, Padraig Smith did hint that a striker might potentially arrive in the summer. But regardless, I think Rubio will prove people wrong in 2021.
The Rapids Way
So, where does that leave the club coming into the new season? In my opinion, they’re in a very strong place for both the short-term and long-term. I expect the Rapids to return to the playoffs and to continue to return for the foreseeable future, finally becoming that “perennial playoff team” Padraig Smith and Wayne Brant promised fans in the now-infamous Rapids Way.
Unfortunately, all of that could be in jeopardy. For those who don’t closely follow the league, a potential lock-out is looming large. I wrote more in detail about that here, but essentially the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the players itself could be terminated, thus introducing a lockout if no deal is reached by midnight on Friday, February 5. ESPN reported that the parties are “far apart,” and a lockout is looming. MLS training camps were scheduled to open on February 22, with the season starting on April 3, but all of that is in the air as the MLS and MLSPA continue to negotiate.
On a more positive note, we all hope an agreement will be reached soon and we will see an exciting Rapids team kick off in 2021 … perhaps we’ll even be able to cheer on the Burgundy Boys in person at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.