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2022 Season Review: Sam Nicholson

Nicholson’s first season back in the Rocky Mountains showed a noticeable regression.

Sam Nicholson warming up on the sideline during a home game.
John Babiak

This is part of a series of individual player reviews by Joseph Samelson. You can follow him on Twitter @jspsam and read his work elsewhere at josephsamelson.com.

Role: Winger, Attacking Midfielder, Wing Back

Squad Status: Rotation

Season in a Sentence: Despite earning plenty of chances across a variety of different positions, Nicholson’s first season back in the Rocky Mountains showed a noticeable regression from his previous stint with the Rapids.

Grade: D

Following an inauspicious start to their MLS season, the Colorado Rapids made their first attempt to right the ship in June by welcoming versatile Scottish midfielder Sam Nicholson back to the club. The move marked the first of two acquisitions for the Rapids’ senior roster during the summer, and Nicholson was supposed to be a vital component in the team’s attempt to kick-start a late-season turnaround—one that ultimately never came.

The 27-year-old originally joined Colorado in 2018 thanks to a mid-season trade with Minnesota United, but the two parties agreed to mutual termination in 2020 so that Nicholson could return to Great Britain to handle personal matters. Nicholson went on to spend two seasons with Bristol Rovers FC as the English club bounced between League One and League Two. When his contract expired at the end of the 2021-22 EFL season, the Rapids handed the Scot a two-and-a-half year deal at the same base salary that he earned during his last full year with the club.

Nicholson had developed a Jonathan Lewis-like reputation during his first years in Colorado. Primarily deployed as a right-sided winger, the Scot consistently displayed a fearlessness on the dribble and a willingness to take on any opponent under three different managers. While Nicholson didn’t always deliver the end product, the swift-footed midfielder’s chaotic attacks regularly opened up opposition defenses and created opportunities for the rest of the team even when he didn’t show up on the scoresheet.

Those traits were missing from Nicholson’s game when he made his return in 2022, and he demonstrated a noticeable decline in his willingness to take on defenders. The Scot’s completed dribbles per 90 dropped from 1.78 in 2019 to 0.87 in 2022, and he was far more likely to miscontrol the ball in an average game (2.24 → 3.03). His completed crosses per 90 also fell significantly from 4.27 to 2.49 this past season, and he took fewer shots per 90 (2.49 → 1.41) despite getting more touches in the penalty area (2.49 → 2.82).

Nicholson’s poor play in the wide areas of the attacking third heavily impacted his teammates’ willingness to play the ball down the right side. Colorado’s midfielders looked far more comfortable playing the ball through to Michael Barrios on the touchline, and defenses excelled at marking Nicholson out of most matches.

While Nicholson earned plenty of chances on both wings and in the attacking midfield, the Rapids returnee only notched one goal contribution during his 831 minutes—a consolation goal in Colorado’s late season 4-1 road loss to the LA Galaxy. He began to gel more with the side when he made two starts as a wing back at the end of the season, but those showings came after the Rapids were thoroughly eliminated from the playoff race.

Looking Forward

Nicholson didn’t impress in his first season back with the Rapids, and it’s looking like the club’s decision to hand him a yearly compensation package of $335,313 through the 2024 season was a short-sighted one. His play as an attacker left a lot to be desired, but the 27-year-old could conceivably carve out a niche as a replacement-level attacking right wing back if Robin Fraser decides to stick to three-at-the-back next year. Barring a remarkable shift in form, that’s probably about the best supporters could hope for in 2023.

Stats via FBRef.