Role: Striker, Attacking Midfielder
Squad Status: Regular Starter
Season in a Sentence: Rubio had statistically the greatest regular season for an individual forward in club history.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the exceptional year Diego Rubio had with the Colorado Rapids in 2022.
During a season in which supporters witnessed regression and injuries impact key members of the squad, Rubio was unquestionably the team’s strongest and most consistent performer. He finished the year with career and team-highs in goals (16), primary assists (5), shots (89), key passes (47), and shot-creating actions (120) while amassing a cacophony of historic team honors.
Rubio arguably put in the best single-season offensive performance in club history. He matched the club record of goals in one year (Conor Casey, 2009) and set the team single-season record for both goal contributions (22, including secondary assists), and game-wining goals (13). The Chilean also became the first Colorado player to equal Chris Carrieri’s 2002 feat of scoring in nine straight home matches—a record that could still fall should Rubio score against Sporting KC during the Rapids’ 2023 home opener.
It was clear from the start that the Chilean forward was about to have a banner year. After finishing preseason as the club’s top goalscorer, Rubio got to work right away during league play. He recorded goals in consecutive appearances for the first time since 2019 when he scored against Atlanta United and Sporting KC in Colorado’s first home matches, and did it again for back-to-back away outings against FC Dallas and Minnesota United. Detractors thought that the rate wasn’t sustainable, but Rubio went on to replicate the feat six more times during league play.
When he dropped into an attacking midfield role to accommodate Gyasi Zardes’ arrival in late April, Rubio upped the ante by immediately leading the club to wins over the Portland Timbers and Los Angeles FC. He began creating more with his newfound freedom in the middle, and benefitted heavily from Zardes’ ability to keep defenders busy. The Chilean quickly became the focal point of the Rapids’ offense when Jack Price dealt with a string of injuries that impacted his ability to dish out set pieces.
“[Rubio was] really instrumental in all of our attacks this year, and I couldn’t be more proud of him for not just the goals, but his overall effect and how he works with the attacking players,” manager Robin Fraser said after the club’s last match of 2022. “I’m really happy that he tied [Casey’s] record because I think it’s fitting based off how instrumental he’s been.”
Rubio was solid when he occasionally returned to the striker role, but he played on another level when he lined up underneath Zardes. Despite dropping back into the middle, Rubio averaged the same number of touches in the penalty area per 90 (3.51) as he had in 2021. He was way more productive with those touches, and averaged 3.28 shots per 90—his highest-ever figure since joining the club.
Long-suffering supporters should have seen this Rubio coming the moment that the club finalized the decision to bring in a physically-gifted target man to the side. The Chilean’s previous best year with Colorado came in 2019 when he got double-digit goals while primarily playing a similar shadow striker role behind Kei Kamara. Curiously, that was the only other year when Rubio and the Rapids missed the postseason.
Finishing has generally never been Rubio’s problem—he has consistently scored more than his expected goals tally during the vast majority of his MLS career (+12.2 career G-xG). His past struggles have largely resulted from his difficulties in finding the right positions to take shots as a solo striker. Playing behind Zardes allowed Rubio to focus more on finding those areas, and Zardes’ ability to occupy defenders gave Rubio plenty of space to work his magic. An injury-free preseason also undoubtedly contributed to his big year.
Rubio is under contract for one more season after Colorado triggered his option in November, but Zardes’ decision to walk to Austin FC during the off-season leaves a bit of a question mark hanging over the Chilean’s role for 2023. The Rapids have already added two flexible forwards who can play striker in Kévin Cabral and Calvin Harris this off-season, but neither really fit the Kamara/Zardes mold.
It’s possible homegrown Darren Yapi could be that guy, and it’s possible that one of Michael Barrios or Jonathan Lewis—yes, Lewis—could all get striker minutes in the space ahead of Rubio next season. The efficacy of any combination of those setups is still an open question, but there are plenty of options for Fraser to test out during preseason.
The more fascinating question is the one surrounding Rubio’s future. He earned $629,583 in guaranteed compensation last season, and will be able to walk in free agency next year if he doesn’t re-sign. If his agent is worth his salt, they’ll be kicking the tires on a new deal right away. There are a handful of restrictions from preventing MLS clubs from approaching the forward until next December, but clubs outside the league could theoretically begin approaching Rubio starting in the summer.
Rubio had his career year at exactly the right time, and should be able to demand a salary north of seven figures. That puts Colorado in a difficult position because they might need to risk giving big money to a player who could fall back into another rut. The Rapids would certainly get stuck between a rock and a hard place if he comes out of the gates swinging to start the next season. There’s been no shortage of rumored interest in Rubio from non-US clubs, so the temptation to chase the bag elsewhere could be heavy.
Colorado could decide to cash-in on Rubio, but the optics of selling a star player so soon after he broke a bunch of team records aren’t great—especially in light of the club’s fire sale last winter. The team’s most sensible option is to build around Rubio in the attack, even if it means slightly overpaying for production during one or two seasons.
Stats via FBref.