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2022 Season Review: Gustavo Vallecilla

The Rapids’ costly Trusty replacement struggled to earn first team starts and didn’t impress during his limited minutes.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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: Central Defender

Squad Status: Rotation

Season in a Sentence: The Rapids’ costly Trusty replacement struggled to earn first team starts and didn’t impress during his limited minutes.

Grade: D-

With Auston Trusty’s mid-season departure to Europe on the horizon and the defender’s presumptive replacement slated to miss the entire season to injury, the Colorado Rapids acted swiftly to acquire reinforcements in 2022.

The solution? Gustavo Vallecilla, an Ecuadorian center back who had just gotten his feet wet with La Tri for the first time during the winter. Vallecilla had first entered MLS during the midst of the 2021 season when he signed for FC Cincinnati on loan as an Under-22 Initiative player. He went on to start in 25 of the Orange and Blue’s 34 regular season games as the Ohio club lifted the dubious Wooden Spoon—the distinction “awarded” to the MLS team with the fewest regular season points.

Cincinnati exercised the buy clause in Vallecilla’s contract at the end of the year, but quickly cut ties when Pádraig Smith offered the kitchen sink for the defender in late March. The move was a costly one from Colorado’s perspective, as the club had to part ways with a total of $800,000 General Allocation Money, $450,000 in real dollars, and some conditional bonuses. Cincinnati also retained the right to 10% of any profit that Colorado made from the transfer.

Vallecilla had been nursing an injury at the start of the season, and it took nearly three weeks until the defender made his first appearance—an eight-minute cameo during Colorado’s disappointing 3-1 road loss against Minnesota United. He earned a start a week later when Danny Wilson was a late scratch with a hamstring injury against Charlotte and showed well aside from one flirt with disaster during the first half. He operated well as a clean-up central defender and won all of his duels during the 0-0 draw.

That was the high point of Vallecilla’s inaugural season with the Rapids. The young defender exclusively played substitute and MLS Next Pro minutes for the next three months of the year, and didn’t particularly impress in any of his outings. He had a really rough time matching Wilson’s standard again when the Scot was suspended for Colorado’s away loss against Seattle.

Things didn’t improve when he got on the field during a pivotal road swing east of the Mississippi—Vallecilla got two quick yellows against Philadelphia and left the Rapids short-handed for 70 minutes. His habit of ill-timed fouls persisted following the club’s elimination when he saw red for a pointlessly-reckless challenge in Colorado’s home finale.

Statistically, there weren’t a lot of positive takeaways from Vallecilla’s 567 MLS minutes. Nearly every meaningful defensive metric tracked by FBRef puts the defender in the bad-to-average range relative to MLS center backs, but his 1.9 blocks per 90 did land him in the 99th percentile in 2022. He also recorded a surprising number of key passes for a defender (0.48 per 90, 94th percentile), but those chances didn’t lead to any meaningful chances as far as the site’s expected goals model is concerned (0.02 xAG per 90, 43rd percentile). There’s no reason to harp any further.

Vallecilla’s starts with Rapids 2, where he racked up 19 more minutes than in MLS in 2022, were marginally better. He featured in three of the team’s seven regulation wins, but it still speaks volumes that the club’s most costly Primary Transfer Window acquisition couldn’t regularly get first team minutes.

Looking Forward

The move for Vallecilla was strange from the start. Paying top dollar for a core member of the worst defense in MLS in 2021 hasn’t yet proved to be a great investment from Colorado’s perspective. Supporters still haven’t seen the “explosive top prospect” that the club touted last March, and the trade has already moved firmly into “bust” territory.

According to Cincinnati-based reporter Laurel Pfahler, Vallecilla signed a contract through the 2024 season with an option for 2025 before the trade. He can continue occupying a U-22 Initiative slot through the year in which he turns 25 (2024), which does keep his cap hit at $200,000 for the foreseeable future. He’s not breaking the bank from that perspective, but it’s worth highlighting that half of the $800,000 GAM Colorado dealt to Cincinnati will come from their allocation of MLS funny money in 2023.

Shrewd maneuvering with allocation money has become the Rapids’ sole means of navigating within the domestic market, and acquisitions like Vallecilla can end up being double-edged swords if they fail to match the standard of those they’re met to replace. Absent any significant investment from ownership, that’s always going to be the case.

But Trusty also struggled to make a significant impact for the Rapids during his first full season with the club, and there’s no reason why the 23-year-old Vallecilla can’t turn things around during his second year. A solid preseason could also help shake off the 2022 rust. If that doesn’t happen, then the club might have to look to SuperDraft acquisition Moise Bombito or the young Daniel Chacón, a Costa Rican International who will join the club as a Rapids 2 player this season.