Role: Central Defender
Squad Status: Regular Starter
Season in a Sentence: Like many of Colorado’s defenders, Wilson took a step back after a great 2021 season.
Fairly or not, Danny Wilson has been the most maligned Colorado Rapids central defender since he joined the club following the hiring of Anthony Hudson ahead of the 2018 season.
Wilson arrived with Premier League experience and a history of strong performances in Scotland, but often served as the poster boy for Hudson’s atrocious defenses until the New Zealand manager’s firing in 2019. Colorado still bet on the defender despite his early struggles, and Wilson began shifting his reputation following the hiring of Robin Fraser. He rewarded the club by anchoring the back line during two consecutive playoff seasons, but he did show some noticeable backsliding in 2022.
Most of Wilson’s biggest hiccups have come when he’s lined up in a back four with only one other central defender—usually Abubakar—as cover. That’s been a pretty solid trend since Conor Casey and Fraser each tried the setup during 2019, and it held true last year. Back fours like those typically laden the Scot with more defensive responsibilities and force him into more one-on-one defending situations. That’s the weakest area of his game, and Wilson can’t really showcase his best qualities when he’s forced into more emergency situations.
That’s just the nature of the beast for teams like the Rapids, who create the vast majority of their chances on the wings. When either fullback bombs forward to create an overload, the team’s likelihood of getting burnt on the counter skyrockets because Wilson’s left with very little cover.
A four-man defensive line became the standard following Auston Trusty’s departure, and the tactical shift coincided with more errors from Wilson. The 31-year-old lacks the speed to defend in quick transition and the mobility to keep up with the league’s best attackers. As a result, he got exposed in road losses to the Portland Timbers in June and Vancouver Whitecaps in August. Wilson’s struggles in Colorado’s 4-1-4-1 setup against Minnesota United at home also led to the club’s defense conceding three times in a match that would have certainly ended in defeat had Gyasi Zardes not been around to score a hat trick.
Credit to Colorado—Fraser did try to mask Wilson’s weaknesses late in the season by using some hybrid systems that occasionally saw fullbacks like Keegan Rosenberry or Steven Beitashour tuck-into the back line to give Wilson more help. That led to mixed results, though: the move worked in home wins against Vancouver and San Jose, but was a disaster when the club traveled to face the Galaxy in a must-win match late in the season.
But when the Rapids come out with a true five-at-the-back look, the additional personnel allows Wilson to showcase his best qualities—look to his performances in home wins against Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC, and the Seattle Sounders. He excels at pinging long balls (10.24 long balls completed per 90, 99th percentile) and passes that kick-start attacks (4.46 passes into the final third per 90, 91st percentile), and he plays well when he can focus on distribution. Just look at what he can do on his best day:
Danny Wilson immediately rectifies his error that led to goal with this incredible long ball that started Colorado's chance. What a ball to Trusty.pic.twitter.com/e66aLb0Qp5— Joseph Samelson (@jspsam) May 19, 2022
The Scot’s also generally solid on both sides of the ball when it comes to set pieces. Wilson often makes the right move when the defensive box is crowded (4.58 clearances per 90, 79th percentile; 3.00 aerials won per 90, 91st percentile), and gets a surprising number of touches in the attacking penalty area for a defender (1.29 per 90, 86th percentile). That didn’t translate to any goals in league play during 2022 like in the past, but regression there has more to do with Jack Price’s lengthy injury absences during the season. Wilson just never really clicked in the air when Bryan Acosta and Felipe Gutiérrez delivered set pieces into the box.
It’s worth adding that removing Wilson entirely rarely solved the club’s defensive issues late in 2022, which primarily stemmed from the sale and subsequent mid-season regression from Trusty. Of the eight matches where Wilson sat out due to injury, suspension, or squad rotation, the Rapids only won once. There’s a strong case to be made that Wilson could have kept up his 2021 standard had Trusty remained with the club through the year, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
Last January, the Rapids awarded Wilson a contract through the 2023 season with options for 2024 and 2025. He’s far from an elite center back in MLS, but at $354,750 in guaranteed compensation a year, he doesn’t really have to be—when he’s properly utilized, he provides that value. Colorado did leave him exposed for the Expansion Draft, but St. Louis City SC passed on selecting any Rapids players. That’s a solid indicator that he doesn’t have a lot of value as a trade asset in the league, and the Rapids probably made the right call by only giving him two more guaranteed years.
His hit-or-miss qualities would be more forgivable if he was the team’s third-choice center back, but he does raise questions as a locked-in starter. The bigger problem is that the Rapids didn’t have better options than some combination of him, Aboubakar, and Rosenberry in central defense in 2022. That pair also dealt with their fair share of issues. A lot of Colorado’s defensive concerns might vanish on their own if Aboubacar Keita recovers from his ACL tear and makes a case for starting minutes. Keita put up similar distribution numbers to Wilson during the year before he joined the Rapids, and it’s possible the club is hoping he blossoms into a long-term replacement.
Wilson might also welcome better play from Vallecilla or a strong rookie year from Moise Bombito. Either scenario could lead to the resurrection of the club’s best defensive looks from the 2021 campaign. For now, central defense still remains a big question mark for Colorado.
Stats via FBref.