The Colorado Rapids are still looking for their first win and goal of the 2023 season, and they’ll need to buck their road reputation to earn all three points against the San Jose Earthquakes this Saturday.
Colorado’s only won once in their last 20 road outings in all competitions—a 5-4 barn-burner against the New York Red Bulls last August. While the Rapids have only one loss (3-2-1) against the Quakes since Robin Fraser took the managerial reins in 2019, the club’s record at PayPal Park hasn’t been exceptional since the venue opened as Avaya Stadium in 2015. San Jose has taken 17 of 24 available points from the ground, and the Quakes picked up the win last time the two sides met in California.
Like Colorado, San Jose is still a team in rebuilding mode after missing the playoffs last season. After wandering through the wilderness with man-marking madman Matías Almeyda, they’re now helmed by Luchi Gonzalez. Gonzalez joined this off-season after serving as an assistant under Gregg Berhalter in Qatar, and the bulk of their business followed in the early months of 2023.
Gonzalez’s side added two homegrown signings in January and re-signed some standouts, but their biggest off-season move was spending a club record of $3.2 million to lure former FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo back to MLS from Germany’s FC Augsburg. He brings a tenacious bite to their midfield as a classic defensive six. They also spent a bunch spent a bunch of General Allocation Money to acquire MLS veteran defender Jonathan Mensah from the Columbus Crew after stalwart Nathan tore his ACL, and added new starting goalkeeper Daniel from Brazil’s Internacional. Gruezo, Mensah, and Daniel have started both matches so far this year, but Daniel—who took over from J.T. Macinkowski in goal—is questionable with a thigh injury this week.
Despite all the new faces in and around the club, San Jose has had a decent start. They were the better team during the majority of their 2-1 defeat against Atlanta United to open the season, and would have won were it not for Thiago Almada going Super Saiyan and scoring a brace in stoppage time. They followed that up with their first win of the season last week against the Vancouver Whitecaps thanks to a two-goal turnaround of their own.
“They have some good attacking players,” Fraser acknowledged on Thursday’s edition of The Rundown. “ I think they’re a really confident group right now. They probably should have gotten a result in Atlanta, and on this past weekend they were quite good.”
Right back Keegan Rosenberry is going to need to be careful guarding Cade Cowell, who was a big problem for the fullback the last time these two teams met in Colorado. Cowell’s speed is matched by few others in MLS, and he’s caused a lot of defensive chaos for the Rapids in the past.
Cowell will be looking to connect with Jeremy Ebobisse, who has scored in both of San Jose’s matches this season. He’s still the Quakes’ best attacking threat, and he’ll be looking to build upon his impressive campaign last year, when he notched 17 goals and two primary assists. Stopping him will be essential, and Rapids manager Robin Fraser would be wise to draft a cautious gameplan that neutralizes the prolific Maryland native.
It’s early, but Rapids supporters can still glean some insights to Fraser’s approach and team selection this year:
- A back four, with a caveat. I speculated during the winter that Fraser may need to use a three-at-the-back setup to get his best players on the field this year, but he’s stuck to a flexible 4-3-3 through two games. Andreas Maxsø and Lalas Abubakar have been the first choice center backs anchoring the group. Their shape stays as a back four unless a fullback or two bomb forward to apply pressure. When that happens, a midfielder drops between Maxsø and Abubakar. Connor Ronan has really taken Jack Price’s mantle here by spreading the pitch, acting as both a safe passing option and someone who can kick-start attacks. Price is still questionable for this match, and probably won’t play more than 45 minutes, if at all, in San Jose.
- Midfield rotations. Three midfielders are flexible in their positioning and will cover for each other in a pinch. They’ll look to fill-in at other spots if a defender bombs forward or if a winger cuts inside. Cole Bassett is doing a lot on both sides of the ball, but is still getting forward like it’s 2021. He said in the post-game press conference against Sporting that the team went more attacking by replacing Ralph Priso with Max at half. This change was ultimately successful at producing more shots, but not until after the team started applying more pressure after the 70th minute. Whichever trio used on Saturday, they’ll need to work their way around Gruezo, who has been excellent at breaking up plays in midfield with his new squad.
- Situational pressure and (slightly) restrained fullbacks. Fraser has continued tinkering with situational pressing and counter-pressing this year. There have been periods of both matches this season when the Rapids were willing to put on the gas, and other times when they’ve allowed the game to breathe. Instead of Lucas Esteves running into the final third every time Colorado has the ball, the team’s outside backs are a bit more restrained when advancing forward. The team picks its moments to overload, and tries not to leave anyone too exposed at the back.
- New guys on a short leash. Gersbach was benched after a bad game. He played significant minutes in a Rapids 2 friendly to stay sharp last Sunday, as did fellow newcomers Kévin Cabral and Calvin Harris. Maxsø and Ronan have proved their worth through two games, and have earned their place as starters. Maxsø has been meeting Danny Wilson’s passing standard without all the emergency defending hiccups. Once Price is healthy, Ronan will probably keep his spot at the expense of Priso. New goalkeeper Marko Ilić needs to impress the staff in training to get the nod over an in-form William Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s form, coupled with Ilić’s late arrival, probably means the Mexican-American is still starting on Saturday.
- Outlets on the flanks. It’s not clear whether these tactics are going to continue after Diego Rubio recovers from his knee surgery, but Fraser is very committed to wing play again this season. Barrios and Nicholson each didn’t create much in the outing against Seattle. The former recovered a bit against Sporting, but Nicholson hasn’t managed to rediscover the traits that made him threatening during his first stint in Colorado. Giving Cabral his first start really seems like the right play, here—his speed should keep San Jose fullbacks Paul Marie and Miguel Trauco guessing. Jonathan Lewis is healthy and available for selection for the first time this year, but he didn’t feature in any preseason scrimmages, so a start probably isn’t in the cards.
- The striker has to be a finisher. Rubio’s absence has been felt by the team, and he’s not going to make the squad this weekend. Darren Yapi has shown flashes of extraordinary promise at striker, but—like Gyasi Zardes did when he first led the line in Fraser’s offense—he’s struggled with the final product. That’s a problem because Fraser’s tactics necessitate a forward who can primarily finish off the crosses or through balls that come from the wings. Unless Fraser decides to commit to Cabral at striker, as Erik Bushey did against DU, Yapi still probably plays up front.
Saturday’s fixture represents a solid matchup for the Rapids on paper. The pundits generally predicted Colorado and San Jose to both finish the season in the bottom third of the West, and these are the types of road games where the Rapids need to be competitive. Dropping points in similar outings were a big reason why Colorado missed the playoffs last year, and this game should give fans an understanding as to how the team stacks up against the Western Conference.
Home: San Jose Earthquakes (1-0-1, W-8th, L5: LWDLW)
Away: Colorado Rapids (0-1-1, W-11th, L5: LWDLD)
Competition: Major League Soccer
Date: March 11, 2023
Time: 8:30 PM MST
Venue: Paypal Park
Location: San Jose, CA
Officials: Ramy Touchan (REF), Stefan Tanaka-Freundt (AR1), Ben Pilgrim (AR2), Nima Saghafi (4TH), Kevin Stott (VAR), and Jeff Muschik (AVAR).
TV: MLS Season Pass on Apple TV (English/Spanish) - Free.
Commentary: Nate Bukaty and Danielle Slaton (English) and Adrian Garcia Marquez and Francisco Pinto (Spanish).
San Jose Earthquakes: Daniel, Paul Marie, Miguel Trauco, Rodrigues, Jonathan Mensah, Carlos Gruezo, Jackson Yueill, Jamiro Monteiro, Cade Cowell, Cristian Espinoza, and Jeremy Ebobissee.
Colorado Rapids: William Yarbrough, Keegan Rosenberry, Steven Beitashour, Lalas Abubakar, Andreas Maxsø, Connor Ronan, Ralph Priso, Cole Bassett, Michael Barrios, Kévin Cabral, and Darren Yapi.
Staff Score Predictions
Matt Pollard: 1-1. With a close loss to Atlanta and a home win against Vancouver, I’m still not sure how good the Quakes are. They’re better than last year, but still not sure they’re a playoff team. This is a game a team looking to make the playoffs should get a result from. I think the midfield takes a step forward in controlling the game. The defense keeps it simple and plays safe. Yapi finally finishes a high quality chance. Cristian Espinoza does something amazing for the Quakes goal.
Joseph Samelson: 1-1, goal by Yapi. The Rapids probably will need to wait for their return to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to earn their first win of the season, but I’m betting that the young striker finally gets his goal. A draw isn’t the end of the world here, but I worry about where the Rapids are going to pick up road wins this season if they can’t get the job done in the Santa Clara Valley.
Player Availability & Disciplinary Reports
San Jose Earthquakes Availability Report (as of 2023-03-09):
- SUSPENDED AFTER NEXT YELLOW—none.
- OUT—Judson (knee), Nathan (ACL), and Niko Tsakiris (adductor).
- QUESTIONABLE—Daniel (thigh).
Colorado Rapids Availability Report (as of 2023-03-09):
- SUSPENDED AFTER NEXT YELLOW—none.
- OUT—Moise Bombito (L knee/MCL injury), Diego Rubio (R Knee/loose body removal surgery), and Dantouma Toure (R knee/ACL surgery).
- QUESTIONABLE—Jack Price (back).