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Analysis: With Diego Rubio Sidelined, Colorado’s Attack Has No Bite

The Rapids sorely missed the forward’s presence in Saturday’s scoreless draw against SKC

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids
Oct 1, 2022; Commerce City, Colorado, USA; Colorado Rapids forward Diego Rubio (11) celebrates his goal in the second half against FC Dallas at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Two matchdays into the 2023 season, one thing is clear about the Colorado Rapids: as long as star forward Diego Rubio remains sidelined, the team will continue to struggle in the final third.

Since the Chilean went down with an injury in preseason that resulted in surgery to remove a loose body in his knee, the Rapids’ attack hasn’t managed to find a consistent rhythm. The team has played 315 minutes across three games—one of them a 135-minute preseason friendly—since Rubio last saw the field, but has failed to produce a goal from open play without the forward.

Despite some promising moments from youngster Darren Yapi at striker and improved play from veteran Michael Barrios on the wing, Colorado’s attack never fully got out of first gear in their scoreless draw against Sporting KC on Saturday night.

The Rapids’ effort in the final third against their I-70 rivals wasn’t poor due to any lack of creativity or chance creation—the club’s chances generated a respectable cumulative 1.7 expected goals (xG) through full time. Much like Colorado’s last outing against the Sounders, as well as multiple matches in 2022 that didn’t feature Rubio, the team’s misfires in the final third resulted from a lack of a killer instinct.

Without Rubio in the fold, the Rapids haven’t been able to field a multifaceted central threat that’s capable of holding up play, delivering line-breaking passes, and finishing off chances created from the team’s wide players.

While the excitement surrounding Yapi’s talent and potential ability is palpable, the young phenom’s play on Saturday showed that the Denver native is still far from the standard of the forward he was meant to replace in Fraser’s lineup. The 18-year-old excelled by getting in the right spots in SKC’s box, but the homegrown’s hype train came close to derailing after he bungled some big opportunities in the box during the first half.

That’s not to say that Yapi won’t ever reach Rubio’s level, but Saturday’s match was an important reminder that Robin Fraser’s Rapids lack novel attacking ideas in and around Zone 14 when Rubio isn’t available.

While Colorado may tinker with formations, positions, and tactics, Fraser’s philosophy regarding chance creation with and without Rubio has been consistently centered around the club’s wide players. Those ideas tend to be successful when the club has a clinical central player like the Chilean, who can adjust quickly thanks to his experience and knowledge of his teammates’ abilities and preferences in wide areas. For someone like Yapi, who has accrued a mere 353 total minutes with the Rapids’ first team in 13 months, that instinct and ability can only come with time.

Yapi’s inexperience showed in his lack of chemistry with Sam Nicholson and Barrios on the wings in the first half. The youngster wasn’t as crisp when timing his runs into the box, and occasionally appeared flat-footed when trying to connect with his teammates with one-touch passes in transition. That didn’t change much when Kévin Cabral and Braian Galván entered as reinforcements, which briefly led to periods that isolated Yapi on the left wing—an area where Rubio still managed to be effective during parts of 2022.

Supporters saw something similar when Gyasi Zardes arrived at the club last season during late April. While the U.S. International consistently put himself in threatening positions in the final third, he still needed Rubio’s presence to be a goal threat. Even then, it took Zardes 822 minutes to gel before he finally found the back of the net from open play.

None of the above should be taken as a slight on the young Yapi, who could still be a vital cog in Fraser’s offense should he fulfill even a portion of his immense promise. Nicholson, Barrios, Cabral, and Galván were equally insufficient in delivering any bite in the final third with Rubio absent, so it wouldn’t be fair to place sole blame for the result on Colorado’s only homegrown striker.

But filling Rubio’s shoes remains a tall order, and one that comes with high expectations after the Chilean’s record-breaking year. Goals have to start coming from somewhere if the forward’s absence from the side extends through the rest of March. With Rubio injured, Zardes gone, and Jonathan Lewis nursing an ankle injury, the Rapids haven’t played any of their top three goal scorers from 2022 during this season.

Though Yapi experienced his fair share of hiccups on Saturday, Fraser seems confident that the homegrown can rise to the incredible challenge.

“Darren is coming along,” Fraser told Burgundy Wave after the draw. “He was better tonight with his back to goal than he was last week, held balls up well and is showing real confidence in tight spaces, which is probably the hardest thing to do as a young player. So, he’s showing real confidence, putting himself in great positions to score goals.”

Still, for Colorado, Rubio’s return can’t come soon enough. The club only scored twice in 624 league minutes when Rubio wasn’t on the field last season, and put up a -10 goal differential during those fixtures. That figure falls to -14 when including the Rapids’ first two outings of 2024.

“We do need to do a little bit more, me and Yaps were talking about how we got to score,” homegrown midfielder Cole Bassett lamented in the post-match presser. “It does hurt missing Diego. I think he is a big key for us.”

Starter Ratings

William Yarbrough (GK): 9/10. With new goalkeeper signing Marko Ilić breathing down his neck, Yarbrough donned the captain’s armband and became the first player in Rapids history to record 11 saves en route to a clean sheet. That stat is a tad misleading, as the bulk of the 11 stops didn’t require the keeper to move his feet, but Yarbrough’s second half acrobatics were the reason the team took home any points at all on Saturday.

Steven Beitashour (LB): 8/10. Fraser’s only lineup change from the season opener saw the veteran Beitashour replace Alex Gersbach at left back after the Australian newcomer struggled in Seattle. The decision paid dividends for Colorado’s defensive rigidity—Beitashour won all four of his ground duels and made six clearances on top of a handful of vital stops.

Keegan Rosenberry (RB): 8/10. Rosenberry returned to his old self after a rare poor showing last Sunday. Defensively, the fullback blocked three shots, recorded two interceptions, made three tackles, and only lost one duel. He also provided support in the attack by setting up one chance and completing 6/7 of his attempted long balls.

Lalas Abubakar (CB): 6/10. Like his fellow defenders, Abubakar showed significant improvement from his play against the Sounders last week. He still needs to show a bit more confidence when playing the ball out of the back, but his five clearances and two interceptions snuffed out a handful of Sporting chances.

Andreas Maxsø (CB): 7/10. With Maxsø, the Rapids finally have a ball-playing defender capable of keeping up with MLS’s fleet-footed attackers. Maxsø snuffed out fires, was excellent in distribution, and never gave the ball away in a dangerous area.

Connor Ronan (MID): 7/10. Through two matches, Ronan has proved to be the Rapids’ most promising off-season addition. He set up three shots—including one big chance for Yapi in the first half—and broke a bunch of ankles when dribbling through the Sporks’ midfield. Ronan lost possession a bit more (19) than in his previous outing (15), but the Irishman’s work rate and ability made up for the odd error on Saturday. The Rapids still have work to do to be competitive with MLS’s best teams, but Ronan doesn’t need to change much of his game for the club to reach that end.

Ralph Priso (MID): 5/10. Priso was the weakest link of Colorado’s midfield play on Saturday, and Fraser decided to replace the Toronto FC Academy product with Max for the second half. He wasn’t particularly poor and wasn’t the source of any major errors, but he also didn’t provide much in the way of positively influencing the match.

Cole Bassett (MID): 7/10. While Bassett erred a bit on the side of “too much hero ball” during portions of the second half, the homegrown still created some of the club’s best chances on the night.

Sam Nicholson (FWD): 3/10. Nicholson had another disappointing outing, as the Scottish winger lost possession 17 times on 36 touches, completed just one of his four attempted dribbles, and only won two of his twelve duel attempts. Those aren’t inherently bad metrics for a forward trying to force his way through an experienced back line, but Nicholson’s efforts only produced two shots that missed the target—both of which were prayers from outside the box. He made his early exit in the 63rd minute for Cabral, who didn’t do much better.

Michael Barrios (FWD): 4/10. Unlike Nicholson, Barrios managed to actually test Pulskamp during the match and created a few chances with some impressive dribbling that SKC defender Ben Sweat couldn’t handle. Unfortunately, Barrios’ effectiveness subsided significantly as the match wore on, and Fraser made the right call to replace the winger with Galván in the 77th minute.

Darren Yapi (FWD): 4/10. Yapi showed incredible promise, but promise doesn’t win games.

Bench Ratings

Max (MID): 6/10. Max improved Colorado’s midfield when he replaced Priso for the second half, which led to the club fielding a more aggressive attacking shape. Like Nicholson, his only two shots came from outside the box and missed the frame.

Kévin Cabral (FWD): 4/10. Like the Rapids’ other wingers, Cabral struggled to get anything done in the final third. He completed all five of his attempted passes, but only managed to get on the ball nine times in nearly 30 minutes. That’s probably because Fraser shifted the Frenchman into center forward late in the second half, a move that saw Yapi stranded helplessly on the left wing.

Braian Galván (FWD): 5/10. Unlike Cabral, Galván did well to put himself in positions to receive the ball and advance possession up the pitch. His tenacity saw him win all three of his attempted duels and complete his only attempted dribble, but he couldn’t provide the spark the club needed to secure a late winner during his 13-minute cameo.