The first Open Cup match for MLS teams is always a bit of a mystery: does the club even bother sending a squad that they believe can win? Do they send when they believe to be a bare-minimum squad to earn the result? Or do they try to make a statement with a full-strength squad?
I’m expecting probably something close to the middle option with the Colorado Rapids tonight. That does mean some of the scouting I did will be for naught – with a different lineup – but it’s still worth trying to break down their personnel and tactics. I watched a handful of games, but the majority of what I break down will be from Friday’s loss to Vancouver Whitecaps.
It’s worth noting that manager Anthony Hudson is extremely unpopular, so draw from your opinion of his tactical decisions why that might be.
The Rapids base out of a 3-5-2, with a similar philosophy to what we saw out of former Rapids manager Gary Smith to begin the year (before switching Nashville SC to a 4-4-2): the wingbacks get up the field and try to whip in crosses to the finishers. Their wings do like to squeeze inside rather than cross from the boundary. The central midfielders will fan out with overlapping runs to create space there.
They also have some creativity in the central midfield, with a bit of finishing ability but also some playmaking flair there. Their forwards can create a bit, but have a bit more of a poacher/finisher role, from what I’ve seen.
Defensively, they have a tough time working their wingbacks into defensive postures: this is really a 3-5-2, less of the 5-3-2-heavy version we saw from Nashville to start the year.
Forward Dominique Badji is the team’s best player in my eyes. That is sort of a hot take, given he’s scored or assisted on nearly half the team’s output this year, but it’s worth noting that a lot of what he has done is because of his own ability (with not a lot of help around him). He’s able to get in behind with his speed, and while he’s not the biggest striker, he’s capable in hold-up play and can be physical to hold off defenders. He’s not really a face-up-and-dribble guy (which is probably good for Nashville if we see him tonight).
It’ll be interesting to see who plays with Badji, or if we don’t see him, who the two strikers are. I was unimpressed with Yannick Boli in this one, and while Joe Mason and Jack McBean have the plurality of the minutes as the second striker, Colorado Springs Switchbacks loanee Niki Jackson is an intriguing prospect and the Open Cup is a good way to get minutes for a kid like that.
The central midfielders… don’t do a whole lot for me. The guys we saw Friday were all mighty-mite types, with Johan Blomberg the most impressive of the bunch. He’s a bit of a playmaker, willing to work back defensively a little bit, and showed good vision. Blomberg actually likes to play wide a bit and sometimes seems to get in his wingback’s way. Jack Price had some nice FK service, but is sort of invisible during the run of play. Enzo Martinez… I don’t care for. He’s a little guy who likes to try dribbles that he probably can’t pull off, he likes to try bizarre clearing kicks, and I didn’t see him do much effective. He was solely responsible for an Orlando City goal when I scouted keeper Zac MacMath, trying a bicycle kick clearance (for no reason) that made it maybe eight yards and turned immediately into a goal. He does seem to have the vision to see the whole field and switch the point of attack when he’s not more interested in showing off his flair than in actually doing good soccer things.
Right wingback Sam Nicholson had some horrible touches trying to trap the ball, and committed a bit of a professional foul after one resulted in a turnover. I did really like his offensive contributions in the final third, though: he works laterally into the box to provide more options or serve it to others, and his crosses are nice. I didn’t spend a ton of time observing Edgar Castillo other than to note I don’t remember his being a midget when he played for the national team.
The centerbacks draw a lot of ire from their keeper, and don’t really seem to have solid organization: Howard was screaming at them regularly after Vancouver had chances in the box. That is a change from the Concacaf Champions League games, when they seemed well-organized but under-talented. I don’t know if it’s a bit of lost faith in the manager or what.
Axel Sjöberg is the slowest human, and while he’s solid positionally, if he gets beaten, he ain’t catching up. Tommy Smith will stab out at the ball a bit and get wrong-footed, but has the quickness to recover. He’s willing to push forward with the ball in the channel (his 13 shots and two assists on the year back that up). Deklan Wynne wasn’t involved much but seemed fine? Danny Wilson played when I watched another game to evaluate keeper Zach MacMath, and was similarly quiet.
We won’t see Tim Howard, but I think the book on him is well-established: a great keeper to whom age has not been kind. I went back and watched a bit of Zac MacMath (he has one start, Howard’s red card suspension following a game in which MacMath had to finish out between the pipes). His performance in a 2-1 loss to Orlando City was fine: he seems to organize his defense as well as they can be wrangled, one of the goals he gave up was a penalty, and he’s a decent ball-stopper.
Colorado hasn’t played on turf since the MLS opener against New England, so they won’t be quite as used to it as NSC, which competes on it regularly (most recently a week ago in Pittsburgh), and practices on it very frequently. Of course, Colorado does also have access to two turf practice fields at its home facility, so it’s not like they’ll have ignored training on the surface they’ll be seeing.
I do wonder just how much personnel rotation we’ll see: presumably Howard is out of the question, but does it also make sense to rest Edgar Castillo (he’s 31 and has played nearly every minute for Colorado this year), Tommy Smith (28 and same), and others who have racked up a lot of minutes?
The World Cup should play into that decision to me, if Colorado actually has interest in getting out of the MLS basement. They were unable to knock off Vancouver Friday night even though the Whitecaps were without Costa Rica star Kendall Waston, but the Rapids take on the Whitecaps again three days after the end of group play in Russia, so Waston won’t be back. Save your best players for taking on diminished league opponents, perhaps? It would be a smart idea, but again, Hudson doesn’t seem to have a reputation in Denver for a guy who capitalizes on smart ideas, so who knows.
The Rapids also face Houston Dynamo without Panama’s Adolfo Machado twice in the next month-plus (the second time, he may be back depending on if Panama make it out of the group stage and how much rest Houston gives him), Minnesota United without Waston’s Costa Rica teammate Francisco Calvo, and Seattle Sounders (who start out pretty bad in the first place: just 1 GD ahead of Colorado tied on points) minus Panamas Roman Torres and Sweden’s Gustav Svensson. That seems like an opportunity to drag the side out of the bottom of the table, even if playoffs seem an ambitious goal at this point.
Random final though: for as much as some want to laugh when the English Championship is considered comparable to Major League Soccer… this is bar-none the worst MLS team, and it’s composed primarily of guys who were good Championship players (albeit without Premier League options). Maybe it’s because the coach is bad – I think you’d have a hard time arguing he’s not – but the talent isn’t great either.