bogert-3-big-questions-COL

As the 2022 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.

Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club (Colorado Rapids version). Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

After topping the Western Conference in 2021 and despite Audi MLS Cup Playoffs frustration on Thanksgiving Day, the Colorado Rapids closed the year with momentum. A cadre of players acquired within the league (at value) and excellent set-piece play leveled the playing field of, essentially, having zero Designated Players contributing. The collective was great and the team played fun soccer.

Then 2022 went from bad to worse.

A Round of 16 exit in the Concacaf Champions League to Guatemalan side Comunicaciones gave way to a slow start in MLS play, from which the Rapids never recovered as they dealt with injuries to key players and performance regressions, breaking a two-year run of making the playoffs under Robin Fraser.

Now what?

1
Was 2022 more about bad luck or regression?

The Rapids had one DP in 2021: Younes Namli, who hardly played after undergoing ankle surgery. This team was effectively DP-less.

Yet they thoroughly deserved their place among the best in the Western Conference. Even when the Philadelphia Union were ostensibly playing above their weight over the last few years relative to spend, they still had legit, contributing DPs. With bad injury luck in part fueling their regression this year, Colorado never quite hit the same heights. And several key players left and weren’t effectively replaced (more on that in a second).

For multiple years, Colorado had an edge on set pieces. Conventional wisdom suggests that would regress to the mean… but the Rapids have a well-respected coach who handles set pieces and one of the best set piece deliverers in Jack Price. It was something they could rely on until Price missed much of 2022. 

The Rapids (nine goals) were still ninth in MLS in goals directly from set pieces (excluding penalties) and second in xG… but conceded eight, so only had a +1 GD there. In 2021 they were best in MLS defensively with just four goals conceded and second in goals scored with 14, so that’s a +10 GD. That could come back up to the league leaders in 2023.

As for availability and replacing players:

  • Price missed a lot of time, playing just a hair over 1,100 minutes so far.
  • Kellyn Acosta, likely heading to the 2022 World Cup with the US and a Rapids’ midfield constant for years, was traded before the season to LAFC when the two sides couldn’t agree on a new contract.
  • Auston Trusty left for England midseason, joining Arsenal before being loaned to Birmingham City. 
  • Mark-Anthony Kaye was traded midseason to Toronto FC.
  • Aboubacar Keita, acquired ostensibly last January from the Columbus Crew to help replace Trusty, was lost to a season-ending injury. 
  • Braian Galvan didn’t play a minute due to a season-ending knee injury.
  • Cole Bassett was transferred abroad in the winter to Eredivisie side Feyenoord and now is at Fortuna Sittard.

That’s a lot of pieces missing from the core of last year.

Offseason additions Bryan Acosta and Max Alves didn’t immediately replace the talent that left. Gyasi Zardes, Gustavo Vallecilla, Ralph Priso and others who came midseason didn’t either. In addition, numerous players failed to live up to last year’s form or take the next step (like William Yarbrough, Jonathan Lewis and Michael Barrios).

How much change will be necessary to right the ship next year? A couple of key starters to refresh + improved form from incumbent players, or something more drastic?

2
Will the club re-sign Gyasi Zardes?

Colorado have a few internal starting points that will determine how they navigate the winter, starting with Zardes.

Zardes was acquired in April in a trade with the Columbus Crew; the prevailing thought since last year was the Rapids were just one high-level forward away from taking the next step. This year, though, the Rapids had bigger problems than just center forward. The USMNT pool striker has 9g/2a in 1,961 minutes in Colorado (with two games left, at the time of writing), but couldn’t help guide the team above the playoff line.

Now 31, Zardes’ contract expires this winter. Will he be back with the Rapids next season? 

Zardes was a DP for the Rapids. He wouldn’t necessarily have to be on a new deal, but hitting free agency as a DP would give him more options within the league. His production has gone down since his peak 2018-20 years in Columbus, when he scored 44 goals in 82 matches. Over the last two years, Zardes has 19 goals in 52 games.

Also worth considering: Much of the Rapids’ deal to acquire Zardes came with incentives that were tied to him re-signing in Colorado. So it’s not just whatever number his new contract is at if they do keep him; they would also have to send some allocation money to the Crew, on top of the $300k in guaranteed General Allocation Money already spent. 

There are $1.1 million GAM worth of incentives in the trade, though it’s unclear how much of that would trigger with Zardes simply re-signing and how much comes down to further performance-based incentives.

3
Who’s the next big intra-league addition?

While the Rapids don’t pour much money into lavish transfer fees, the club does invest in analytics and other infrastructure that's helped give them an edge. Their analytics are really good. They have found value around the league at most turns.

The market is correcting itself a bit. Lewis Morgan was traded for a then-league-record $1.2m GAM this winter from Miami to RBNY… then Acosta was traded for potentially more… then Paul Arriola went for a record-shattering $2m GAM guaranteed from D.C. to Dallas… then Kaye was traded in a package worth around $2m GAM.

Where can the Rapids find value in the intra-league market, or where can they find a star available (like Arriola) and pony up one of those big outlays?

I imagine Colorado will be aggressive in seeking out their targets. They are (obviously) unhappy with how the season ended. The trades for Acosta and Kaye brought back significant reserves of allocation money. Trusty was transferred, which should bring some more GAM, too.

The route of intra-league additions is what Colorado built the success of their last few years on. They are very good at it, too. Unless a drastic shift in discretionary spend is available to the front office, I’d assume they’ll continue looking through the intra-league market.

Depth chart as of Sept. 26
Bogert COL depth chart 9.26

A couple more thoughts:

  • One big positive for the Rapids in 2022? Diego Rubio. He was very good and took a step forward. He can play center forward or as a second striker/No. 10. That’ll be useful flexibility next year.
  • Fraser has tinkered and changed the lineup/tactics/formation a bunch of times to try and find the right combination, but we’ll go with a 4-2-3-1 here as the “preferred” look. This is extremely subject to change.
  • Remember: Rapids can recall Cole Bassett from his loan in the Netherlands if he doesn’t meet a certain threshold of minutes played by January.
  • Dantouma Toure, an exciting 18-year-old USYNT winger, seemed to really be breaking into the first team when he went down with a torn ACL in late August. That sucks.