Warshaw: Diamond midfield proves right shape, right time for Rapids, Acosta

Kellyn Acosta - Colorado Rapids - closeup vs. LA Galaxy

He receives the ball 50 yards from goal. He takes one touch forward and draws a defender toward him. He dips his shoulder to the right, unbalances the defender and pushes the ball ahead with his left. He strides forward 20 yards, across the bisection of the field, toward the 18-yard box.

The defense drops and collapses toward the center. He advances to 25 yards from goal and before you think it’s even an option, snaps a shot across his body toward the far corner. It starts about knee height then drops, skipping off the grass beyond the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms into the side netting.

The second goal in as many games in burgundy for Kellyn Acosta.

It was just last June when the US men’s national team earned a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw vs. Mexico at Estadio Azteca (though it feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?). Michael Bradley scored the wonder goal, a 40-yard chip over El Tri goalkeeper Memo Ochoa. Next to him on that day, one of the biggest in the team’s history, was a 21-year-old from Plano, Texas.

Acosta had been a standout for FC Dallas, helping them win the 2016 Supporters’ Shield and Open Cup. He got his first professional appearances at age 17, then earned back-to-back All-Star nods at 21 and 22. But the game at Azteca felt like the big coming-of-age moment. He was finally filling the shoes we had laid out for him.

I told friends he was our best American prospect – more so than even Christian Pulisic or Tyler Adams. The other guys are good, I told people, but Kellyn has the ability to outright dominate a game.

It didn’t go that way, of course. Dallas suffered the worst collapse in MLS history to finish 2017; Acosta wasn’t in form to start in the USMNT’s now-infamous 2-1 loss in Trinidad; then he missed the start of 2018 after offseason surgery. In his 13 appearances for Dallas in 2018, he hardly looked like someone ready to lead the United States to World Cup glory.

The last two weeks, though, we’ve seen something closer to the Kellyn Acosta that our most optimistic selves thought we might get. He hasn’t been amazing, but you can see the seeds. Part of it comes down to a change of scenery after his trade to Colorado, and much of it comes down to a tactical shift from Rapids head coach Anthony Hudson.

Hudson switched the Rapids from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond when Acosta arrived, and both the Rapids and Acosta look better than they have in a while.

It’s a prime example of how tactical choices can bring the best out of players.

It’s a big adjustment from Hudson. The 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond philosophically could not be farther apart. The 3-5-2 is a structured, rigid formation. It’s designed to win the game through dominating space on the field. Players stay in their zones and do specific jobs. The 4-4-2 diamond is a fluid approach, designed to win the game through dominating the ball. Players interchange and react to the moment.

The diamond fits Acosta and his Colorado teammates, specifically the center midfielders, much more than the 3-5-2. In the first game in the new system, a 2-1 loss away at D.C. United, the Rapids started with Danny Wilson at the bottom of the diamond, Jack Price and Acosta in the middle and Johan Blomberg at the tip. In the second game, a 2-1 win against the LA Galaxy on Saturday, it was Price behind Acosta and Blomberg (and Nana Boateng, who came on as a sub), with Enzo Martinez at the top.

Price, Blomberg, Boateng and Martinez are all good, albeit generic, soccer players. They are above average in making short passes, being busy, pressing the ball and generally being competitive. If you ask them to do more than they can do, you will have a last-place team. If you ask all of them to play short, simple passes and buzz around the field, you will have a competitive squad.

Acosta, too, is good at everything but not specialized at anything. I think of him as similar in this regard to Steven Gerrard or Paul Pogba. Can Pogba play defensive mid? Yes. Does it get the most out of him? No. Pogba, like Acosta, is a just a good all-around player. And to try to describe or isolate what he’s good at but misses the point and restricts him. Pogba’s best years came in a diamond at Juventus.

I was talking to my colleague Matt Doyle about the diamond and he mentioned that Acosta’s goal was “a paradox, because he’s playing a position in the diamond in which he’s not supposed to have a ton of freedom.” And I found it to be an interesting comment. Doyle is right that the diamond restricts freedom in that it demands simple, possession-based passes. But to the players who are suited to play in a diamond, that’s actually the freedom they want.

The tight spacing between players forces players to play quicker and think quicker. And when you have to think quicker on a soccer field, you don’t really think at all. You just play. When you have players like Acosta or Pogba, you want them to be worry-free.

Other players, like Price, Martinez, et al, like the freedom the diamond affords to only do the simple things. Let me make the simplest pass. Let me press and chase and be a menace. Don’t ask me to break lines; don’t ask me to play throughballs; don’t ask me to sit and block lanes.

It might, theoretically, limit their technical options, but it opens their mental capacity. It allows them to feel comfortable in their own skin. And once a player feels free, the magic starts to happen. The diamond generally asks for less, but gets more; it allows the players to play on instinct.

The diamond brings out the best in some players. It brought the best out of Pogba at Juve, and it made traditionally solid-but-not-star MLS players like Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy into champions with Jason Kreis' Real Salt Lake. Toronto FC have also used it from time-to-time over the past couple of years, including the 2017 MLS Cup final, helping to get the best out of Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado.

Colorado’s diamond looks more like the overpowering style Juventus used in 2015 – with Acosta in a more expansive role similar to Juve’s Pogba – than TFC’s methodical approach, but it stems from the same roots.

“We are desperate to make our fans excited and proud of us,” Hudson told reporters after the Rapids beat the Galaxy. “And we know if we can go after teams and get after them high up the pitch and get on the front pitch … it will give the fans something to cheer about.“

The diamond could be the route to doing that. It brings the best out of the group and, perhaps more importantly, it gets the most out of Kellyn Acosta.