Top of the West, a CCL berth and a new club record for points.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
Everybody all year acted like the Rapids were this great Cinderella story that came out of nowhere and defied all expectations, but this team collected 1.7 ppg during Robin Fraser’s first year-and-a-half at the helm. This year they collected 1.8.
So I’d argue the man knew what he was doing and he seems to share a vision with the front office. I’d also argue this was much more of a steady, piece-by-piece build in line with what Fraser’s spoken about and had his team executing upon since Day 1 rather than a sudden explosion, and that it manifested itself with greater teamwide cohesion and tactical flexibility than massive individual progression.
That kind of progress tends to be sustainable in the longer term.
Formation and tactics
This was the biggest bit of year-over-year progress, as Fraser constantly tweaked both the formation and the tactics his team used. They started off in a 4-3-3 that became a 4-2-3-1 and shifted to a 3-5-2 and eventually to a 3-4-2-1, and they toggled between a single pivot and a double pivot, would sometimes be ball-dominant and sometimes sit and absorb in order to counter, and sometimes go with a False 9 and sometimes go with a true No. 9 and often go with uber-attacking wingbacks (or fullbacks) and sometimes go really, really conservative there.
Fraser reminds me of an old-school Serie A coach who adjusts his team and his lineup game-to-game in order to nullify the opponent’s greatest strengths or expose their greatest weaknesses. He seems much more committed to that as an ideal than he is to any single particular formation or style of play.
That said, it still seems like the foundation is the idea that it’s best to hold possession deeper, draw the opponents upfield, then spring a pressure trap to play across the game channel and get out on the run. Colorado did this time and again, using big switches to get those wingbacks forward and get service into the box.
There were lots of really good moments, many of them crammed into an epic, 12-game unbeaten run that covered the entirety of August and September. Going two months without an L is how you climb toward the top of the standings and give yourself a chance to do something like, oh, I don’t know, win the Western Conference and set a team points record in the process.
That’s the opportunity they were staring at on Decision Day and they responded, against a desperate LAFC side, with maybe their best performance of the year:
A chunk of this obviously was LAFC falling apart, but it felt like a bigger chunk was Colorado just pushing them into a vat of acid. The Rapids midfield (led by ex-LAFC man Mark-Anthony Kaye, who played at a Best XI clip once he moved to Colorado in mid-season) dominated, while the attack repeatedly found gaps in the half-spaces and space in behind any time the LAFC backline stepped up and tried to compress the field.
Just a superb all-around performance in a pretty big spot.
Unfortunately, they used up all their goals in that Decision Day win. Here’s what I wrote before the playoffs began:
"Colorado’s four-headed attacking group of Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis, Dominique Badji and Diego Rubio have a combined 25 seasons in the league, and have combined for two playoff goals in that time. We can toss Andre Shinyashiki and young Cole Bassett in there to take us up to 32 seasons and … yeah, still just two career playoff goals among that bunch.
"These guys have either never been asked to be match-winners at this time of the year before, or have been asked and have subsequently been weighed, measured and found wanting."
Every question about this group’s ability to put the ball in the net in the postseason was answered in the negative, as they failed to capitalize on a dominant first half vs. the Timbers and then didn’t have enough firepower to bring in for the second half to tilt the field and win the game.
It’s the second straight year their season ended with a shutout loss in the playoffs. Getting there twice in a row is progress for this club, but a longer stay will be expected in 2022.
If you’d asked me 18 months ago whether Auston Trusty would be in a USMNT camp following a borderline Best XI-caliber season (we – “we” being the Extratime gang – had him on our second team Best XI), with a potential move to a club in a big-five European league coming soon, I’d have given a hearty chuckle.
Trusty had lost his job over the back half of 2019 in Philly, got traded to the Rapids for xAM, then got off to a miserable start under Fraser in 2020. He played all of eight games last year, and was on the field for only 525 minutes. Most of those minutes were… not good. He started and finished 34 of Colorado’s 35 games (all competitions) in 2021, playing mostly at left center back in the back three, but also center back in a back four and even some wingback in a back five. He showed much more versatility than I’d thought he possessed, and his distribution from the back has actually become an asset.
The vast, vast majority of those minutes were very good from him.
Colorado’s biggest strength is that none of their players had truly disappointing seasons. There just is never that huge drop-off no matter how far down the roster Fraser goes, and that even held true after they sold Sam Vines for a record fee mid-season and the rest of the year was spent mixing and matching at left wingback.
Still, if Rubio was going to break out and be an elite (or even “above average”) No. 9, this was going to be his year to do it. But he registered just 5g/6a in about 1700 minutes and only scored twice in the final five months of the season.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Kaye (CM): In his prime and playing like one of the best central midfielders not just in the league, but in the whole damn region.
- Kellyn Acosta (CM/DM): Fell off a bit after his monstrous Gold Cup performance, and I have to wonder if a full-time move to d-mid is coming up soon.
- Bassett (CM): Wasn’t nearly as productive in 2021, but is one of the best defensive attackers in the league and has been an asset in various formations and at various positions.
- Lalas Abubakar (CB): A classic center back who is big, fast and physical, and more than willing to use those traits in order to make opposing forwards miserable.
- Keegan Rosenberry (RCB/RB): The veteran showed a ton of flexibility – he’d basically only ever played RB in a back four before this year – and his distribution remains a weapon.
I didn’t list Trusty or d-mid Jack Price, who continues to serve in the best corner kicks this league has ever seen, as “players to build around” because it’s not entirely clear that either guy will be back in Commerce City in 2022. If they are, then there’s no reason for the Rapids to do anything other than run it back with one DP addition. If they’re not, then there’s some minor surgery required at a few spots.
Either way, though, they need to make that DP addition. The Rapids did well with a “goals by committee” approach this year, but “goals by committee” teams tend not to last too long in the playoffs. Colorado desperately need a DP-caliber No. 9 – a guy who can go out and get them 15ish goals, and could plausibly be the match-winner in the postseason.
They have good players on their roster, but they don’t have that. Not yet, anyway.