The Rapids came into 2022 with real ambition.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
Colorado were fresh off topping the Western Conference in club-record fashion in 2021 (17 wins and 61 points), which itself had come on the back of basically a year-and-a-half straight of above-average-to-excellent play under head coach Robin Fraser. They clearly expected to pull off some cool stuff.
But they instead smacked straight into the reality that it’s very, very tough to sell four starters and not see a significant drop-off, no matter how well set up you think you are. Because it turns out there really was no replacing Sam Vines, Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett and Auston Trusty. (They also traded Mark-Anthony Kaye to Toronto FC, but by that point in the season it was clear the ship was sinking with or without him.)
Lots of MLS teams are learning how hard it is to be a true selling team these days. If the Revs are example No. 1 of that, then the Rapids are a comfortable No. 2.
Formation and Tactics
Fraser started the year off with his side in a 3-4-2-1 that often became a 3-5-2 once Gyasi Zardes arrived via a trade with the Columbus Crew, which made sense given that the Rapids had loaded up on center backs in the offseason. As is typical of Fraser’s teams, when they were on the ball, they worked hard to create pressure traps – sucking the opponents into one side of the pitch, then quickly switching play across the game channel to create a transition moment.
However, as injuries mounted and with Trusty’s midseason departure to Arsenal (and quick loan to Birmingham City), two things became apparent:
- The Rapids no longer had enough quality center backs to play with a back three.
- They just could not exert any sort of control over the middle of the pitch (this is where Bassett’s pressing from the top of Colorado’s midfield shape was really, really missed).
They eventually settled back into a 4-2-3-1 that was sometimes a 4-3-3 if captain Jack Price was healthy, but while the shape changed the tactical approach really didn’t.
Nor, of course, did the deficiencies.
I had to really dig for this, because nothing really sprung to mind – no prolonged US Open Cup run, no commanding win over their main rivals, Real Salt Lake, no early-season push to suggest that last year’s season wasn’t just a fond memory.
Eventually I had to settle for a two-game, nine-goal outburst in early August, in which the Rapids posted back-to-back wins at the New York Red Bulls (5-4) and then home vs. Minnesota United (4-3). That was actually part of a larger three-wins-in-four stretch, which propelled Colorado into the thick of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs race in the West after skimming along just below it for most of the season.
It was the win over RBNY, though, that seemed to indicate the energy had shifted:
Armchair Analyst: Rapids goals v RBNY
They scored off their press, off a throw-in, off a set piece, off a classic Fraser-style pressure trap as described above, and off a rebound following some solid final-third possession. The fact they twice came back from two goals down, and the eventual winner was scored by 18-year-old former RBNY homegrown Dantouma Toure – Distressed Assets FC strikes again, right? – seemed to suggest the Soccer Gods were starting to look kindly on the Rapids.
That lasted one more week.
Following that three-wins-in-four stretch that seemed to suggest they were back, the Rapids went about methodically disabusing folks (this writer included) of that notion by going winless in six. That included truly damaging home draws vs. Columbus and Houston, and humiliating defeats at Philly and Nashville.
When you get outscored 10-1 over 180 minutes against real contenders, you yourself are not actually a real contender. You are, in fact, not even a playoff team.
It so clearly was going to be Toure. He had 8g/2a in 1250 MLS NEXT Pro minutes, playing mostly as a left winger, and had just broken into the first team rotation – scoring that dramatic winner against his former club above.
The next time Toure took the field for the first team, two weeks later, he tore his ACL.
It’s hard to beat “no revelations this year” as a disappointment if you’re determined to be a selling club, but the Rapids have some worthy contenders:
- Their attacking set-piece output finally proved to be unsustainable.
- Wingers Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis underperformed in the final third.
- William Yarbrough regressed massively, as did Lalas Abubakar.
- Injuries severely limited Price and Danny Wilson.
- Guys like Max, Gustavo Vallecilla and Lucas Esteves have not looked like long-term answers.
- They wasted a career year from Diego Rubio.
The whole season was just hugely disappointing.
Five Players to Build Around
- Rubio (FW/AM): Put up 14g/7a while shifting from No. 9, to second striker to something of a true No. 10 at times. Still in his prime at age 29.
- Zardes (FW): Gyasi’s got 9g/2a in a shade under 2,000 minutes for Colorado and the same solid underlying metrics. It seems like the plan should be to keep him for a few more years while grooming homegrown Darren Yapi to take over full-time.
- Price (DM): Another guy who’s still in his prime, though he had a down year due to injury. No real reason to move on from him unless they feel like he’s permanently lost a step.
- Wilson (CB): I could just copy+paste that Price blurb directly above this one.
- Keegan Rosenberry (RB): Put in another solid year, though like everyone else in Burgundy he’d been much, much better over the previous three.
Can Ralph Priso be the right type of central midfield partner for Price? On paper it seems like a great fit, but Priso hasn’t quite looked the same since that devastating ankle injury he suffered with Toronto back in early 2021. So if it’s not him, is former first-round SuperDraft pick Philip Mayaka finally ready for MLS minutes? Watching that kid play with Clemson a couple of years ago I was convinced he would be a star in this league, and I was definitely not the only one.
Then there’s Max. The Rapids actually spent some money last offseason, forking over seven figures to bring in a young Brazilian attacking midfielder who… can’t shoot straight and is sometimes afraid of getting on the ball in the final third? What???
What I’m saying is the midfield needs some real work, and given the personnel on hand – Felipe Gutierrez was a useful late-season band-aid, but really is just a band-aid – as well as Colorado’s traditional aversion to big-money imports, I think the improvement’s got to come from within.
In other words, 2023’s a chance to show their 2022 ambitions weren’t misguided; it was just ahead of schedule.