Colorado went into the 2023 MLS season the way they go into every MLS season: At a distinct disadvantage due to the fact they lose the talent arms race on a game-to-game basis pretty much 100% of the time. They are trying to be MLS’s moneyball team, but the thing is market inefficiencies tend to be spotted earlier and exploited more thoroughly by big-money teams than they were two decades ago when the term “moneyball” was coined.
So what the Rapids became fairly quickly were no-hopers. The veterans either got hurt or underperformed, the kids didn’t develop, and eventually the head coach, Robin Fraser, was let go. Throughout it all the fans grew frustrated and registered their discontent with an organized protest in mid-September.
It was very much a lost season.
Formation & Tactics
Fraser had his team bounce from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 and back again until he was dismissed in late August with, I think, maybe more emphasis on possession and positional play than anyone had any reason to expect. It was a bizarre choice – the Rapids at their very best under Fraser (so basically 2021) were never a strong possession team – that got even stranger when Jack Price was injured early in the season.
So the Rapids lost the ball often, defended poorly in transition and didn't do much in attack.
Interim head coach Chris Little has simplified a good deal, switching to a bog standard 4-2-3-1 with a low block, speedy wingers and lots of room to attack into.
It’s really basic stuff, but doing basic stuff very well can be both fun and effective.
This was the game where it looked like Colorado might find some silver lining out of this season. First because of that goal by Calvin Harris, and second because Rafael Navarro does well dropping off the line as a No. 9 and then switching the field to a winger in isolation (again: do the basic things well and you can have fun!), and third because the Rapids actually played forward quickly and scored a goal.
Underpinning it all is that a bunch of the guys involved in the play – Harris, Kévin Cabral, Andrew Gutman – are the sort of distressed assets Colorado built their very good 2020 & 2021 teams around. Navarro, meanwhile, is a potential record signing (he’s here on loan from Brazil), and could signal a newfound willingness to spend on ownership’s behalf.
Fraser’s a Colorado legend and an MLS legend, and he squeezed a lot out of some pretty underwhelming rosters. I had hoped – and I know a lot of Rapids fans had hoped – he’d be there forever.
Connor Ronan, the Irish international midfielder they brought in this winter, adds almost nothing defensively, but he is a wizard on dead balls and useful both on the break and in a deep-lying playmaker position in possession.
He’s also just 25 years old, so should be a building block for the next half-decade.
Harris has one goal. So does Jonathan Lewis. Diego Rubio’s only got three in a touch over 1,000 minutes, and Navarro hasn’t scored. Neither has youngster Darren Yapi. Cabral’s gotten on the board twice, which is the number of goals Michael Barrios had before being traded to the LA Galaxy.
Hard to win games when your forward corps is that anemic. This wasn’t helped, mind you, by the fact that 22-year-old Brazilian playmaker, Max, was supposed to be the guy pulling the strings but 1) was bad to start the year, and then 2) was suspended in May for what was reported as a “match manipulation” charges.
Five Players to Build Around
- Cole Bassett (AM/CM): After two years in the wilderness Bassett’s been rejuvenated under Little. I think he makes the most sense for this team as a pressing 10, but we’ll see.
- Ronan (CM): He needs a bodyguard next to him in a double pivot, but it’d be worth it for the quality he can bring on the ball.
- Gutman (LB): Still one of the best attacking left backs in the league, and in the prime of his career.
- Andreas Maxsø (CB): The Danish DP hasn’t been great, but he’s been mostly solid over the past month. And he’s still in his prime.
- Keegan Rosenberry (RB): There should be a few more years of solid, mistake-free fullback play from the veteran.
As of this writing the Rapids have gone 2W-2L-1D under Little, and have scored in all five contests. I don’t know if that’s enough for him to get the job – his career PPG as a manager in USL and before that in college is underwhelming. But the way the players have embraced his approach (again: basic stuff) points to what club president Padraig Smith should be looking for in whoever gets the full-time gig.
Baked into that has to be a commitment to playing and developing young players more than they’ve done the past two years. The pipeline has gone dry after a promising start to the decade, and if it stays dry, the Rapids are in trouble basically forever.
Zeroing in more on specific positions, the big ones to me are the No. 6 and the No. 9.
At the 6: even if Price is healthy after missing most of two years via injury, I don’t think he and Ronan provide enough field coverage/ball-winning if you play them together. Does that mean it’s time to take a real, prolonged look at Ralph Priso? I have my doubts, but I also don’t see any appreciably better options out there unless the checkbook really is very, very open.
At the 9: well, about that checkbook… Navarro’s been decent, but hasn't truly justified the reported price tag. And while Yapi’s a good prospect, he’s spent this year looking like he’s a year away from being two years away.
So yeah, as expected for a Wooden Spoon contender, the Rapids have some work to do this winter.