Daily Kickoff - 6.24.24
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Pulisic leads USMNT past Bolivia in Copa América opener

The US men's national team got their 2024 Copa América campaign off to a strong start Sunday, topping Bolivia 2-0 at AT&T Stadium on the strength of two first-half goals. AC Milan star Christian Pulisic factored into both tallies, scoring the first shortly after the match kicked off before assisting on Folarin Balogun's effort just before halftime.

Are the Colorado Rapids getting enough respect?

Dear reader, have you acknowledged the Colorado Rapids lately?

After a string of middling results, they’ve won three in a row by a combined score of 9-1 and jumped into fourth place in the Western Conference with 31 points. Entering this season, we knew Colorado had the potential to gel and push toward the top of the yearly dog pile in the middle of the West. When they finally did it, we almost didn’t notice.

But something caught my eye in the last couple of days (besides their place in the standings). Being fourth in the West and catching up to a Minnesota United team flailing without their best players is fine, but you can kind of do it by accident. Even now, there’s only a six-point gap between Colorado and 10th-place Seattle. This could evaporate quickly. However… the Rapids now have underlying numbers just a step shy of LAFC, FC Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake.

Per American Soccer Analysis, they’re third in MLS in expected goal differential, third in expected points and tied for fourth in ASA’s all-encompassing goals added (g+) metric. On the whole, their numbers aren’t far behind your average MLS Cup winner in the last decade.

You don’t even have to look at the underlying number to grasp their ability to compete, though. Only four Western Conference teams have 38 goals or more this year. It’s the four teams at the top of the standings.

The big problem for the Rapids is also apparent in your more standard numbers. They’ve allowed more goals than anyone else in that group. Yes, even the Galaxy. Among West teams, only the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose Earthquakes have been worse defensively this season. But the Rapids have actually played pretty well defensively. They’re tied for seventh in MLS in xG allowed. So, if they’re not allowing a ton of quality chances, what gives?

Well, most of their biggest signings from the last few windows have hit this year. DP forward Rafael Navarro has 11 goals and three assists this year. DP attacker Djordje Mihailovic has nine goals and eight assists. Sam Vines is back and playing a key role in the Rapids’ back line. But newly-arrived (and TAM-level cap hit) goalkeeper Zack Steffen has the second-worst shot-stopping numbers in MLS per FBref. Steffen has essentially allowed 6.6 goals more than the average 'keeper facing the same shot placement. There’s no getting around it. The Rapids need him to be sharper. Unfortunately, he’s only had one above-average shot-stopping season as a starter since 2018.

Steffen isn’t the only pressing concern, though. There’s also Navarro. I know, I know, I just said he has 11 goals and three assists. It seems very likely he’s played his way into convincing the Rapids to exercise the option to buy on his loan. Eleven goals and three assists is an output that’s worthy of a new deal.

Here’s the thing: The Rapids have earned more penalties than any team in MLS. They’ve somehow picked up nine on the season, while the next closest team has only taken six. That is skewing their xG a little bit, but the real consequence is that Navarro’s numbers are inflated. Take away the penalties and Navarro has seven goals and three assists. Only one of those assists is a primary assist. That’s solid. Is it the kind of production that earns a DP contract and carries a team to a home playoff spot? That’s up for debate.

Even more concerning, those goals haven’t stemmed from finding quality chances. Per FBref, Navarro is averaging 0.26 non-penalty xG per 90. That puts him in the 18th percentile among forwards.

So, to recap: The Rapids’ underlying numbers are very good… except for two of their most notable and high-profile players. It’s a weird team right now. But it sure seems like they’re a good team with a hard cap on their ceiling thanks to the top of their roster. Then again, Mihailovic is still a star and there’s plenty of reason to believe the team as a whole will keep improving in year one of Chris Armas’ tenure.

They could easily be a top-four team at the end of the season. Progress isn’t linear, though. And we’re about to find out just how far away this team is from competing with top teams in the league. LAFC are waiting for them on Saturday in LA. Then the end of July gifts them the Red Bulls, the Galaxy and RSL in the span of a week. There’s still plenty to learn about the Rapids. But at least if Colorado take down some of the best teams in the league, now it won’t come as such a surprise.

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Good luck out there. Stay in it until the end.