The Colorado Rapids are in the Western Conference Championship right now largely because they don't concede goals. Colorado allowed just 32 goals this season, by far the fewest in MLS, and just seven at home which tied the record for fewest in MLS history.
A lot of the plaudits have gone to their goalkeepers (Zac MacMath, Tim Howard) and to Axel Sjoberg, who finished third in Defender of the Year voting. But one player who has been just as integral to the team’s success is an MLS lifer at the defensive midfield position.
Sam Cronin has been in MLS since 2009, playing for Toronto FC, the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado. He was an key part of the 2012 Earthquakes team that captured the Supporters’ Shield, but after two more seasons with the club, he was traded to the Rapids.
The 29-year-old missed just one game this season but, unfortunately for the Rapids, he will be unavailable for Leg 2 of the Western Conference Championship against the Seattle Sounders due to yellow card accumulation (4 pm ET; ESPN in US | TSN2 and RDS2 in Canada) with Colorado down 2-1 after Leg One. This loss is a significant one, as Cronin an unsung hero in MLS this season.
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What are the Rapids missing?
Cronin isn't exactly a dynamic presence, but he’s very good at what he does. With the Rapids often defending with six or more players behind the ball, he isn't asked to be spectacular, cover acres of space or snuff out repeated emergencies. Instead, Cronin shields his backline from any dangerous attacks and makes quick, clean passes to teammates expected to shoulder the attacking burden.
His stats aren't eye-popping, but his veteran presence in the midfield helps keep the Rapids' defensive shield organized and ensures that they will be hard to break down. Considering Colorado's success in 2016 has been largely predicated on defense, Cronin's contributions are invaluable.
He's also invaluable in possession. Cronin isn't likely to provide the final ball, but he completes passes at a high rate. He has the third-highest usage rate among Rapids players and completes those passes at a rate of 82.07 percent, the fourth-highest on the team.
How they'll replace him
For much of the year, Cronin played next to Micheal Azira, who had a breakout year in Colorado after spending two seasons with the Sounders, playing a total of 1,333 minutes. This season the Ugandan international played more than 2,500 minutes and appeared in 31 games, and will almost certainly step in for the suspended Cronin.
Azira started the first leg against the LA Galaxy in the Conference Semifinals but has since been relegated to the bench with the return of Jermaine Jones. While he and Cronin nominally play the same role as a deep-lying midfielder, they do it in slightly different ways.
While Cronin is more of a cerebral presence, Azira leans on his athleticism to get the job done. Since the Rapids need at least one goal to advance, they may be forced to open up more than they're accustomed to, meaning Azira will have to cover more ground recovering to close up the openings left by teammates pushing forward.
Fortunately for head coach Pablo Mastroeni, Azira has the lungs and the legs to do just that. His 107 interceptions which were the third most in MLS this year, and he'll need to contribute that and more to help keep Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris under wraps.