It was a cute joke.
“They are on their way to the playoffs! Lol!”
But it was just a joke. When you start winless in your first 11 games, any mention of the playoffs is about as serious as Vinny Chase as a legitimate actor.
Except, sometimes a joke can start to take on some truth. The Colorado Rapids could actually be on their way to the playoffs.
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After a 0W-9L-2D start to the season, the Rapids have gone 4W-0L-2D in their last six games. They are four points out of seventh place in the West.
If you once thought of the Rapids as a pushover, or that their chances of making the playoffs were laughable, you should think again.
What the Rapids are doing right
I don’t blame anyone for taking this long to come around. In the first five games of the turnaround, the Rapids caught the LA Galaxy missing Zlatan; they beat Columbus, Cincinnati, and Minnesota at home; and they barely snuck a point against Philadelphia. It smelled more like “we aren’t as bad as before” than “give us some credit.”
But their Week 16 draw at Vancouver – a team competing for a playoff spot and fully conscious of the threat Colorado posed – was a “we’re coming for you” performance. The Rapids aren’t stealing points; they are earning them.
What’s at the root of the Rapids’ revival?
The Rapids have become very good in the 18s. It sounds overly simplified, but it’s the most important part of the sport. If you are superior in front of both goals, nothing else really matters. And the Rapids have outplayed everyone recently in front of goal. (To be fair, they were always good in the attacking end. Even during their 11-game train wreck, they were top-10 in goals scored. Kei Kamara has been healthy and focused, and a healthy, focused Kei Kamara makes any attack dangerous.)
Part of the defensive improvement comes from stylistic adjustments. Interim boss Conor Casey simplified their game plan. They don’t try to be a possession team anymore – they attempt 60 less passes per game now. They get 11 players behind midfield, stay compact, work hard, and try to score on counterattacks and set pieces. It’s easier to make defensive plays when you have more players in the area; and you’re less likely to make a mistake – my goodness had mistakes been killing them – when you have an easier task.
But it hasn’t been a tactical masterpiece, either. If you were to grade them on different factors – when to step or drop, how far to shift to provide cover, when to stay in a zone or follow a man – they wouldn’t receive high marks. The Rapids tend to make reactive actions rather than proactive decisions.
When you’re nearly perfect in those actions, though, it can work out. In the first 11 games of the year, Colorado made 16 clearances and three blocked shots per 90 minutes; in the last six games, they’ve averaged 26 clearances and six blocked shots per game. They’ve closed the player down at the right angle, slid for the block at the right moment. With that, they went from conceding almost three goals per game over the first 11 games, to allowing just one goal per game in the last six.
I’m not telling you that you should write the Rapids into the playoffs yet. But you should at least take the burgundy pen back out of the drawer.