“I feel sad for soccer,” Oscar Pareja sighed after the Colorado Rapids’ 1-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday.
The result closed the gap between the Rapids and San Jose to just a single point, with Pareja’s side teetering on the brink of dropping out of the Western Conference’s playoff places. The Denver side have won 3 of their last 5 MLS fixtures and could be described as one of the league’s most inconsistent outfits. However, Colorado have proven themselves as a team for the big occasion. If the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders are the two most accomplished sides in the West, as many will attest, the Rapids can boast two major scalps over the past month.
But these victories were no fluke. In fact, Pareja has also guided his team to impressive wins over Supporters’ Shield leaders the New York Red Bulls and the Montreal Impact since the league’s summer spell. The postseason draws on a team’s capacity to handle pressure, rewarding those who thrive on the big occasion. So with this in mind are the Rapids genuine MLS Cup contenders?
Colorado’s 4-3-3 formation, often merging into a 4-2-3-1, makes best use of their biggest strength: attack.
Last week’s 5-1 win over the Sounders saw Colorado’s attacking front three at close to their full potential, with Deshorn Brown turning in an exceptional performance that was worthy of a WhoScored rating of 9.3 and a subsequent man of the match award. The emphatic nature of the result sent out a message to the rest of the league but to those who watched the game more closely it was the manner of Colorado’s win that proved most impressive.
Whenever Colorado progressed up the field they did so with a purpose. By holding only a 39% share of the possession and recording a pass success rate of just 74% - in comparison to Seattle’s 81% - the Rapids gave a lesson in how to be resourceful with the ball.
This also translated into prudence in front of goal. The Rapids’ on-target conversion rate worked out at 55%, having scored 5 goals from just 9 shots on target. Brown netted with both of his efforts on target, with Gabriel Torres and Drew Moor scoring with their only such efforts.
Against the Earthquakes, meanwhile, the Rapids’ efficient game was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Pareja’s side failed to muster a single shot on target. Without Brown, Colorado lacked the attacking dimension that had proved so fruitful against Seattle. As the team’s top scorer this season, with 9 goals to his name, Brown’s worth to the Rapids is immense. Averaging 3.1 shots per game (the highest among Colorado players), as well as contributing 3 assists this year the Jamaican has become the focal point of Colorado’s attack, even in his wide forward position.
Dillon Powers might not be the attacking hub that Brown is, but his influence from a more central role, playing more key passes (2.2 per game) than any other Rapids player, is obvious. Powers has made 1.6 accurate crosses per game, while playing an average of 42 passes per game (Colorado’s third highest figure), illustrating the dynamic of the Rapids’ fluid front three.
The majority of Colorado’s attacks come down the right (39% compared to 33% down the left and 28% through the centre), a position most commonly occupied by Atiba Harris.
The West Indies-born forward, who is actually the first cousin of Micah Richards, has started 18 games in the right-sided forward role this season. He acts as a passing pivot in that position, angling his side’s play towards the right side of the field. Marvin Wynne’s deployment at right-back also facilitates this, with Wynne the 6th most prolific passer for Colorado. It’s a strategy that affords Brown and left-back Chris Klute, who leads the Rapids for assists, space to exploit on the opposite flank.
Whether it’s a front three or a more fluid front four, led by Edson Buddle, the relationship and understanding between Harris, Powers and Brown is central to the Rapids’ style of play. But rather peculiarly for a team that places such an emphasis on attack the Colorado Rapids have a somewhat modest goal tally for the season, only netting 42 times in 32 fixtures. And against the Earthquakes the Denver club struck out.
“That was a very, very, very ugly game,” complained Pareja after the loss to San Jose. “We tried to put the ball on the ground but it’s very difficult to cope with a team that is kicking the ball up front and wrestling every ball in the air.”
Does Pareja have grounds for protest, though? After all, his team were feeble in attack, slack in possession and generally disappointing. They deserved to lose.
While games against marquee sides like Seattle, Los Angeles and New York appear to accent the Rapids’ playing style, their level drops against teams of similar quality. Their handicap could be a significant one in their final two regular season games against Vancouver. Pareja’s side has already proved their big-game potential. If they can secure their post-season place that trait will make the Rapids an extremely dangerous prospect.