Backpass: In Reverse
The four-nil loss to Seattle looked a lot like some of the uglier moments from 2022. Is this a Rapids team heading in the wrong direction?
It was accidental, but prescient, that before beginning to write about week 1 of this 2023 MLS season, what with the excitement of the new Rapids with their new players and new MLS with their shiny Apple+ deal, I was busying trying to rescue articles off of SBNation/Vox site Burgundy Wave, where I was assistant editor from 2015 to 2018.
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While contemplating the Rapids thunderous defeat at the hands of a dominant Seattle Sounders side, I was also re-reading and downloading articles I had written about the Rapids in June, July, and August of 2015. For those that remember, this was the Juan Ramirez - Marcelo Sarvas- Dillon Powers - Lucas Pittinari Rapids. For those that don’t remember, the team won just two games from March 7 to July 4. The leading scorer, Kevin Doyle, had just 5 goals. The defense was so desperate they signed Sean St Ledger off of waivers after he had been suspended by his previous team for bad behavior. They finished dead last in the West.
In those early days of my writing, every team loss was covered with a 2000 word screed proclaiming the sky was falling. I was somewhat quicker to judge, although still less hyperbolic than your average message board fanatic, who wants the team to sit everyone and fire the manager, every week.
Still, it was hard not to watch this game and feel a sense of early panic. The Rapids were torn limb from limb in the opener, and only for the briefest of moments did they look like they belonged on the same pitch as Seattle.
Easily Pulled Apart
The Rapids were as supple to tear through as a slow-braised chicken. I saw maybe six or eight instances where Seattle was able to go through them, front to back, in about 10 seconds. The reverse happened to the Sounders maybe twice.
Let’s take a look at two such instances - we could look at more, but it wouldn’t be pretty, and also substack would tell me I’m hogging too many kilobytes.
First gif, minute four:
The throw-in from Keegan Rosenberry is turned over, as Jackson Ragen beasts Darren Yapi to win the ball. Joao Paulo plays it to Nouhou Tolo, turns himself around and gets headed forward, playing it up to winger Christian Roldan, who pings it back to Paolo.
The Rapids all this time still have ***eight*** players pressing into the final third, presumably attempting to win back the ball. But they haven’t closed off passes, nor are they marking tight to their man. Alex Roldan, the right back, is unmarked. He makes a daring run and Paolo picks him out perfectly. The Sounders have a 4v4 break. This series, in the 4th minute, resulted in a left footed shot for Roldan, a rebound, cross, and a failed volley over the bar from Héber. The two shots between them totaled an Expect Goals of 0.29.
The Rapids are so bunched up here that one pass cut out four defenders. This is acceptable if you are counterpressing - attempting the win back the ball quickly with the high press. I don’t think the Rapids are doing that. I think they’re lost.
Next gif, minute twenty-four:
This one is … kind of worse?
Sounders in possession in the 24th minute. Before the gif, this play actually started the same way as the last one - Sounders have regained in possession in their own end, Nouhou Tolo on the ball, Rapids pressing with (thankfully) just three players. Nouhou breaks lose and the Sounders shift it to their right side, which is where our gif begins. Yeimar Andradé steps past a charging Cole Bassett to neutralize him. Then he passes to Nico Lodeiro, as the heads of Michael Barrios and Ralph Priso whip around. The two of them didn’t close down Yeimar, or step into the passing lane, or mark Lodeiro. They’re simply cut out.
As he picks up the ball, Alex Gersbach, who had been watching Jordan Morris, is the only man to stop the ball. Now he’s got a choice: 1) stay with Morris and hope Priso can catch Lodeiro and shunt him outside, or 2) step to Lodeiro and make a tackle or force him into a turnover while hoping center back Andreas Maxsø is picking up Morris. He takes option 2. Lodeiro reads him like a book and unloads it to Morris. Maxsø has stepped the wrong way and Morris is all alone. Now the rest of back line - Rosenberry and Abubakar - both converge to defend the front post, leaving the back post empty. Morris floats the cross to Christian Roldan, who Rosenberry lost in the shuffle, and he puts home the second-try header for the go-ahead goal.
This all looked like a team out of sync - that didn’t know their roles - that didn’t know the plan, or if they did could not execute it. Goals are often the result of cascading failures where one blown defensive assignment leads to a series of unfortunate incidents. There were a lot of sequences where the Sounders needed one good pass to unlock their opponent, and they executed. These are just two. Considering the Sounders created six chances with an xG of 0.23 or greater (not counting the two chances that were saved and immediately rebounded for goals), this game could have been a 6-0 rout.
Abubakar was, indeed, bad
Lalas Abubakar is a Jekyl and Hyde player - his ‘clear everything in the box and score a golazo’ games are offset by ‘oh no’ games. In 2022 I sensed his good games outweighed his bad by a 3:1 ratio, and thus he got good marks from me.
In the season opener, he laid a stinker: making contact in the 44th minute with the ball but not controlling it as Jordan Morris punched it home, and making a clearance blunder that resulted in the third goal at the 53rd minute. He also had 4 fouls, just 2 clearances, and 0 tackles. Fotmob gave him an ultra-low 4.5/10 rating.
I’m resistant to blaming Lalas too much. Because when the center backs are asked to make game-saving plays repeatedly throughout the match, it means the midfield and forwards are not possessing the ball or defending the ball well enough. Abubakar made mistakes on balls in the box, yes, and he should have done better. But there were far too very good chances for Seattle: the Sounders had 6 chances inside or just outside the six-yard box. The Rapids, by comparison, had just one (three if we’re being a little generous). A fairly simple principle of soccer is that you want to take shots as close to the goal as possible.
I don’t think any of the back four looked good on the night - I was constantly befuddled as to why they were simply NOT in line for long stretches, or why the fullbacks were so far up field. It seems reasonable to say that the understanding and communication that defenders need to develop with one another has not taken place in the roughly two weeks since Maxsø and Gersbach have joined the team. Hopefully in a few weeks, with a little practice, they’ll be more in-step with one another.
Connor Ronan had, all in all, a pretty good debut.
He roughly played as a central midfielder, AKA a number 8 box-to-box mid, according to the average position chart from Opta. Ronan is number 20.
However, to be honest, all three midfielders were pretty loose with their positioning - Bassett and Ronan were often doing roughly the same work on different sides of the pitch, and Ralph Priso was tasked more with lying deep. The midfield was good at holding and recirculating, but rarely goal dangerous. In defense, I found them a bit too easy to play through.
Ronan led the team in touches with 74. He was 47 for 59 in passes (79.7 percent); he had 7 Progressive Passes (passes forward rather than sideways or backwards) to lead the team; and had 6 Passes into the final third, which was also the highest mark on the team. He was 3 for 3 on take-ons (AKA Dribbles). He had one shot, in the 37th minute, which was off-target and registered hardly any xG. He was the number one recipient of passes from Lalas Abubakar and Keegan Rosenberry, and also passed and received a ton from Cole Bassett.
All these trends are worth paying attention to going forward - we now sense that he will troll the right side, work one-twos, send in through-balls to the wingers and forwards, and occasionally put his marker to the test in dribbling in order to create offense. All of this is good. He looks like a good passer and steady receiver. With just 1 tackle and 1 interception, he may not be a defensive stalwart. In other words, Ronan looks like what we’d hoped Max might be when Max arrived a year ago. It turned out that Max wasn’t such a reliable passer, and was more of a ‘shoot first’ mid with trouble finding the net. That said - a nice debut is hardly a compelling proof of concept. Early signs are good. And also, with Rubio out for three to five weeks and Price nursing a sore back, we can expect to see Ronan starting every match for the forseeable future. When Price is healthy, he will likely take Priso’s spot. When Rubio is healthy, odds are he will take Yapi’s spot - although I could see a lineup with Yapi at center forward and Rubio, Ronan, and Price in the midfield. I would like that.
The Rapids are back, the season is off and running, and we will all try and etch-a-sketch that match from our brains and move forward. Backpass is about looking back, with the hopes of not going in reverse.
This is the second time I’ve had to salvage articles from the corpse of a soccer website that is about to die. Reader, it fucking sucks. It reeks of patheticness and failure, both for the writer and for the American soccer writing universe
I lost all my gifs from 2015 because I made them as Vines. Remember Vines? Why did that company fold, when Tiktok and Instagram reels, which are basically the same thing, are huge? I don’t understand anything.
Thanks for the write up, the way you and red see the game are closer to how I perceive the Rapids. It's easy to say something like Gershbach was lost and had no idea of what he was doing. But coming up with context and choices that explain the situation allows myself to grow how I understand the "Rapids Way" style. Keep up the good work!