Monday, June 26, 2017

Oh Rapids… Why do you keep doing this to me?

We are approaching the halfway point of the season. And my god, what a season it has been. Tremendous highs, the lowest of lows. Injuries aplenty, a rapidly changing lineup (see what I did there? Ha…). A horrendous start, and a triumphant return to form. This season, to sum it up in a phrase, really is the tale of two extremes. We’ve seen this on a game-to-game basis, on players coming and going, and the fall and rise (and possibly fall again) of the season. 

I personally have been a bad fan this season. After the miserable start we had, the fanbase was collectively on the ledge looking down a bottomless chasm. Plenty of people jumped, and others were desperately trying to cling to something to keep their hope alive. I’ll admit, that I too was on that ledge. The loss to Real Salt Lake was what broke me the most. Seeing the longest undefeated streak the Rapids have ever seen be brought to a screeching halt, to our rivals nonetheless, was a heartbreaking moment. Seeing that final scoreline show us behind at the very end, it really seemed to somehow underline the worst of what the Rapids were seeing up to that point. We were feeling the effects of the Burch/Cronin trade, but weren’t able to see the benefit that Saeid was/is bringing yet. A couple of key mistakes made us fall, not just to a team that we want to see at the bottom of the league more than anyone else, but by a team that objectively is one of the worst in the league, yet somehow still managed to humiliate us in our fortress. It was at this point where I was convinced that the Rapids had failed me. That they were going to cause us to repeat the 2015 season, for us to not see another win all season, and that everything that I held dear would be destroyed. All the hope and joy and fun that I found in soccer was crushed in a single game. But despite that, I moved past it. We had several bad, bad games after that, but then a little thing changed. From a source that I would not have expected. Pablo used a 4-4-2.

Pablo Mastroeni is, to say the least, a controversial figure this season. After a historic 2016 season, he got a 3-year renewal in his contract. Then, 2017 started by hitting us right in the balls. Repeatedly. Plenty of people saw a flaw or forty in his coaching style, and demanded either his job or his head on a stake, depending on how much they hated him. I will admit that I was not happy with his performance, but I was at a loss as to who I would have replaced him with. Then, the San Jose game occurred, and I saw something I was convinced would never have happened. Pablo took his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 formation, and changed it into a 4-4-2. And oh, how the pigs started flying that day. Since then, we’ve seen the 4-4-2 give us more offensive power, and overall, I think it’s the formation of the future. At least, for now. We put up five goals in three back-to-back regular season home games (SKC, Columbus, and Portland), and scored three goals in the USOC game against Oklahoma City. This is a significant improvement from the dismal streak from the away game in Minnesota to the away game in Chicago, where we didn’t score a single goal in five games.

One of the big complaints that we’ve been seeing with Pablo was also his substitutions. Well, lo and behold, he started making better subs. We’ve seen good work from Gordon coming on late, with some big game-changing goals, and using all three subs. During the L.A. game, he even went for the nearly unheard of triple-sub.  I think Pablo is showing improvements, tangible ones at that. As such, if he can make one final major improvement, I believe we stick with Pablo. That major improvement?

Earn a goddamn point on the road!
Its humiliating, being the only team in the league to not have even a single point from away games. We’re a fat 0-7-0 on the road, and only barely squeaking by with a 5-3-1 home record. If we want to dig ourselves out of this hole, we’re going to need to start earning some road wins. Not just ties, wins. Things looked better in Atlanta, as we played a close game despite the crippling amount of injuries the team has had to deal with. The improvements we’ve seen from Pablo seems to have kept his contract alive, and if we can start earning road points, I think the complaints will slow. Nothing shy of literal divine intervention would stop all the complaints, but I know I would be voicing a lot fewer complaints.

The San Jose game was easily the turning point of the season. We played one of the most offensive games we’ve seen in the last several years, in a new formation, and with a new lineup. We kept up the 4-4-2, and saw Pablo become a new coach. He stepped away from his method, and started changing things up. We had growing pains against Chicago and Philadelphia, but then we returned to DSGP. SKC, Columbus, and Portland all saw defeats that no one was expecting. We played in the Open Cup, and when we saw ourselves behind by 2 goals, we were ready to give up yet again. We came back in the second half and scored three goals. Three goals! In one half! Imagine what we could do if we played more like that!

The success we’ve seen is all the more surprising when you consider the injuries the Rapids have been experiencing. Seeing Axel get taken out after the second game made our defense seem like a pale imitation of what it was earlier. But from that, we saw the rise of one of the Rapids most promising youth players, Kortne Ford. A player who embodies everything that we want to see: A local player, playing on a starter-in-MLS level, making a massive difference on the team, and with a story the Rapids fan base can rally behind. Seeing Marc and Cronin leave hurt us. A lot. But from that, we got Mohammed Saeid, who after a short adjustment period had been establishing himself as a new key player for the lineup. Of course, he got injured and is not expected to return soon, but once he is healthy, he should be back to playing in a starting role. We also got Josh Gatt, who though he hasn’t scored yet, has shown what kind of a threat he can be. These two might not have even had a chance to prove themselves if we didn’t see another player, Adjei-Boateng, get injured earlier as well. He has had very little time on the field wearing burgundy, and I’m still excited to see what he can do for us. His brief stint in the Atlanta game showed a lot of promise. 

Ours is a roster that is in constant flux with injuries. Boateng, Axel, Gashi, Serna, Saeid, Watts, and more have all been injured. If we want to be competitive, we need them healthy, and able to do what they do best: play damn good footie.

Yes, we had an abysmal start. But, we’re finally starting to get out of the rut we started with, and things are looking up. Despite some frustrating loses, I think we can get out of this bottom-of-the-league spot we seem to be superglued into. Players are being drip-fed back into the starting lineup. Pablo has changed the formation into a more offensively capable team, and has been making smart(er) substitutions in the game. We got three unexpected regular season wins, and pulled out a major comeback in the USOC. Things are going better than they were earlier, that’s for sure. Obviously, I know things will once again come crashing down eventually, and once again I will be up on the metaphorical ledge, looking once again at the 2015 season and seeing its ghost once again haunt the team, but for now, let’s enjoy the success we have had while we can.

Besides, things could always be worse. We still have a higher points-per-game than Fake Salt Lake!