Conor Casey's return from a severe injury has buoyed the Colorado Rapids, but problems in the back and general inconsistency mean that D.C. United should be slight favorites in tonight's game.
A young coach who was widely respected in MLS during his playing days. Injury issues at center back. An attack bolstered by sound acquisitions and a quality first-round draft pick. A preference for a possession-minded, diamond 442. A former Houston Dynamo player known for gritty play and high energy at right midfield.
Wait, am I talking about D.C. United? Or am I talking about tonight's opponent, the Colorado Rapids? Oscar Pareja's side has plenty of similarities to United, though they strike me as more of a blend of this year's DC and last year's more erratic edition.
The Rapids are adapting to a more attractive style of play after spending many years playing variously negative and/or boring soccer. The results, however, have been mixed. The Rapids have 5 wins and 5 losses, and they've gone from extreme highs (a 4-0 dismantling of Chivas USA) to extreme lows (a 4-1 loss against the New York Red Bulls). At least to this point, you never quite know what you'll get when tuning in to watch a Colorado match.
Part of that has been a transition within the aforementioned transition to a possession-based approach. Pareja entered the season planning on installing a 433 formation, but unlike some other coaches, he moved to a more familiar 442 when his personnel dictated a move. While the results have stuck to the same "win one, lose one" pattern, one gets the sense that Colorado is a bit less prone to implosion or calamity in their current system.
For the Rapids, a win at RFK would be their biggest result of the season. Thumping Chivas or scratching out a win over a bad Philadelphia side is hardly something for the ol' resume, nor is a 2-0 win at Dallas where the home side played 54+ minutes with just nine men. Colorado also comes to town having had 10 days in between league matches, while United clearly got tired in the Houston heat four days ago.
The Rapids may be a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, but they're going to be well-rested, excited, and they'll probably have Conor Casey available for a start for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon. In other words, this may be the toughest game in our three-game homestand.
Unless Casey's return prompts a return to the 433 - he's a far better fit as a center forward there than Omar Cummings - we should expect to see the diamond again:
If Pareja decides to hold Casey - who surprisingly came on for a full half of work in Dallas, but likely only due to the bizarre circumstances of Dallas being down to nine men for so long - in reserve, I would expect to see versatile attacker Kamani Hill up front instead. Hill has looked pretty good since coming to MLS after years in various European leagues. He's a more speedy, elusive player, but is also a bit more like a target man than Cummings (who will miss out with an ankle sprain).
With the Rapids playing at home on the weekend, I would suspect that Pareja will have to choose one game to start Casey and one game to sit him. As such, a start for Hill is a real possibility.
The only other potential question mark is at right back, where Hunter Freeman briefly displaced the normally reliable Kosuke Kimura. Kimura was back against Dallas, and I expect him to start, but Freeman is no slouch.
We may also see debuts for two intriguing new signings. Versatile Colombian midfielder Harrison Henao is cleared to play after receiving his International Transfer Certificate and his work visa, while Brazilian attacker Edu is in the same boat. Henao is said to be a combative defensive midfielder who can also play wide, while Edu - not the one that played at Arsenal, but rather the one that played Champions League soccer with Celta Vigo and Real Betis - has a resume that says he could be dangerous if he's not too far past his prime. In Spain, Edu played both wide midfield spots as well as a withdrawn forward role; I suspect we won't see him in anything above a substitute's role.
If Casey plays, the Rapids can use him in a traditional target man role, which in turn will strongly benefit their attempts to keep possession. Casey can hold the ball up to allow the midfield to advance, while also giving time for dangerous rookie Tony Cascio to make runs between the channels. It also means that, if the back four is in trouble, they can always go long knowing that Casey is one of the best forwards in MLS when it comes to battling for high balls. It also has to be pointed out that Casey plays the game with an edge, so United's defenders will need to be prepared for a very physical night at the office.
If he doesn't, however, things change quite a bit. The Rapids will likely have to resort to more through balls to use the speed and smart movement from Hill and Cascio, but they will lose the ability to possess the ball for long periods. If this is the case, United would do well to consistently pressure Martin Rivero, the Argentine #10 Colorado signed from Rosario Central (note: Dwayne De Rosario does not own this club). Without Casey as an easy outlet to allow the midfield to get forward, it would be on Rivero to play most of these through balls. Thus, making his life difficult would rob the Rapids of their main mode of attack.
The other player to worry about in terms of service is probably Kimura, who can run forever and as such gets forward on a regular basis. His crossing has improved quite a bit from when he first entered MLS, and he can now hit just about any type of cross with the proper pace and accuracy. While driven crosses following an overlap are probably the most dangerous, Kimura has also shown pinpoint accuracy when choosing an early cross from a deep position. Our left midfielder - not to mention our forwards - need to make sure that Kimura doesn't have time to get his head up and size this kind of cross up, particularly if Casey is on the field.
You might have noticed that Jaime Castrillon is not listed quite as symmetrically as Brian Mullan on the right. That's because the Colombian jack-of-most-trades tends to play more centrally. He's been pretty much everywhere in the Rapids midfield: Attacking midfield left-center midfield, and left forward in the 433, time on both flanks and centrally in the 442, and even some time as a withdrawn forward to boot. I have been impressed with Castrillon, who brings a lot of energy, makes good runs, and generally appears to have a high level of soccer IQ. He's also a useful player on set pieces thanks to having decent size, a dangerously quick burst of acceleration, and a nose for where the space will end up being at the right moment. Forcing him to spend the game defending will probably help quite a bit.
Defensively, the Rapids like to play a high line and press far upfield as a team. Marvell Wynne's injury is a crucial part of this strategy, as he may be the fastest player in MLS. Normally you'd see the Rapids get away from this without Wynne, but Pareja is trying to make an institutional shift. As much as the focus is on Colorado's attempts to keep the ball and actually be worth watching, this pressure/high line side of things is just as vital to what Pareja wants to do. When you're trying to change a club's fundamental way of playing the game, you probably have to stick with those ideas even in the face of injuries.
As such, I'd expect to see the Rapids play that high line despite the fact that Tyrone Marshall and Drew Moor will be in real trouble if they're forced to chase down Chris Pontius (or even Hamdi Salihi if someone spots Der Bomber's run early enough). United has to make them pay if this is the case. Pontius needs to repeatedly get in behind their defense - unlike how he played in Toronto - and we also need to look for plenty of crossfield balls for Andy Najar to run onto. Assuming Najar is at left midfield again, he'll have his chances to get free of Kimura (who will get caught upfield from time to time as his runs forward are important for Colorado) or Freeman (who simply isn't fast enough to keep up with Najar).
It would also be a good idea for United to try to play in the wide areas between the midfield and defense. While Mullan and Castrillon are far from lazy, we'll have an easier time trying to play around Jeff Larentowicz than to try to attack through his central domain. De Ro's ability to drift, along with having wide midfielders that look to combine with others rather than just stay wide and hit crosses should allow this to happen regularly.
Moving on to our defense, we'll need to be very focused on avoiding set pieces again. Colorado is a strong team in the box, with or without Casey. Moor is one of MLS's better goalscoring threats among the league's defenders, and Castrillon tends to get onto balls served to the near post on a regular basis. Marshall is usually a decoy, but is good about either bringing a defender with him or setting a pick for someone else to use. Rivero and Kimura can both provide good service, and if we give up central free kicks, Larentowicz has one of the hardest shots in the league. Unlike some players whose free kick prowess is more of a myth, Larentowicz lead Colorado with 7 goals last season and is a legitimate threat to score within 35 yards.
In general, Colorado has struggled on the road playing teams that are more narrow through the midfield. United's diamond looks a bit tighter than that of the Rapids, who aren't quite getting the defensive work from Rivero that we do from De Ro. There is a slightly lower level of positional discipline to Colorado, and we'll need to take advantage. Between these (slight) edges and the high line without Wynne, we should be able to create plenty of chances throughout. Provided our makeshift back four can hold up, this should be a winnable game.