Predicting a team’s lineup is sometimes very easy, but with the Colorado Rapids in recent seasons, it’s been tricky. Pablo Mastroeni’s willingness to replace one player with another or put a square peg in a round hole meant a lot of the normal logic went out the window. The formation and style of play D.C. United could expect against his teams? That part was consistent. The players implementing that plan? Not so much.
Of course, Mastroeni is no longer in charge in Colorado, having been fired this week after 15 years of nearly non-stop association with the club as a player and coach. Steve Cooke is in charge now, and the only chance American fans have had to put together some kind of a book on him would have been watching Development Academy games in 2011. On top of that major news, the Rapids have yet to incorporate new signings Stefan Aigner or Luis Gil into their squads yet.
It doesn’t sound like Aigner is going to play - he just arrived today and says here that he’s got to get fit first to help out - but Gil was already on the bench for last week’s 0-0 draw with FC Dallas (though he didn’t play). Whether he lines up in the middle or on the flank is another question that we simply don’t have an answer for, so a lot of this is going to be a stab in the dark.
Cooke should probably be trying to fix Colorado’s attack, which has been dire. Matt Doyle put together a chart in here laying it out. In terms of creating chances, they’re about 10-12% behind the rest of MLS. It means they pretty much have to defend perfectly, and this year they’ve been nowhere close to doing so.
With little time to unveil a new plan, my guess is that the Rapids will look pretty much the same as they have on paper. And that means a 442 that often becomes a 4411 in defensive phases. Cooke may bring back the 4231 structure Mastroeni largely used over his time as coach, but that won’t really change much in terms of personnel:
You all know Tim Howard by now, so I won’t bore you too much about him. The USMNT #1 has not actually been better than merely “good” since coming back to MLS, but he’s still Tim Howard.
Right back will probably go to Eric Miller, though Mike da Fonte’s suspension means he may be needed on the left. Cooke doesn’t really have a lot of options at right back if he chooses Miller on the left, and would likely have to go with Marlon Hairston. That would be a big difference, as Hairston is an attack-first player, while Miller is pretty limited going forward.
On the left, Mekeil Williams - recently the subject of trade rumors that didn’t come to pass - is the probable choice to replace da Fonte. However, the Trinidad & Tobago international doesn’t provide much on the overlap other than willingness, and if Cooke wants to really change how the Rapids play, he could bring Dillon Serna into the team instead. It’s not Serna’s best position, but it would be a very attack-minded choice. If it ends up being Miller, he’ll be much more of a stay-at-home choice given that he’s conservative to begin with (not to mention a righty).
Center back has been a revolving door due to injuries and Mastroeni’s willingness to change things for...uh, reasons. Jared Watts, Axel Sjoberg, Kortne Ford, and Bobby Burling all have seven or more starts at center back, and none has more than thirteen. Miller has seen time there too, and the lack of consistency has shown. This team is no longer the lock-down defensive unit they were in 2016, and it starts here.
As of last week, Watts and Sjoberg were finally settled back into being the first choice duo, but Sjoberg - who has dealt with injuries all year - left at halftime with what’s been called a lower leg injury. Ford, a homegrown product who has shown some promise but also some rough edges, seems to have the edge to start tomorrow as a result. That means gaining some mobility for Colorado, but at a loss of judgment and aerial ability. Ford’s got a good leap, but few in MLS can compete with Sjoberg in the air.
On the right side of midfield, Hairston can be a thrilling player to watch due to his speed and dribbling ability. On a team short of creators, he’s often a rare bright spot. However, Colorado has sporadically underrated him, and as I mentioned already he’s also a possible right back due to the da Fonte suspension. That could mean a spot for Gil to make his debut, though the right side is not a great fit for him. Mohammed Saeid could also shift from the middle to the right side, but that would require Bismarck Adjei-Boateng be ready to play from the start (which, due to a long-term back injury) he has only been able to do twice since April.
That said, Saeid is still a probable starter in the middle, where he’ll look to set the tempo and create some openings going forward. Moving him out of the middle means simply not having anyone capable of doing that on the field, so I only include him as a prospect to start on the right as a long shot.
Alongside him is Micheal Azira (yes, Micheal, not Michael). The diminutive Uganda international covers a ton of ground and serves as a ball-winner. Beyond his fitness and work rate, there’s not much to note about Azira, who tries to do his job as simply as possible. If United makes it complicated for him to find easy passes to his fellow midfielders, they might be able to force some turnovers as a result.
Barring a move to a different approach, Shkelzen Gashi will set up on the left side and look to cut in. Gashi is the least predictable player for the Rapids, and his long-range shooting is a real threat. However, injuries have restricted him to just 767 minutes this year, and his 2 goals/1 assist return in that time shows that he’s not in his best form these days. Teams have largely been able to keep him from being a factor, with 11 of his 20 shot attempts on the year coming in one three-game stretch in May. However, he does seem to be the kind of player that could be rejuvenated without Mastroeni placing team defense as first, second, and third on his list of priorities.
Irish international Kevin Doyle has been respectable for Colorado despite flitting between a target forward role and playing the second forward role as we expect. 5 goals and 4 assists means he’s been directly involved with 9 of the 22 goals the Rapids have this season. However, Doyle’s Premier League pedigree has surely left Colorado expecting more out of him, and while he’s still certainly a danger in this game, he’s not the kind of threat you’d expect from someone with his resume. If United can keep him from having much time on the ball, and can track his runs from deeper positions (a big if for a team that has been weak in that department all year), they should be able to handle him.
Oddly enough, the best attacking player they’ve had this year is Dominique Badji. Despite not necessarily catching the eye outside of his raw speed, Badji has been remarkably consistent. In 1,571 minutes last year, he had 6 goals and 4 assists. This season, he has 6 goals and 5 assists in 1,572 minutes. Badji stretches teams vertically, and he also has a tendency to peel wide and cross from there. However, he’s not only looking to make runs in behind, sometimes posting up to look to find Doyle or Gashi for combination play.
Off the bench, Colorado doesn’t have a wide range of difference makers. Alan Gordon can still get the job done as a big, physical target, but he probably can’t be expected to play more than 20 minutes. Caleb Calvert could come in up front as well, or on the wing (particularly if the 4231 comes back). Cooke could also theoretically play Boateng alongside Azira and push Saeid up higher, moving Badji to one wing and Doyle up top. Josh Gatt has been ineffective since coming to MLS, but he could make his way back into the 18 with the spot opened up by da Fonte picking up that fateful fifth yellow card last week.