Looking at the Colorado Rapids reminds me of some D.C. United teams of the past. You might remember that, after a debacle of a season in 2013, Dave Kasper cobbled together a team of unwanted veterans, spare parts, and others, and United somehow nearly won a Supporters Shield. However, we also saw the downside of that plan in seasons like 2017 and 2011, and there’s a reason why doing things this way is not the way forward.
Colorado struggled last year, and this year it’s been more of the same (0W-2D-4L record...yeah, that’s bad). Anthony Hudson looks to have learned something from his ill-advised back five experiments last year, he has not quite figured out how to turn this team into an overachiever. In particular, it’s the defense, which has conceded 16 goals already (and 8 in the last 2 games!) that undoes Colorado’s plans.
Let’s dig into who Hudson has to call on these days:
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard
This site has had some fun at Howard’s expense, as he was the worst starting goalkeeper in the league last season, yet spent plenty of time clapping back at any criticism. However, it must be said, in 2019 he’s been pretty decent. This is not the same level as a decent version of Howard was years ago, but he’s more engaged in games and seems to have a bit more spring in his legs. It’s enough to make you wonder if he had an injury last year that went undisclosed.
Right back: Keegan Rosenberry
Rosenberry hasn’t recovered his rookie year form in Colorado, but he’s been adequate. Or at least, what passes for adequate on a team that has given up 2+ goals in 5 of their 6 games this year. Still, it’s worth noting that Rosenberry’s ability to get down the right and put crosses in has produced more key passes per 90 for the Rapids than anyone save for their set piece taker Jack Price (whose key passes are virtually all from dead ball service).
Center back: Kofi Opare or Axel Sjöberg
I’ll use this space to talk up a scenario where Hudson always had Opare in mind as a starter, and just had to wait for the former United man to return to fitness after offseason ankle surgery. If that’s the case, then Sjöberg is really just vying for one spot among many center backs. We don’t know that yet, because Opare only made his first start (and first gameday 18) appearance last week, but given the play of the other center backs here, it feels like it’s probably true.
Center back: Axel Sjöberg or Deklan Wynne or Tommy Smith or Danny Wilson
You’re probably getting a bit of a picture here, and if you’re thinking that this much uncertainty at this position is a bad sign, you’re correct. The Rapids have given all of these guys minutes, and none of them has nailed down a regular role. Wynne appears to be the player from this list that Hudson trusts the most, but he might well end up at left back to shore that position up.
Sjöberg, one of the tallest field players in MLS, might not be all that useful against a D.C. attack that keeps the ball on the ground and has little size of note. However, Smith and Wilson were both dropped entirely last week, so Sjöberg might get the nod anyway.
Left back: Deklan Wynne or Dillon Serna
I said before that Hudson trusts Wynne, and he really does, whether it’s a back three, four, or five, and whether he’s central or wide. Whether that trust is merited is another matter. Wynne is a replacement-level player in MLS, but he might be the best left back they have right now. Dillon Serna, after years of being ignored or misused by multiple coaches, has started in every game this year, but he’s been totally unable to defend in space, and at Orlando last week Hudson pulled him, moving Wynne from center back and adding Sjöberg. Against United, that feels like the way to go from the start.
Defensive midfield (no. 6): Jack Price
I mentioned Price’s free kicks earlier, and while they’re not elite, they’re pretty good. That plus a lineup that will possibly have Kamara and Sjöberg on the field makes him a weapon. Away from that, Price’s lack of mobility is a problem for Colorado. His pairing with Kellyn Acosta is fairly traditional, with Price staying home and Acosta roving around as a ball-winner, but Price can’t cover his zone very quickly, and the Rapids suffer as a result. Price also tends to foul frequently, so United will get plenty of attacking set pieces.
Defensive midfield (no. 8): Kellyn Acosta
Acosta’s USMNT background should make him one of the stars of this Colorado side, but thus far in 2019 he’s been...fine. It’s been a shrug of a spring for Acosta, and without him putting his physical gifts on display, the Rapids have been beatable in the midfield whether they play a diamond or this 4231.
Right wing: Nicolas Mezquida or Cole Bassett
Mezquida is another player who serves to remind everyone that the Rapids just don’t have much talent. If they had added him as attacking depth, it would have been a reasonable move. However, Colorado added the Uruguayan, whose best season is a 4g/1a 2016 with Vancouver, as a key starter, and his 1 goal in 499 minutes are pretty much on track with his career numbers. Mezquida’s not a bad player, and he usually puts himself about, but the final product is usually lacking.
Mezquida could end up playing on the other side, with Cole Bassett on the right. That’s where both scored their goals last week against Orlando, but Hudson moved Bassett back onto the left moments after he gave the Rapids a lead (that they later squandered, but that’s not really his fault).
Attacking midfield: Benny Feilhaber
Despite being 34 and having to play multiple roles depending on the formation, Feilhaber has probably been the best Rapids player in 2019. He hasn’t done too much in the highlight reel sense, but he’s been steady, smart, and has pushed Colorado into the attack fairly well. If he had more help, he’d probably be getting more attention league-wide.
Left wing: Cole Bassett or Nicolas Mezquida
Bassett is the one purely good piece of news for Rapids fans. The 17-year-old homegrown midfielder has played as a shuttler and as a winger, and he’s done well in both cases. This isn’t a case of giving a kid starts for development purposes; Bassett belongs in the eleven no matter what Hudson wants to do. He’s a well-rounded, energetic player who can function as the glue of the midfield, but he’s also got the skill to create looks at goal.
Striker: Kei Kamara
The other 34-year-old MLS vet Colorado brought in to bolster their fortunes has been Feilhaber’s competition in terms of being the Rapids’ best player this season. You know Kamara’s game by now: he runs the channels well, he can jump absurdly high, and he’s always a handful. None of that has changed, and he doesn’t appear to be losing much of his quickness yet either.
Andre Shinyashiki scored a boatload of goals at the University of Denver, and he’s been called on to sub into 5 games this season (he started the other). And...that’s about it. Sam Nicholson is their next attacking sub, but he has simply not been effective since coming to MLS in 2017. Like most of the Colorado roster, it’s not that he’s outright bad, but that he’s just not all that good. Nicholson could play as a no. 10, or on either wing. If Serna doesn’t start, he’s also a prospect to either add attacking ability at left back or to reinforce either wing.
There’s a significant one, and it hinges on the health of Diego Rubio, who has a back issue that makes his availability a question mark. If the Chilean is healthy to start, Hudson might ditch this 4231 for a 442 diamond, with Bassett and Acosta the shuttlers, Feilhaber at one point of the diamond or the other, and the choice really being Price or Mezquida making way for Rubio. The style of play won’t change, but the emphasis on being narrow (Colorado is among the most narrow teams in MLS) only goes up.