At the start of the 2016 MLS season, the Colorado Rapids were not on anyone’s lists for teams to make the postseason, let alone dominate. After all, not only did they miss the playoffs last year, they finished in last place.
But after a regular season that took even the most faithful Rapids fans by surprise, the Rapids assumed the mantle of a Western Conference favorite on Sunday. The Rapids knocked out the LA Galaxy, the most successful franchise in MLS history. And they did it by doing what they did all season long: they defended their tails off.
Under Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids embraced a defensive identity heading into 2016. They don’t have a lot of superstar players and they are perhaps the anti-Galaxy – they have a core of role players who know what their job is and they work hard to do it. They hold their positions, don’t get pulled out of their shape and make it difficult for teams to break them down. Even their two biggest names, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones, are known more for keeping the ball out of the goal than putting it in the goal.
The Rapids’ transformation hasn’t always resulted in the most attractive soccer, as their win over the Galaxy proved. But for what they lack in flash, they make up for with the discipline that allows them to grind out results.
They only scored 39 goals in 34 games this season, the fewest of any team to advance into the playoffs – and they were able to do it because they only conceded 32 goals on the season, the lowest in the league.
The formula that made them a Supporters Shield contender is the one that got them past LA over two legs to advance to into the Western Conference finals. They kept the Galaxy’s quality chances to a minimum and held on until they could eke by in penalty kicks.
But after going down 1-0 in the first leg, Mastroeni saw fit to tweak his lineup to keep the Galaxy at bay. He pushed Dominique Badji into an advanced position with Kevin Doyle underneath and Jermaine Jones was parked in front of the back four as a holding midfielder.
It was the first time that group of Rapids players had taken the field together that way this season, but it brilliantly put enormous pressure on the Galaxy. Sebastian Lletget and Baggio Husidic were unable to get into the rhythm they found in the first leg and the Galaxy couldn’t do what they do best, which is knock the ball around and build from the back. The Galaxy tried at times to resort long balls at Alan Gordon that were nothing doing. Badji’s speed was able to push the Galaxy’s backline deep and limit LA’s outlets.
The Rapids are not an attacking powerhouse, but that may just be by design. They don’t often push forward, but they also don’t leave themselves exposed on the counter. Anytime the Galaxy tried to transition quickly, the Rapids were either already in position to cut it out or they committed a smart foul to buy some time.
Seeing Shkelzen Gashi have to be carried off the pitch at halftime is worrying for a Rapids side that doesn’t have a ton of goal-scoring threats, but the Rapids’ stout defense means one attacking moment of magic can be everything, which was the case with Gashi’s stunner on Sunday.
Now the Rapids are into the Western Conference finals. And while we’ve seen teams like New York City FC and FC Dallas get into trouble by abandoning their preferred styles for the high-stakes situation that is the playoffs, the Rapids stayed true to who they are and they’ve been rewarded for it.
After a last-place finish in 2015 that left some wondering how Mastroeni was able to keep his head coaching job, the Rapids emerged in 2016 with a new identity. With that came a stunning turnaround that just about no one thought was possible.
Mastroeni did it not because he has had incredible roster depth and the best player-for-player roster. The Rapids spent much of the season without Jones, a major force in the midfield, and lacking much firepower – but Mastroeni’s abilities as a motivator and a tactician have created a Rapids squad that is greater than the sum of its parts.
"From last place to the conference finals" is not a talking point anyone expected out of the Rapids this year. But here we are. And now, with the Western Conference finals up next, the MLS Cup is squarely in their sights.
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