Heading into Sunday’s deciding leg for the Western Conference title, the realistic hope for the Rapids was a 1-0 win. That score line was their most common result this regular season – worth nine Colorado wins this year – and it would’ve ensured the Rapids would go to the MLS Cup.
Instead, it was the reverse, a 0-1 finish in favor of the Seattle Sounders, who beat the Rapids at their own defensive-minded game and booked a spot in the MLS Cup. For the Rapids, they lost the playoffs the way they won the regular season: They were defensively difficult to break down, but not very threatening in the attack.
The Rapids style worked for the regular season, when draws were possible and there were no aggregate goals to create snowball effects. But for the playoffs, the Rapids approach came back to hurt them. Clearly, the Rapids came into playoffs with a Plan A not to concede any goals – but there was no Plan B.
As a team, Colorado can be summed up in a single word: defensive. They only scored 39 goals in 34 games this regular season, the fewest of any team to advance into the playoffs – and they were able to get away with it because they only conceded 32 goals on the season, the lowest in the league. As long as the Rapids could prevent the other side from scoring, they could eke out draws or wins even if their attack was underwhelming.
But it has felt like the Rapids were on borrowed time ever since they got past the LA Galaxy in the conference semifinal. They only got past the Galaxy through a penalty kick shootout to break the deadlock, a scenario that doesn’t happen in the regular season. And even then, it took a one-in-a-million shot from Shkelzen Gashi that no one could have reasonably expected to help force the shootout.
The biggest issue for the Rapids wasn’t any different than the issue they faced during the regular season: They weren’t creating a lot of goals, even when they needed them. A spectacular surprise strike from Gashi could only paper over that fact for so long. Gashi tried again on Sunday, but the Sounders did well to close down space and, of 16 shots the Rapids tried, none were on frame.
The best attacking player for the Rapids on the day was probably Jermaine Jones, the 35-year-old U.S. national team midfielder. Everything in the Rapids attack seemingly went through Jones, who turned, cut and danced his way through the Sounders defense to get off some key crosses and slip-passes. But no one was there to finish.
All of that is not to say that the Rapids season hasn’t been an impressive one – it has. At the start of the season, no one had the Rapids pegged as a potential Supporters Shield contender, and their ability to grind out results through their pure, hard defensive work was unmatched. It wasn’t always the most attractive soccer, but it was effective.
Yet, when pitted against the best teams in MLS in a cumulative playoff format, the Rapids’ limitations were exacerbated. They stuck true to themselves, by sitting in a low block to sit to absorb pressure and protect the central defense with everything they have. The world-class Nicolas Lodeiro outplayed them at times in the first leg, giving the Sounders the advantage in a 2-1 finish. But even as the Rapids neutralized the Uruguayan playmaker in the second leg, the playoff format meant the onus was still on the Rapids to return fire, and they simply couldn’t.
To see the Rapids miss the MLS Cup on their inability to score goals is not exactly a surprise. What worked in the regular season didn’t match what the Rapids needed to do in the playoffs and that’s why the Rapids were always going to be a much better regular season team. On Sunday, they learned the hard way: Defense can dominate the regular season, but an MLS Cup contender has to beat the best in the league, and that means they need to score goals.
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