Four days before the Colorado Rapids’ season opener, head coach Pablo Mastroeni is attempting to put into words the new style of play he’s hoping to see out of his group in 2017.
“Really the best teams in the world — Barcelona for example — they’re very fluid. Well Barcelona is a terrible example. That’s such a horseshit example. I won’t even use it,” Mastroeni says. “But the best teams in the world defend with a certain amount of tenacity and then when they get it, they take a deep breath and it’s a different type of rhythm and tempo. And that for me has been the noticeable change between this year and last year. A lot of times we’d ram it to ram it, or cross it to cross it. Now it feels like there’s purpose.”
Clunky comparison — and Mastroeni knows it — but you at least get a sense of what he means by it.
The Rapids were runners up in the Supporter’s Shield race last year despite scoring the second-fewest goals scored in the MLS with 39. They relied on their defense, which gave up an MLS-best 32 goals. Colorado isn’t trying to completely alter that identity as a new season approaches — Mastroeni understands his team will never look like Spanish power FC Barcelona, which has scored 65 goals in 24 games this season — but tweaking it is a point of emphasis in 2017.
“We don’t want to lose focus of what we are,” Mastroeni says. “We’re going to be grinders. The essence of our group will be in our DNA. But we want to now take the next step. We want to have a good idea of how we’re going to score goals as opposed to just playing it sideways without any ideas. It’s about building upon but not eliminating what we did last year.”
So far this preseason, the Rapids have worked on how to play with more purpose offensively. They’ve hashed out specific passing patterns they can rely on during games. They’ve also stressed flooding the opposing team’s box with bodies to do more damage when chances do come.
“I think a deficiency of our team last season is we too often didn’t have enough guys in the box,” midfielder Sam Cronin says. “I think we need to make sure we remember when the ball’s wide and it’s being served in dangerous parts of the field and in the box, we have more than one player in there fighting to get it. So that’s been a priority.”
The Rapids look loaded defensively once again. They return both starting defensive midfielders (Cronin and Micheal Azira), all their important backliners (Marc Burch, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts and Eric Miller) and both goalkeepers (Tim Howard and Zac MacMath).
The question is: Can that group perform as well as it did last year if the team’s playing a more aggressive style? The Rapids advanced all the way to the Western Conference championship last year by playing their plodding, defensive-minded game.
This year, Colorado is hoping that committing more to offense can help them go even farther.
“Obviously we’re going to try to get more guys forward and in the box. That will open you up a bit more,” Cronin says. “But the idea is that we didn’t win the trophy last season. Although it was good, it wasn’t good enough. If we want to achieve more, if we want to win more, we’ve got to evolve as a team. Scoring more goals is at the top of that list.”
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