“Do you know anything about aquariums?” Pablo Mastroeni asked.
During his playing days, the Colorado Rapids manager briefly took up maintaining a saltwater aquarium as a hobby. The idea of tending to semi-exotic fish and seeing them up close and personal appealed to him. What Mastroeni found, though, is that caring for all those organisms is actually quite complicated.
“The way you have to integrate the fish … and certain fish can’t live with other fish,” Mastroeni said. “What each living organism does to that ecosystem is incredible. Moving one piece out affects how how these fish graze and all that. It takes some time to balance things out.”
Mastroeni is seeing that same lesson play out on the soccer pitch this season.
In late March, the Rapids traded away defensive midfielder Sam Cronin and left back Marc Burch, two key components of the MLS’ best defense in 2016. Burch, who started 27 games in 2016, and Cronin, who started 33, were sent to Minnesota United for midfielders Mohammed Saied, Josh Gatt and cap space that Rapids sporting director Padraig Smith said he hoped to use on “an offensive threat” in the future.
The Rapids (1-3-1, 4 points) are 0-2 since the trade and have struggled out of the gate in 2017. They’ve allowed eight goals in five games, while generating just 12 shots on target and five goals themselves.
In short, this year’s attempt to convert Colorado from a defensive-minded unit to a more dangerous offensive team hasn’t gone well.
“It’s interesting because in trying to create more opportunities on goal, I think we’re not as tight as we were defensively,” Mastroeni said. “I think there are a lot of moving parts to this. I think with Cronin and Burchy leaving the group, you have 20 years of experience in Major League Soccer, and they both happened to be on the defensive side of things. The way we defend, if one person isn’t clued in, it sacrifices a lot from the others.”
Mastroeni said he liked what he saw from his team for the most part in a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday. The Rapids led 1-0 until the 85th minute when center back Jared Watts blocked a shot with his hand in the penalty area and was sent off with a red card. Yura Movsisyan buried the penalty kick for RSL. Four minutes later, Brooks Lennon struck again for RSL.
“The other night I thought we played quite well, actually,” said striker Kevin Doyle, who scored Colorado’s lone goal of the game. “The first 80 minutes, we mostly controlled the game. Then sucker punch. Two goals.”
Gaffes like the ones that happened Saturday are to be expected when you’ve made dramatic personnel and stylistic changes, Mastroeni said. Gone is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who signed with the L.A. Galaxy this summer. So are Cronin and Burch. (Colorado faces Minnesota United for the first time since the trade this Sunday.)
The Rapids are counting on new pieces like Saied and midfielder Nana Boateng — but he’ll be unavailable for 8-10 weeks after fracturing vertebra in his back over the weekend. They’re also counting on players who were reserves last year, like defender Mekeil Williams, the 26-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago, to take on bigger roles.
Plugging those new pieces and being asked to play a different way has required adjustment. The ecosystem Mastroeni helped create last year is changing. Whether that’s a good or bad thing has yet to be determined.
“In a lot of ways there is re-learning of what we’re trying to achieve,” Mastroeni said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
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