There should be one and only one plan for playing a game against the Colorado Rapids. It consists of two elements:
- Show up.
- Hangover optional
The Rapids are, to put it politely, execrable. There’s a reason they are referred to by their first initial and last name. Their 0-7-2 start is the second worst in MLS history. They are also on a 6-game losing streak and have a league low -12 goal difference.
The only team to have a worse start was 2012’s Toronto FC who posted an impressive 0-9-0 record before finally winning, with a -14 goal difference. The worst losing streak in MLS was 12 games by the 1999 MetroStars, and in the post shootout era 10 games by the 2005 expansion Real Salt Lake.
So the Rapids aren’t historically bad. They’re just damned close.
That being said, Anthony Hudson at least had the right game plan to play Atlanta United. A pretty obvious and cynical one, but, as much as his personnel allows, the right one. He put a 5-4-1 formation on the field, and if that doesn’t scream “Bunker!”, I don’t know what does. Even last year Atlanta had some trouble with bunkering teams, and this year’s struggles with scoring indicate that those problems probably still exist. Moreover, the Counting-them-makes-me-crosseyed Stripes have used a play-from -the-back style so far this season that is slow to develop attacks. Hudson basically decided he was going to play the public transit option. For 45 minutes Atlanta played along.
Here’s the heatmap:
Yup, the Rapids parked a nice big red London double-decker bus right in front of goal. And didn’t bother with any real attempt at attacking. Only 19% of the game was played in Atlanta’s defensive third, as compared with 33% in Colorado’s. The Rapids didn’t even generate a decent shot on goal until the 88th minute after Atlanta had long since gone into their own bunkering mode (their 2 earlier shots on target could hardly be described as testing Brad Guzan).
On top of that, they tried to play a hard physical game, committing 16 fouls and incurring 3 yellow cards. And that was with Alan Kelly apparently in a forgiving mood. How Deklan Wynne didn’t get at least a yellow for his high studs up boot to Jeff Larentowicz’s thigh is beyond me, and he was lucky to stay on the field.
From a personal perspective, watching the first half gave me a strong sense of déja vu. But not because we were seeing a repeat of previous frustrations. I didn’t get to see the game live, and didn’t watch it until late Sunday evening. Right after watching Game of Thrones. I had to check my DVR to make sure I wasn’t watching the episode all over again. One side with its backs to the wall and the other doing nothing but advance at a crawl. Hard to tell the difference.
Not that I would equate United with the Army of the Dead and Frank de Boer with the Night King, but you get the idea. And that first half was pretty much just as gloomy, even with the sun pouring through the roof. Fortunately, the Rapids don’t have any Valyrian steel, and Frank de Boer didn’t need to revive his army at half time, just give them new orders. In the second half, things definitely changed, and the battle ended quite differently.
Whatever FdB’s initial game plan actually was, it clearly didn’t work, but he just as clearly made the right adjustments at half time. There really is only one way to solve the bunkering problem: stretch the field. Horizontally and vertically, but especially vertically. Pull the opponent’s midfield away from goal and then get behind them. Start playing long ball and put the pill over their heads. And that’s what Atlanta did.
Here’s Atlanta’s passing map for the first half:
And for the second half:
In the first half, there was lots of short cross-field passing just south of the halfway line, and very few balls into the Colorado goal, successful or otherwise. In the second, far less of the former, far more of the latter, and an increase in direct passing upfield.
The result was 10 shots in the second half as compared with 5 in the first. 1 from inside the penalty area in the first, 8 in the second. And that doesn’t include the numerous scoring chances that didn’t quite connect. Generally a much more threatening style, and in the end, it worked.
Get this though: Julian Gressel’s goal was the first shot Atlanta had attempted from within the 6-yard box since the 57th minute of the FC Cincinnati game. That’s 450 minutes of game time. Far too long. Not to say that good chances haven’t been created, but the closer you get, the stronger the chance. We need more of this.
Atlanta finished the game with an xG of 1.63, rather lower than last week’s losing effort, but with a far better result. Colorado’s xG was a ridiculously low 0.30.
Well, next week is Sporting Kansas City and therefore some actual soccer will be played. And that will start a 5 games in 15 days run, including 3 on the road and a mammoth coast-to-coast trip from Vancouver to New York. Yikes. But until then, enjoy the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Darlington Nagbe. He was the creative player he was hired to be, and made a seamless adjustment when asked to change his slot in the formation. Special Mention goes to Julian Gressel, just for getting into the goal area.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Three saves in the game, and two of those routine. Came well out of his area to stop a promising attack, but otherwise had a pretty restful afternoon.
LB: Brek Shea – 6. A much better game from Shea this week. He got caught in possession with nowhere to go a couple of times, but generally his service into the penalty area was much more on the mark. Defensively, 2 tackles, 1 interception and 2 clearances over 71 minutes of action. Which is about as busy as anyone on the back line got.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. No card this week (or for any Atlanta player, come to that), which is in itself an improvement. But generally a much better performance. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 clearances and 1 block, and untested enough that he managed 3 shots, of which 2 were on frame.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. Just 2 clearances. That’s all Miles was called on to do in defense. Check the heatmap above: what little attack Colorado produced was on Atlanta’s left. With Atlanta’s 6 corners in the game he spent more time in the Rapids’ 18 than in his own, and got a shot in, albeit off target.
RB: Franco Escobar – 6. 2 tackles and 1 interception. Only his third game this season, and first in nearly a month. Still, despite clearly needing to shake off the rust he was able to go the full 90. This was a good opportunity to get in some much needed training time.
LM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. Surprisingly, Nagbe chalked up just 79 passes (93.7% accuracy). That’s below his normal count, especially considering the level of possession Atlanta had in the game. LGP had 110 passes and Robinson led the team with a massive 111. But that reflects all the screwing around on the back line United did in the first half. Also, in the first half, Nagbe’s play was tilted to the right side. That flipped in the second half, and the adjustment freed him up to run through the entire Rapids midfield and defense to create the goal.
CM: Pity Martinez – 6. Clearly frustrated to be pulled after 71 minutes in the double switch, but it had to happen. Joe Patrick has more detail on Pity’s play so far here.
RM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. No one would have been surprised if Jeff had left early in the game, but he was thankfully able to continue and do lots of typical Jeff stuff, including leading the team in interceptions with 5.
LAM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Buzzed around the midfield in his standard fashion, drawing 4 fouls in the process. 3 shots, 2 blocked and 1 off target. Given a rest after 83 minutes to close out the game.
RAM: Julian Gressel – 7. Overall, not a particularly strong game from Julian, but he was in the right place at the right time, and that’s what counts.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 6. Managed only 1 shot all game, although he was close to being on the end of some very good service. Josef’s game has shifted this year, and some of the service he provided himself was very promising.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. For now, Tito is an upgrade over Pity, and his entry into the game was a difference maker. His shot off the post was a typical Tito screamer and would have lit the Benz up if it had gone in.
SUB: Eric Remedi – 7. No lingering effects from the concussion it seems. Got in 2 tackles and 1 interception in his 19 official minutes, as well as getting fouled twice.
SUB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. Came on for clean-up duty with Atlanta going to 5 at the back. 1 tackle and 1 interception. Not that it was really needed: 4 of his 5 passes were in the attacking half.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. Gets marked down for not having the right game plan at the start, but gets credit for making the right adjustments at half time.
GAME OF THRONES: – 3. Meh. When did GoT become The Walking Dead?