Richard Fleming: The secret of Rapids’ success


The Rapids celebrate Luis Solignac’s winner against Toronto in a 1-0 win
Photo: Corbin Elliot

by Richard Fleming, Colorado Rapids Play-by-play announcer

Colorado Rapids have gone from worst to first. They’ve gone from being the whipping boys in 2015 to the top dogs in 2016, and from being the team wondering where their next win would come from, to a team that is 6-0-2 in an unbeaten stretch of eight games.

Oh, and they’re top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.

The numbers make for impressive reading, and more so when you consider that this franchise has finished last and next-to-last of the Western Conference in the past two seasons.

After 13 matches of the 2016 season the Rapids are 8-2-3, enough for 27 points. They hit that mark on Saturday with a 1-0 win in Seattle, against a Sounders side that did everything but score.

“Last year, they failed to give opposition defenders enough to worry about, allowing other teams to be braver and more aggressive.”

It was another example of the Rapids grinding out a narrow victory. Indeed, only one of their eight victories this term has been by more than a one goal margin, a 3-1 success over Seattle at home. Of the others, five have been with a 1-0 scoreline.

Find below some stats which highlight maybe why the Rapids enjoy such a lofty league position:

  • They have won all six home games to date. Last season, they won just five matches at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park all year.
  • Ahead of their home match with Philadelphia Union on Saturday – which brings together the leaders of the West and East – the Rapids are the only remaining side to have single figures in the ‘goals against’ column.
  • Thus far, they are the only team to have beaten LA Galaxy. They have also ‘done the double’ over Seattle and won at Sporting Kansas City.
  • They have climbed to 27 points from 13 games, which they reached on May 21. Last season, they needed 24 outings to match that tally, and it took them until August 22!

Why? Why the transformation from a dreadful 2015? There’s better quality on the field, for a start.

Jermaine Jones has made a huge impact, while Albanian international Shkëlzen Gashi is a cut above what the Rapids have had in recent times. Add to those the names of Marco Pappa, Micheal Azira, Mekeil Williams and Eric Miller, then you begin to see the reason for the rise.

Pappa – when fit – has been the ‘difference-maker’ the club has long-since yearned. Azira, used sparingly when at Seattle, is proving to be the unsung hero early on. He, and team captain Sam Cronin, do the ugly work, thereby allowing the flair players to blossom. Trinidad & Tobago international Williams is versatile along the back line, and is both quick and strong, while US U-23 defender Miller – though in-and-out with injury – has already displayed enough talent to suggest Montreal may regret letting him go.

Those bruised and battered from 2015, but stronger for it, include former Reading and Wolves striker Kevin Doyle. The intelligent Republic of Ireland international, with a full MLS preseason under his belt, has recently returned from a leg injury and his link-up play with Jones and Gashi has certainly been another factor in the team’s success.

I appreciate that throwing a load of names out there doesn’t really offer much in the way of an explanation as to how this Rapids side has improved, so let me expand a little. For much of last season it was clear that this Rapids side was solid defensively. They were ‘in’ most games, mainly because they didn’t concede many goals. Problem was, they still ended up losing or drawing games that they may have won or tied, due to the fact that the team offered very little in the opposing third.

Doyle was the Rapids’ top scorer in 2015 … with five goals. The entire team managed just 33 goals from 34 games. So, as the season wore on, rival sides realized this was a Rapids team that, though tough to score against, also found it tough to score themselves. In short, they lacked balance within the team. They failed to give opposition defenders enough to worry about, allowing other teams to be braver and more aggressive.

The addition of Jermaine Jones has steeled the teamPhoto: Graham Green

The addition of Jermaine Jones has steeled the team

With the acquisition of those previously mentioned, other MLS teams are no longer taking liberties. Jones, Gashi, Pappa et al are obviously good players, but they are also making those around them better. The improved personnel gives this Rapids team better shape and greater balance throughout.

Injuries have prevented Jones, Doyle, Gashi and Pappa from being on the field at the same time. The team is also awaiting the arrival of US international legend Tim Howard, though current keeper Zac MacMath currently boasts the lowest goals against average in the league and – after a few early season wobbles – is not doing too much wrong. In other words, it may be that we’ve yet to see the best of the current league leaders.

Colorado Rapids have been, I think, rather lazily labeled the Leicester City of MLS. It’s a little too simple a comparison to make, and not one the players are comfortable with, due to there being so much of the season still to play. Yes, they’re all enjoying being at the summit, but they’ve only raised eyebrows so far, and not trophies.

Approaching the Copa Centenario break, this Rapids side of 2016 is closing in on 30 points. They’ve laid some solid foundations on which to build, but they’re now adjusting to being ‘the chased’ as opposed to ‘the chaser’. That brings a different kind of pressure, but one that the experience of Jones, Doyle, Gashi, Pappa, Howard, Cronin, Bobby Burling and Marc Burch should be able to handle.

After the woes of 2014 and 2015, the Colorado Rapids grew tired of being pushed around. They’re no longer prepared to have sand kicked in their face. Unlike recent seasons past, this Rapids team can give as good as they get. This season, should you hit them, they now have the ability to hit you back.

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