The 2016 campaign may have ended in playoff disappointment for the Colorado Rapids, but the season as a whole couldn’t be considered anything less than a rousing success.
After head coach Pablo Mastroeni’s first two seasons in charge ended in Western Conference basement territory, the Rapids rapid ascension to the top of the league was shocking to most. Along the way to a second-place league-wide finish, the Rapids allowed the fewest goals in the league, just 32 total over the 34 match season, and more importantly, didn’t lose a match at home all year.
“It was definitely a focal point of what we wanted to achieve last year, establishing an identity as a tough to play against team, a well-organized defensive team,” coach Pablo Mastroeni told SBI. “If we get a goal, we’re pretty good at locking up the game. I think that part of it won’t change. Having felt that and understanding the amount of work and concentration that went into that type of effort last year at home, we’ll know exactly what it takes.”
“To not lose a game at home over the regular season was big for confidence within the locker room, within the team, and ultimately our fans were a big part of that also,” midfielder Marlon Hairston told SBI. “Knowing that we did make our home stadium a fortress, you know other teams came into Colorado knowing that before the game, it kind of just puts it in the back of their head that we’re a tough team to beat at home.”
Hairston, who has been with the Rapids for all three of his MLS seasons, each with Mastroeni at the helm, cites his skipper as a massive influence for both the growth of the team as a whole, as well as Hairston personally.
“Last year, to come in and surprise a lot of people, surprise the league, it was great to be a part of,” Hairston said. “Now we owe it to ourselves to hold that standard, to continue to come out and put out the same effort this year and try to get similar results.”
While nobody can doubt Mastroeni’s influence on this team as they’ve risen to become a defensive powerhouse, the season ended too early for the team’s tastes, as they were eliminated by the eventual champion Seattle Sounders. Still, the foundation has been set, and after adding a few key players and maintaining their talented core, the Rapids are looking to replicate their 2016 success and push beyond.
Here’s a closer look at the 2017 Colorado Rapids:
COLORADO RAPIDS SEASON PREVIEW
2016 FINISH: 15-6-13 (2nd in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Alan Gordon, Bismark ‘Nana’ Adjei-Boateng, Kortne Ford, Ricardo Perez
KEY LOSSES: Jermaine Jones, Marco Pappa, Sebastien Le Toux, Joseph Greenspan
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Bismark ‘Nana’ Adjei-Boateng
While veteran free agent acquisition Alan Gordon is certainly one to keep an eye on given the Rapids goal-scoring struggles, it’s the young Ghanaian midfielder who may turn into a key component for the Rapids in 2017. ‘Nana’, as he’s affectionately known, has been in Manchester City’s youth system for the past five years, spending most of the time on loan at Stromsgodset in the Norwegian top flight. There, he’s made 100 appearances, providing a huge boost in the attack for his loan club, scoring 17 goals while winning the league in 2013. After the loss of Jermaine Jones and Marco Pappa, Nana could slot right in and perhaps provide a play-making spark to a Rapids attack that was lacking in 2016.
PRESSURE IS ON: Tim Howard
Though he’s certainly used to it, the U.S. Men’s National Team keeper may be the man with the most on his shoulders. After he and Zac MacMath led the Rapids from the back to an insane goals allowed record, Howard will be in the spotlight again in 2017. With no guarantee that the Rapids attack will improve, the difference between continued success and a drop back below the red line may come down to how many shots Howard lets hit the netting behind him. Beyond the team’s fate, Howard also faces intense pressure from behind him as MacMath showed his own flashes of brilliance in his half of 2016. If the Rapids dwindle, Howard could find himself in the line of fire.
The Rapids know where they struggled and where they thrived in 2016. Living on the edge of a very strong defense and a very narrow goal differential is not a comfortable spot for a team looking to repeat their previous season’s success, and expanding that differential by scoring more has been a big focus of the preseason.
“Throughout the preseason, Pablo and the coaching staff have just been stressing putting more numbers in the box and attacking with more guys,” said Hairston. “Last year we were really good defensively and we were able to win a lot of games 1-0, which is good also, it just showed the fight and character within the group, but this year we’re just trying to work on getting more numbers into the attack and try to win more on both sides of the ball.”
“We’ll always be a solid defensive team, because that’s who we are.” added Mastroeni. “I think the focus moving into this year is how to add more goals from an offensive output, so that’s what the focus has been on in the preseason. I think we’ve done a good job of that, all the while staying true to who we are, our identity, which is as a strong defensive team.”
Hairston’s assessment is spot-on. While winning 1-0 games does reveal a strong team character, it remains a dangerous ledge to perch on. A big determining factor in the team’s continued success will be the development of a fairly anemic attack, which has quite the job in taking some pressure off arguably the best back line in MLS and one of the top keepers in Howard.
The Rapids maintained most of their attacking core heading into 2017, with the only departures of note being Jermaine Jones, Marco Pappa, and Sebastian Le Toux. All combined, the trio accounted for just six goals and eight assists, with only Pappa appearing more than 11 times (20). Those numbers are far from irreplaceable, but the Rapids didn’t do much replacing. Incoming are a pair of homegrowns in Kortne Ford and Ricardo Perez, who don’t expect to feature heavily, leaving just Alan Gordon and Nana Boateng as the only key additions. Gordon has always had a nose for goal over his long MLS career, while Nana has shown flashes of goal scoring ability in Europe that will hopefully translate well.
“Continuity is very important. I think it’s always important that the team knows what you’re asking from a tactical perspective, but also for the players to be playing alongside familiar faces,” said Mastroeni. “I think when you get that, it’s no different than on the defensive side of the ball in that you know where people are going to be, what their movements are going to be like, and how and where they like to receive the ball.
“I think continuing to build on the growth of guys like Badji, Marlon Hairston, guys like Caleb Calvert, Dillon Powers, they’ve done really well this preseason and, again, I think everything happens in due time. I think we’ll be able to improve in that department.”
The lack of impact players brought in and the largely held over roster from 2016 is indicative of the Rapids willingness to bet on the development of their young talent. Players like Shkelzen Gashi, Dillon Powers, Dillon Serna, Dominique Badji, and Hairston will need to take further steps in their development to supplement the efforts of veterans like Kevin Doyle in order for the Rapids to continue to build momentum.
Needless to say, the Rapids have a long road ahead of them to maintain their playoff position, but as Hairston notes, the team is not only up for the challenge, but the team’s ambition doesn’t stop at holding steady.
“Last year our model was keep fighting so we want to continue with that mindset and continue to make our home a fortress,” said Hairston. “That’s our goal for the 2017 season and hopefully we start that right away at home against New England.
“MLS Cup is the goal, for sure.”