Keep Fighting Genome Project: How The 2016 Colorado Rapids Took MLS By Surprise

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 22: From left, Dominique Badji #14 of the Colorado Rapids, Kevin Doyle #9 of the Colorado Rapids and Shkelzen Gashi #11 celebrate a goal by Doyle during the first half of a match in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at CenturyLink Field on November 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Editorial (March 4, 2017) – On the eve of the 2017 Colorado Rapids season, I thought it was a nice time to reflect on last year’s campaign for the Rapids. There’s plenty of hopes and inquiry, but I’m still trying to fully process just how last year’s team did what it did.

Keep Fighting Genome Project: How The 2016 Colorado Rapids Took MLS By Surprise

Colorado took the league by storm last season. They went from the bottom of the league in 2015 to nearly winning the Supporter’s Shield and making it to MLS Cup. No one was picking this team to make the playoffs.

Defense, Physicality, And Philosophy

If nothing else, the 2015 Rapids defended. Defense was Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni’s jam, as a player and a coach. Since becoming the head coach in 2014, he’s done a good job finding under the radar talent and cultivating a cohesive unit. That all came to fruition in 2016.

The club started winning, but the defense was possibly the best in MLS history. Axel Sjoberg was a Defender of the Year candidate. Marc Burch quietly had a career year. The back line had great support from the midfield in Sam Cronin and Michael Azira. To top it all off, the club signed one of the best American goalkeepers in history, Tim Howard.

The 2016 Rapids were more than just a team that would get clean sheets and win 1-0. Several moves of the past two years brought in physical players. They were going to absorb pressure and counter. But they were going to wear you down in the process.

This game plan wasn’t so much tactics as it was philosophy. Mastroeni is no Pep Guardiola when it comes to tactics. But he instilled a sense of belief in his team, and this was born #KeepFighting. It didn’t matter what others (media, coaches, players) thought or talked about. Focus on what you can do. Their strategy wasn’t complicated or mysterious. But they were going to execute their game plan better than the other team.

Veterans, Young Studs, And Career Years

For many Rapids players, 2016 was their best season professionally. Sam Cronin was Captain of a very gritty defense. Michael Azira and Burch had career years as starters. A young and hard working Jared Watts had some good moments. These three elevated an already excellent defense into one of the league’s best ever. Azira and Cronin covered ground, forced turnovers, and got the ball out wide quickly. Watts provided some physicality in the air. Burch didn’t get forward as much, but when he did, good things always happened. He rarely made a mistake.

In the attack, Shkelzen Gashi led the team with nine goals. After him, it was all about the kids. Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston had career years that saw them scoring and getting regular minutes. Hairston in particular came out of nowhere. Dillon Serna kept the Rapids afloat at times before going down with an injury against FC Dallas.

In many ways, these individual career years helped escalate the team collective. Several of these performances came out of nowhere. That’s part of what made this season such a surprise.

Home Cooking

It’s no secret that if to be a good team in MLS you have to take care of business at home. The Rapids had one of the best home records of all time last season at 11-0-6. They had literal Strength At Altitude. Their style of play wore opponents down in the first half. They usually had the better of the play in a 0-0 HT scoreline. Then they’d pore it on a tiring opponent to take the lead.

After that, the Rapids would shut it down, like a boa constrictor, usually winning 1-0.

Taking The League By Surprise

Again, no one was this team doing what they did last year. With a month left in the season, it still seemed that pundits were expecting the team to drop off significantly. But #KeepFighting persisted all they way to the Western Conference Finals.

They were able to prey on unsuspecting teams who were expecting the 2015 team. They did this early and often. They did it at home and survived draws and one goal games on the road.

Last year seemed so improbable that everyone is picking the team to regress in some way. Most of the pundits I’ve seen have them making the playoffs but not competing for the Supporter’s Shield.

We’ve seen this before. The 2012 Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes. The 2013 Portland Timbers. The 2015 Columbus Crew. A team makes some moves in the off-season and every single one works out. They stay relatively healthy. Several average players have career years. Then next season, the league has enough tape to figure out how to beat them, they regress to the mean, and miss the playoffs.

It’s unclear if the Rapids will suffer this fate. Regardless, Mastroeni’s men will keep fighting.

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