Editorial (April 15, 2019) – What I’m about to write isn’t new. It’s not breaking. It’s nothing Colorado Rapids supporters aren’t aware of. The Colorado Rapids defenders have been terrible in the Anthony Hudson era. This defense squanders leads and allows demoralizing blowout losses. It’s a problem and it doesn’t appear to be going away.
Unaddressed Weaknesses: Colorado Rapids Defenders Drag Team Down
The Rapids have lost four games in a row and all but two games this season. They’ve given up 19 goals and are off to a slower start than last year. 2018 was the most disappointing season in club history. Their 63 goal conceded was the 7th worst in the league with those goals making the highlight reels of the opponent and producing snarky GIFs documenting how not to defend MLS DP strikers.
“It just deflates the team when we concede a goal. We need more confidence. That’s our biggest challenge,” Hudson said post game on Saturday. “It’s not good. I’m not happy with it. We have to find a solution. The reality is we’ve got to defend better.”
By several metrics, Hudson’s first 41 MLS games are as bad as Pablo Mastroeni’s first 41 games with the club. Defending (the one thing Mastroeni’s teams were good at) has been an Achilles’ heel.
The personnel just aren’t good enough:
It’s almost tradition for each new front office/coaching staff in Commerce City to blame issues on their predecessors, namely needing time to get out of bad contracts and get their desired roster assembled. Padraig Smith and Hudson cannot make that claim about the defensive core.
Here’s the list of defenders on the current roster. Players signed prior to Smith and Hudson joining the club in their current positions are in bold:
Sebastian Anderson, Kortne Ford, Kofi Opare, Sam Raben, Keegan Rosenberry, Axel Sjoberb, Dillon Serna, Tommy Smith, Sam Vines, Danny Wilson, and Deklan Wynne.
Yes, Serna is technically a midfielder but I’ve included him because he’s played mostly at left back so far. Other than him, Ford, and Sjoberg, every defender on the squad was brought in by the current regime. The failures of these players has to partly be put on the scouting and roster building of Smith, Hudson, and their staff.
Smith, Wilson, and Wynne have been duds. The former two take up international roster spots and are on TAM contracts. They have not played up to those salaries. All three are slow, mistake prone, and bad 1v1 defenders.
Smith and Wynne were Hudson’s guys when they arrived at the club, being New Zealand Internationals. If anyone could make them productive MLS players, it would be Anthony Hudson. He has not done that.
— Rapids Republic (@RapidsRepublic) March 10, 2019
I’ve been a Tommy Smith apologist at times, sighting his skill set in possession and on set pieces. He does several things better than any other defender on this team, things that are critical to Hudson’s system. It’s become obvious that the marginal gains he brings in the attack are outweighed at times by his weaknesses.
Ford and Sjoberg have proven themselves in MLS. Both were finalists for season awards under Mastroeni. Both saw fewer minutes last year as Hudson signed new starters who promptly played worse than Sjoberb and Ford ever had. Ford hasn’t been able to stay healthy (a legitimate excuse for some of these problems). Sjoberg’s had some howlers this year but is very much playing in a system that does not fit his skill set. He could have value as a trade-able asset within MLS.
Opare and Rosenberry are new to the club. Rosenberry’s got quality when he gets into the attack but has made critical errors in transition that have led to goals. Opare hadn’t played till the last two games. The jury should be out on him. That said, he didn’t sign till preseason was almost over. There wasn’t a single rumor about him signing elsewhere. There wasn’t much of a market for him and like Sjoberg, he’s not well suited for playing out of the back.
It’s difficult to judge the newer homegrowns on this list. Raben and Anderson have yet to see the field and Vines just got his first start on Saturday. He wasn’t bad all things considered. They’ve all got potential but none of them is the savior of this defense.
Lastly, Serna has had some highlights in the attack at left back. Like Rosenberry, he’s made several fatal errors of late. Hudson did complement him on Saturday: “He has for a large part done a very good job for the team.”
If this experiment is a failure, the blame should fall on the front office for not having a better contingency plan in place after trading Edgar Castillo.
This issue was known and left alone in the off-season:
Outside of the homegrowns, the only defensive signings this off-season were Opare and Rosenberry. Signing a right back was a must. That position was a merry-go-round of doom in 2018. They upgraded the position for a reasonable transfer fee. Rosenberry has his flaws but is better than the players who started there last year.
Opare was the only external addition at center back. Padraig Smith and Hudson chose not to add any expected starters/upgrades to that position. They did so having seen Tommy Smith, Wilson, and Wynne play poorly.
The lack of improvement of each incumbent player can be blamed in combination on the coaching staff and the player. The lack of viable alternatives should be blamed on the front office. This team needs Ford healthy and fit as soon as possible.
Something has to change:
To Hudson’s credit, he’s tried a bunch of stuff to solve this. Every non-Homegrown defender has started at least two games this year. He’s changed personnel and adjusted the midfield to help things out. From his point of view, it comes down to the players:
“We still have to do better with the goals that we’ve conceded, irrespective of the shape. We still have to defend a corner better than that.”
“The change in the midfield has been largely down to getting the best out of our midfielders and getting them in the best position. Defensively, if you look at a large part of our goals (conceded), especially recently, there has been a lot of individual mistakes.”
Hudson just doesn’t have the horses at the back right now to compete for the playoffs let alone be middling. He’s looking for someone to step up and show they’re part of the solution and no one has.
“We come away and we address it every week. We talk about it and we work on it every week. I’ve changed the back four again and no one’s really telling me or staking a claim that they should be starting. I’m waiting for that to happen.”
“The responsibility is on the players to prove to me that they should be starting. Some of the players haven’t been performing well enough. The players have to step up. It hasn’t been good enough.”
This is the most significant public criticism of the players Hudson has given publicly since becoming manager.
Last Word: Who not to blame
One might be tempted to blame goalkeeper and captain Tim Howard for all the goals this year. I can’t think of a single goal this year that is all his fault.
His Goals Against – Expected Goals Against (GA-xGA) for all of 2018 was 0.71. That means he conceded less than one goal more than the average MLS goalkeeper would have been expected to if faced with the same shots Howard saw all last year. By comparison, Clint Irwin with Toronto FC last year had a 4.48 for the same stat as a back up.
In short, Old Man Howard makes the saves one should expect. I hesitate to quote any 2019 stats until there’s a larger sample size. He is the highest paid goalkeeper in MLS by a long shot. There’s a bunch of financial and marketing reasons the club signed him as a DP in 2016. He is not living up to his salary on the field right now.
He is average. In that, he is not the reason Colorado’s goals against is woefully below average.