Four Realistic Goals for the 2023 Colorado Rapids

Jan 25, 2023 - 12:48 AM
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Jul 13, 2022; Commerce City, Colorado, USA; Members of the Colorado Rapids before the match against Orlando City at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy | Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rapids preseason camp is under way, and anticipation is building for the start of a new MLS campaign that will begin in Seattle in just over a month.

Colorado’s Front Office has been busy recently in adding a bevy of players to the team, and the club is showing no signs of stopping following the addition of Irish midfielder Connor Ronan on Monday. There are plenty of rumors of additional reinforcements that could arrive in the coming weeks, and General Manager Padraig Smith’s off-season beard is at full strength.

All focus at the club appears to be centered on avenging the team’s poor performances last year, but re-energizing supporters after a disappointing season is easier said than done. If the Rapids want to show that they’re not going to have a year like 2022 again, then the club needs to prove it by delivering results on the pitch. Here are four ways that Colorado can show that they’ve turned a corner.

Establish a Consistent Back Line

Defense wins championships, and Colorado will need to show improvement at the back if they want any shot of making the playoffs in 2023.

When the Rapids made it to the top of the Western Conference in 2021, they only conceded 35 goals—a defensive mark bested by just three other teams in all of MLS. They conceded 22 more times in 2022, and only the three worst teams in the league—San Jose, Toronto, and D.C.—allowed more.

Colorado was so formidable two seasons ago because Fraser was able to call upon a consistent three-man back line that understood each other’s strengths and weakness. The Front Office threw a wrench into that setup by transferring Auston Trusty to Arsenal without a capable starter waiting in the wings. As a result of Gustavo Vallecilla’s struggles and Aboubacar Keita’s season-ending injury, the Rapids rarely started the same defensive group on a week-to-week basis during the back half of the 2023 season.

Fraser tried all sorts of partnerships to complement starting duo Lalas Abubakar and Danny Wilson, as the manager occasionally tapped right backs Keegan Rosenberry and Steven Beitashour to start in center back roles. But despite formation changes, personnel shifts, and no shortage of passion, nothing was able to click for Colorado’s defense.

Finding some level of consistency at the back will be key for the Rapids’ coming season, and figuring out a solution should be top of the mind for Fraser and Co. during their preseason. Any answer should involve maximizing Wilson’s long-ball wizardry while minimizing the level of one-on-one defending both he and Abubakar had to employ during 2022.

The potential presence of Danish International Andreas Maxsø—a towering and physical defender expected to sign with the Rapids in the coming weeks—should make things much easier for Fraser. Maxsø boasts an impressive playing pedigree and incredible technique on the ball. The latter trait was sorely missing in Colorado defenders not named Danny Wilson last season, and the addition of a player capable of marshalling the back line should be a huge boost to the club.

The Rapids will also welcome a recovered-and-ready Keita, a resurgent Vallecilla, an impressive rookie year from SuperDraft pick Moises Bombito, or some combination of the three. The club could always look to Rapids 2 starlet and Costa Rica World Cup veteran Daniel Chacón if all else fails. Chacón joined the first team for Colorado’s preseason camp in Mexico, and supporters should be watching his development with interest.

Colorado will also need to sort out their left back situation following their decision to decline the buy clause in Lucas Esteves’ loan agreement. While not ideal, there are plenty of in-house options that the club could tap at the position. Braian Galván played much of the season as a left wing back following Sam Vines’ departure in 2021. There’s also 2022 SuperDraft selection Anthony Markanich, who earned over a thousand minutes for Rapids 2 last season on top of a few spot appearances for the first team, or 18-year-old homegrown Jackson Travis waiting in the wings. At least one league analyst has also indicated that versatile midfielder Sam Nicholson might get a healthy dose of minutes at the position next season, and the soon-to-be-36-year-old Steven Beitashour remains a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option for both outside back roles.

Whatever the personnel, Colorado’s defense will need to maintain a strong mentality in 2023. The club conceded at least once in the first 15 minutes of eight matches last year, and lost by three or more goals five times. That’s symptomatic of a mentality problem, and the additional bevy of goals that the team conceded late in games didn’t help. Consistency could make all the difference this season, and establishing a reliable floor in defense could allow the club to over-perform like they did during 2021.

Replace Zardes’ Production

Gyasi Zardes didn’t have a career year during his brief stint in Burgundy and Blue, but his nine goals would have made him top scorer on the 2021 Rapids. His scoring rate undoubtedly helped Colorado earn home points in 2022 than they accrued in each of their previous five seasons.

Assuming Diego Rubio keeps up his miraculous pace next year, new wingers Kévin Cabral and Calvin Harris will need to pick up the slack left behind by Zardes’ departure to Austin FC. Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis combined for 15 in 2021, but the pair put up less than half that total last year. Between those four players, the Rapids probably need at least 20 goals next year. The return of Littleton native Cole Bassett and addition of Ronan will also undoubtedly help the club’s attack.

The good news is that the Rapids were still top ten in expected goals (50.8 xG) last season—an ever-so-slightly higher mark than their 50.0 xG in 2021. That indicates that Fraser is organizing his side in a way that creates quality chances, regardless of positions or personnel. The bad news is that two of the team’s best wingers were the top five most wasteful attackers in MLS during 2022.

A change of scenery should do wonders for Cabral’s shooting boots, and Lewis might show better with a more limited workload. Supporters shouldn’t rule out a breakout year from youngster Darren Yapi. With only one other center forward on the roster, Yapi might take advantage of the opportunity to get more regular minutes. The homegrown has already gotten off to a great start in 2023 by scoring twice in Colorado’s first preseason friendly against Celaya FC, and could begin to force Fraser’s hand if he continues that form.

Perform Well in One Secondary Competition

Between the U.S. Open Cup and the recently-re-organized Leagues Cup competition with Liga MX, the Rapids will get multiple chances outside of MLS to compete for silverware in 2023.

The club has rarely put their best foot forward in non-MLS competitions. Colorado has failed to advance in all three of their appearances in the Concacaf Champions League in club history—including a disappointing first round exit to the hands of Guatemala’s Comunicaciones FC last season.

The Rapids have also lost against lower division teams two of their last three appearances in the Open Cup, and haven’t won a match in the competition in more than five years. To make matters worse, Colorado is 0-6 against top division teams in the tournament since their 2006 victory Rocky Mountain Cup rivals Real Salt Lake in the fourth round. The Rapids also haven’t played three matches in the USOC since their 1999 run, which ended in the finals against the Rochester Raging Rhinos—the only lower division side to win the tournament since MLS got its start in 1996.

2023 offers Colorado a chance to shift that reputation. They have begun to build depth in key positions by adding Ronan, as well as the aforementioned attackers Cabral and Harris. Those moves should allow the team to be better fit to make a proper cup run in either of during this season.

Their Leagues Cup draw was favorable in the sense that they avoided Mexican powerhouses like Club América and Tigres UANL. The Rapids should theoretically match up well against Deportivo Toluca FC and Nashville SC during the mid-season tournament, and a strong performance could bolster the confidence of the squad heading into a crucial stretch of the year.

But if the club crashes out of the Leagues Cup this year, the Open Cup should offer the Rapids an exceptional opportunity to make a splash in the middle of the season. With the league’s heavy hitters likely focused on Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup matches against the top teams from Mexico, the Rapids would be wise to take the nation’s oldest soccer competition with the merit it deserves this time around.

Advance in the MLS Cup Playoffs

This is the big one. Following a dismal year, fans shouldn’t be satisfied with a mere playoff cameo appearance in 2023. Most Rapids supporters understand that expecting MLS Cup on a yearly basis is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy with the team’s current ownership, but advancing past one postseason round should be both an achievable and reasonable goal for the club this season.

No matter how the league ultimately chooses to organize its playoff structure, Fraser needs to get the knockout match monkey off his back. The manager has faced four rounds’ worth of elimination fixtures since he joined Colorado in 2019, but has yet to taste victory. As a club, the Rapids haven’t won any knockout game since the 2017 Open Cup—a win which came against a team that hasn’t played a competitive fixture since 2021. The Chicago Fire, D.C. United, and San Jose Earthquakes remain the only teams in MLS with longer playoff victory droughts than the Rapids, who haven’t won in the postseason since 2016 (credit to Jason Maxwell for figuring that out).

Right or wrong, Rapids seasons will be judged historically on the team’s playoff performance. The 2021 gut-check Conference Semifinal loss to the Portland Timbers should still weigh heavily with the club’s veterans, and avenging that result should be the team’s top priority in 2023.

Fraser proved in 2020 and 2021 that he could hang with the best managers in MLS, and still has the best winning percentage amongst all Colorado coaches in club history. To truly cement his place in Rapids history, he needs to win a knockout game in the team’s most important competition—the MLS Cup Playoffs. If the manager can get one win under his belt, the sky should be the limit for the team’s prospects.

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