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RSL v. Colorado Tactical Preview: RSL face misfiring Rapids

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MLS: LA Galaxy at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After four matches, Colorado sits above the red line with a 2-1-1 record. Holding seven points, the Colorado Rapids are tied with the LA Galaxy, Vancouver, and San Jose. Despite this reasonable record, Colorado has had its flaws. If Real Salt Lake hopes to recapture the Rocky Mountain Cup, they will have to exploit the Rapid’s weaknesses while reducing their fortes.

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength

After finishing last in number of chances created and goals scored last year, the Rapids made headlines this offseason acquiring Marco Pappa from the Seattle Sounders and signing Albanian international Shkelzen Gashi from the ranks of the Swiss top-flight. Media outlets hailed these signings as an alleviation to the Rapids scoring woes but it has not yet translated to the pitch.

In the first four matches of the 2016 season, Colorado has only managed to score three goals. Even more disturbing for Rapid fans is that only two goals have come from open play. In no small part this could be correlated with the 34.9 percent shooting accuracy the squad has produced. Of the club’s 63 shots, only 22 of them have been on target which could be due to, at least in a small part, shots being taken from traditional low percentage conversion areas.

Colorado's shot map
Courtesy of Squawka.

Despite lagging behind RSL’s shot accuracy by 12.7 percent, the Colorado attackers have managed to create more scoring opportunities. In the same time it has taken the Claret-and-Cobalt to create 28 chances, the Rapids have produced 45. There was a significant dip in chance production against D.C. United, however, as ex-Rapids man Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon constricted the space in the midfield – something that Kyle Beckerman and Sunny Stephen Obayan are known to do.

The Rapid’s attack will also be thinner on paper at least now that star Irish striker Kevin Doyle is out with a shin injury. When a big name player goes down for any club it could spell disaster, but maybe not for Colorado since Doyle has been yet to transfer anything to the pitch this year. Doyle has been easily the worst player on the pitch for Colorado this year boasting a 20 percent shot accuracy, 54 percent passing accuracy, and zero chances created. For his DP price tag he has sure let down the Rapids. So with Doyle’s absence expect Colorado to give another Doyle (of no relation to the first) an opportunity to impress.

With Colorado producing chances but just not converting them, it is only a matter of time before the ball starts finding the back of the net, so RSL’s defense will have to be on the front foot. Now that RSL is back to full(ish) strength and Colorado’s attack absent a man or two, RSL has a real chance of winning the battles in their defensive third but will have to be cautious of the Rapid’s ability to create chances.

The opposite of offense is not defense but the opposition’s ability

While scoring three goals in the first four matches is not a highly touted stat, only allowing two goals is. Colorado has managed to organize their backline early in the season – and with a 6-foot-7 Swede marshaling the backline the reason seems pretty self-explanatory.

After the exit of former-Rapids captain Drew Moor to the "gold covered path" – or something to the effect – that is MLS free-agency, Axel Sjoberg has really come into his own. Veteran Sean St. Ledger was expected to take Moor’s defensive responsibilities but they have fallen to Sjoberg after an injury has left him sidelined. Sjoberg may not wear the armband, but he does command respect all across the pitch.

The colossal Swede has proven to the Rapids that is able and willing to contribute to the squad right now. Possessing a 100 percent shot accuracy for three shots, a 74 percent passing accuracy, average duel winning rate of 52 percent, blocked two shots, and created one chance, Sjoberg is one of the top performers on the Colorado Rapids. In addition, his partnership with either Jared Watts or Bobby Burling has been strong.

Conversely, it can appear that there is a good defense while in actuality there has been little for them to face. Put bluntly, the Colorado defense has not had to face much in their first four matches. Across the aforementioned matches, only seven of their opponent’s 46 shots have been on target. Facing a mere 15.2 percent shot accuracy should be no problem for a professional backline. The four opponents that Colorado has faced only have a 1.15 goals per match scoring average while RSL’s backline has had to deal with opponents scoring 1.38 goals per match.

Boasting the least amount of conceded goals in the league, it will be interesting to see how Colorado fairs against one of the highest scoring squads in 2016. The Colorado defense will be put to the test and Sjoberg’s leadership will be tested more than it has before this season.

A few more things to consider:

3. Colorado is still beneath RSL in the standings and power rankings despite playing "weaker" opponents. Combined Colorado’s opposition to this point has only been averaging 1.275 points per match while RSL has been facing opponents averaging 1.5. As with their least amount of goals conceded record in 2016, Colorado’s stats are also padded by the lackluster performance of their opposition.

2. Like RSL, Colorado has been stuck with multiple squad absences, but unlike their rival they do not have the personnel to replace them. The Rapids have yet to form their own USL club – but are affiliated with the Charlotte Independence – and as a result they have not be able to field a full complement of players. Last week, Colorado had only 16 available players for its match against Toronto, down from the 18 players usually available.

1. RSL took their fourth consecutive two goal lead in as many matches last week against Sporting Kansas City. Can this trend continue?

Expected Lineups

Rapids (4-5-1)

GK: MacMath

DEF: Williams, Burling, Sjoberg, Burch

MID: Cronin, Serna, Pappa, Powers, Gashi

ATT: Solignac

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Attinella

DEF: Beltran, Olave, Maund, Wingert

MID: Beckerman, Sunny, Morales

ATT: Martinez, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Taking the initiative early in the Rocky Mountain Cup series

Challenging Colorado's defense and goalkeeper - early and often

Involving the fullbacks to overload the flanks

Watch RSL on Saturday, April 9th at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time at Rio Tinto Stadium or on KMYU or MLS LIVE.