Jones, Balanced Colorado Rapids Attack Coming Together

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(Editorial) – The 2016 Colorado Rapids weren’t given much chance to make the playoffs at the start of the season. The 2015 edition finished last in the Western Conference and never inspired hope. The off-season brought mixed feelings as Drew Moore, Clint Irwin, and others departed the club.

There were positive signs, as head coach Pablo Mastroeni opened up about the front office getting on the same page. The club added Designated Player Shkelzen Gashi, which was well received. The club has since added U.S. Men’s National Team stars Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard.

But the big reason for excitement at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has been the result. The Rapids are 4-2-1, with their only losses on the road to the San Jose Earthquakes (in which they created plenty of chances to level the match) and Real Salt Lake (the only undefeated team in MLS). All four wins have come against teams that made the playoffs last year.

Jones, Balanced Colorado Rapids Attack Coming Together

The key to these wins has been the balance of the Colorado Rapids attack. Six different players have scored so far. Off-season acquisition Marco Pappa has three assists. Jones made his first appearance of the season last Saturday and was a revolution for combination play, possession, and tempo. So, what’s working and why? Let’s break it down.

Gashi has been creating chances and he’s finally opened his account.

The Albanian International was a bit snake bitten going into Wednesday’s game at Kansas City. He had 15 shots and 6 shots on goal in four appearances. He had several good chances against San Jose, LA, and Salt Lake.

He showed very clearly how dangerous he can be. The 27-year-old might not be the fastest, but knows how to use his speed effectively. He can create his own shot and combine well with other players, as he’s shown with Pappa and Dominique Badji. The mad did everything but score against the LA Galaxy.

His breakthrough against Kansas City showed everything he can bring to the squad. He holds the ball up well and combines with Dillon Serna. Then he positions himself well to make a smart and fast run to pounce on the rebound and score. Gashi can play any of the front four position’s in a 4-2-3-1. I still think he hasn’t been given enough time as a striker up top, but he’s still been very effective on the wings. That goal against Kansas City could open up the flood gate that’s won the Swiss Super League Golden Boot.

Pappa is maestro at a reasonable price.

Marco Pappas has been the play maker the Rapids have needed. The 28-year-old made just $75,000 in 2015 with Seattle before being traded to Colorado. Lets assume Pappa was traded because he had a significant pay raise in his contract for 2016. Even if he’s making three times what he made in 2016, he’s still not a DP. Yet he’s performing as well as any non-DP play maker in the league.

Pappa leads the team with three assists. He’s able to create his own shot or set up his teammates. Furthermore, he’s creating chances in various situations and in critical moments. Pappa scored the game winner at the death against LA. He set up a Dillon Powers goal off a corner. He made this fabulous chip to Luis Solignac, drawing attention from four Toronto FC players in the process. Against Kansas City, he forces a turnover and distributes the ball quickly.

With Jones arriving, I think Pappa’s exclusively a wide player on this team. He has the technical ability to be a No. 10 in the middle of the park. But being on the wing gives him more open space to create. He’ll also take less abuse than he would as a central play maker. Mastroeni has been open to switching hims wide midfielders around during play. Having Pappa out wide will allow the coaching staff to mix things up to get Pappa and Gashi a favorable match up on the flanks.

Pappa did pick up a knee injury against New York and could be out for a month. Once healthy, he’ll fit right back into the lineup. Until then, it’s Badji time.

Badji is using his speed and learning on the fly.

Badji had some trouble cracking the lineup in 2015, but has cemented himself in the 18 this season. He’s only 23-years-old and is still an unfinished product: he’s had some great flashes, but still hasn’t developed the full 90 minute game yet. He might be the fastest player on the team. That said, he’s been the biggest beneficiary of the experienced off-season editions. Gashi is a great role model for Badji to model his game after. Badji has three goals in 22 career MLS games but has yet to get an assist. Pappa can certainly help him work on his passing. Jones can also help in his development in many ways.

Jones is the piece that’s puts it all together.

Jermaine Jones might not be the prototypical No. 10, but he was extremely effective in the middle of the 4-2-3-1 in his first game. He had a goal and an assist in a full 90 minutes and pretty much bossed the game from start to finish. It appears to be something Mastroeni wants to stick with for the near future.

He won’t dribble around or nutmeg anyone, but he’ll bulldoze his way through opponents. When he picks up a head of steam, the only way to stop him is to bring him down. If you miss or don’t take him out, he’ll go by you up field with a numbers advantage. If you manage to take him down, it’s probably a hard enough tackle that he earns a foul. That leads to a Pappa or Gashi free kick.

In Saturday’s match, it seemed like he was involved in every 50-50 ball the Rapids won in the middle of the park. He also had instant chemistry with Pappa, which is very encouraging. He’s able to dribble forward and dish the ball off to Gashi on the wing. He’s able to sit back and bit and distribute long balls in a more natural deep lying play maker role. He’s also been consistent about wanting to be a role model and mentor for the kids on the team. With every other midfielder on the roster, he either compliments them or is a model upon which they can improve their game.

He’s not your standard central play maker, but he can be effective. If Jones can stay healthy and on form this year, he’s just what the Rapids midfield needs to bring a balanced (and robust) attack together.

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