(Editorial) – The Colorado Rapids midfield is a workman like bunch of gritty central players and speedy wingers. They are led by Captain Sam Cronin and the force of nature that is Jermaine Jones.
The Rapids also boast the best defense in Major League Soccer. While their back line play has been excellent, their holding midfielders contribute significantly. Cronin and Michael Azira are setting the tone defensively and in possession for everything Colorado does. They’re a big reason the Rapids are top of the league.
Cronin And Azira: The Engine Of the Colorado Rapids Midfield
Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni has been very philosophical in his coaching this season. It has helped the Rapids tremendously, as the entire locker room has bought into the style and mantra. Cronin and Azira embody this, as players and as a pair.
Cronin previously spent time with the San Jose Earthquakes. The 2012 Quakes share many things in common with the 2016 Rapids: physicality, team unity, belief in each other and the system no matter the score. Cronin described being names captain of the Rapids as “a big honor. I take it very seriously. I try to be a good team player, work hard every day and set a good example.” He’s stepped up as a leader in the locker room. His veteran presence show on the field and it has impacted the younger players as well.
Similarly, Azira came to the Rapids this off season after two seasons with the Seattle Sounders. Rapids Director of Broadcasting Richard Fleming told Last Word on Sports “Ariza has been one of the unsung players in MLS. He was the understudy to Ozzie Alonso in Seattle.”
Alonso is one of the best holding midfielders in the league. He is very physical when needed. This could have helped mold Azira and contribute to his success in 2016.
Cronin and Azira lead the team in minutes played this season. The only time they have missed games is when the Rapids have had two games in the same week. The two start and go 90 minutes. Azira leads all midfielders (third overall) in interceptions with 57. They’re both in the top 10 in recoveries by a midfielder.
At times, they act as a fifth and sixth defender, shielding the back four. Combined with Axel Sjöberg and usually Bobby Burling, the create possibly the most defensively sound center midfielder-center back combinations in the league. Other times, they get into the attack as supporting cast members. Cronin is second on the team in key passes (passes leading to a shot).
They stymie the opponents attach up the middle. They win the ball, then they get the ball moving to the Rapids many attacking options. Cronin and Azira are the pivot of the Colorado Rapids midfield that connects the defense with the offense. They do this as a pair.
In describing his partnership with Azria, Cronin told Last Word on Sports “we have a good understanding of where each other are going to be. In preseason, it meshed well,” adding “our job is to protect the back four and we have a good understanding.”
They are Colorado’s Iron Men. Furthermore, they epitomize team play: they don’t make headlines and they don’t care.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but they go unnoticed. Their hard work goes unnoticed,” Fleming said. “[Cronin and Azira] will just do the dirty work and allow others to reap the benefit,” adding “every successful side needs those players.”
When asked about why the two have been so good, Azira gave the answer befitting of his personality as a player and a person. “It’s not just about me and Sam. It’s about the team. Everyone contributes. We push each other, we hold each other responsible.”
Azira doesn’t see himself as an individual. He doesn’t focus on his play with Cronin. He focuses on the team, as a single cohesive unit. Which takes everything back to what Mastroeni has been preaching all year. If Cronin and Azira keep playing like this and stay humble, the Rapids will probably keep winning.
Who knows, if Leicester can win the Premier League, maybe the Rapids can win the Supporter’s Shield.