Editorial (March 19, 2019) – Three games into the 2019 MLS season, the Colorado Rapids diamond midfield is an unfinished product. All four players are still getting used to the formation, the tactical assignments, and each other. Jack Price is the longest tenured of the midfield starters and he’s only been in Commerce City for 14 months. Manager Anthony Hudson is still experimenting and it showed on Sunday night against Sporting KC, a game that ended 1-1.
Colorado Rapids Diamond Midfield: Still a Work in Progress
Last summer, the Rapids switched from a 5-3-2 formation to a 4-4-2 diamond. With that, there was a push to be a possession-based attacking team. This was an evolution towards the vision of the Rapids Way, General Manager Padraig Smith’s thesis statement on what the club has to do to complete in MLS 3.0.
This change yielded some results as the Pids controlled the play more throughout games in the fall. The midfielder assignments were simple and clear, which led to more chance creation up the middle and more support for a vulnerable back four. The club would end the season mostly on a whimper however. Hudson made it clear that the club needed to bring in attacking players who fit what they had planned for 2019.
And that they did. Kellyn Acosta signed a long-term extension. Nicolas Mezquida and Benny Feilhaber brought new quality to the midfield. A brand new group of strikers was assembled. The Rapids looked on paper prepared to challenge for the playoffs this year.
Hudson’s slow burn: “It’s early days for us.”
Hudson has shown a methodical approach to personnel and strategy decisions. He alluded to wanting to be able to play two formations throughout last season but it took awhile to debut the diamond. He took his time with a few younger players that eventually paid dividends. He’s rather slow with getting players involved when there are injuries and fitness concerns. Some of those long plays didn’t work out last year.
In 2018, he was clearly focused on the process over immediate results. The diamond midfield’s been a mess at times the last two games.
“We’re still very much a work in progress in terms of where we want to be in the midfield,” Hudson said post-game on Sunday.
There’s clearly some experimentation going on with the occasional in-game adjustment. For Hudson and those players, there’s learning going on at the micro and macro levels. They’re building fitness, relationships, and an understanding of who can do what.
One of my mantras for these nerdy articles is that formation is shorthand for tactics. The Rapids may deploy the 4-4-2 diamond (sometimes in name only), but there’s more to it. Individual match ups, how the team is approaching the game, and what’s working informs the details. Hudson’s clearly still in the draft phase of said details.
Improv Jazz Soccer: Midfield Total Football
I’ve been trying to come up with a cool catch phrase for what the Rapids diamond midfield could become this year. Improv Jazz Soccer doesn’t roll off the tongue like Heavy Metal Football, unfortunately.
In short, the average of the four midfield starters (and Cole Bassett for the sake of completeness) is a No. 8. Acosta and Mezquida lean towards the No. 10 side of the spectrum. Feilhaber and Price are closer to the No. 6 role. I wouldn’t put Mezquida at the base of the diamond nor Price at the top of it.
Think of it as a midfield-only variation of Total Football. It’s a 4-whatever-2. Depending on the situation, the midfield takes whatever shape and the individuals take whatever roles are needed. Hudson clearly sees this versatility playing a role this season:
“The demands on the No. 8 position is more than the No. 6. It suited us to have Benny there. Benny can play anywhere in the midfield, No. 6, No. 8, No. 10. I’m sure throughout the season, Benny will play at the No. 6 or No. 10 depending on the opposition. Price as well.”
In this, it’s not composed orchestral music with Hudson strictly conducting his players. It’s improv jazz. Right now, Acosta needs to work on his upper range on the trumpet and Feilhaber needs to get more comfortable on the bari sax.
A diamond in name only:
The Rapids played with decent pace and aggression in the first 20 minutes on Sunday night. Then both teams decided to clog up the middle. Colorado’s midfield was a diamond in name only. Formations are shorthand, but there’s usually something every formation is inherently good and bad at.
The diamond is great for creating a numbers advantage in the middle of the pitch. It’s great for a team that wants to build from the back and possess the ball. It’s not great if you want to sit deep and counter attack. The diamond naturally distorts, as it did for the Pids at Seattle Sounders FC when they were getting overrun and much of the game against Kansas City.
Some of this is understandable given the circumstances. Hudson’s got limited options at center back right now. Deklan Wynne and Danny Wilson are defensive liabilities and Axel Sjoberg’s not much faster (if at all) at 6’6″. The emergency defending has left a lot to be desired this year. So what does it mean for the diamond as the opponent pushed forward to overload the box?
It distorts. It contracts.
What that truncated diamond looks like and leads to:
The Rapids were already headed in this direction given none of the starters is a pure No. 10. Mezquida’s the closest one but has still had some exchange with Acosta. Acosta’s a No. 10-ish No. 8. Mezquida’s a No. 8-ish No. 10. Similarly, Price and Feilhaber share most of the defensive responsibilities. The diamond truncates to allow for the switching of roles.
Yeah, it’s weird. But it suits the players for now given they’re learning and making adjustments on the fly. It also frees up Mezquida to get a bit more forward while Diego Rubio could easily drop behind Kei Kamara into the space vacated by Mezquida.
“It allowed Kellyn and Nico to be a bit more advances, have more freedom. It just let him be free. If we had to cover, we were going to cover. That’s our job [as the holding midfielders],” Price told Last Word on Soccer after the home opener.
This checks out with the heat maps of the four starting midfielders from the game on Sunday. As you can see below, Mezquida’s forward and slightly to the right. Price is clearly on the right side of the midfield most of the time. Feilhaber is central and further back. At times, he drops between the center backs to help with playing out of the back.
Acosta is kind of all over the place. That’s another topic for another article. Regardless, the center of his actions place him across the field and slightly ahead of Price.
So that’s what it looks like when the Rapids are pressing or moving the ball in possession to score goals. There is another permutation to this though.
Flattening out to park the bus:
Against both Sporting and Seattle, there were times the Rapids were under heavy pressure. The first 15 minutes at Century Link Field were a disaster. Sporting had their moments as well, though the Rapids seemed to have learned from the mistakes of the previous game.
At times, the starting shape morphed eventually into a flat 4-4-2. First Price dropped back to help support Feilhaber. At times, Feilhaber would move to the left and occasionally split the center backs to help block passing lanes.
A 4-2-2-2 would retreat further into a flat 4-4-2. Seattle and Kansas City are excellent at getting forward as a group then overloading the box, especially after a wide player gets into a good position. The diamond doesn’t provide a lot of wide support, often leaving fullbacks on an island.
Sjoberg was appreciative of the support on Sunday from the outside the Rapids locker room:
“It was a little bit of a change going into this week. I think it helped when they overloaded. That helps if we have two No. 6s and two No. 8s, they can come over and help the fullbacks. We just get more bodies that way. The other No. 6 pivots and comes into the middle and provides a little more protection. I like it on the defensive side of the ball. You give up a little bit on the offensive side of the ball.”
Acosta and Mezquida would drop back to support the outside backs just as Price and Feilhaber do so to support the center backs. This adjustment stabilized things defensively against SKC. It prevented the total breakdowns that happened in Seattle. It also made for a less exciting game that ultimately ended in a draw.
It’s a bit harder to visualize this transition with heat maps. In these situations, the Rapids don’t press as much, so there’s fewer actions that show up on these graphics. What we can do is look at some highlights and see what the shape looks like with the opponent entering the final third with numbers.
That’s a pretty flat midfield line that Seattle picks apart to open the scoring. Hudson also admitted as much on Sunday:
“If you were to study the game, at no point really are we a 4-4-2 [diamond]. At moments we’re a flat 4-4-2, at moments we play with two No. 6s. The formation is really irrelevant. What matters is how we want to play.”
The Rapids didn’t want to give up anything easy up the middle against Sporting. Their shape and tactics were a reflection of that.
More changes and nuances to come:
Sporting KC had to be exhausted coming into this game. Between domestic play and CONCACAF Champions League, Sunday was their seventh game in 24 days. The Rapids were coming off a week of rest. This game was winnable. A playoff team would have won this game.
The coaches and players can say they were happy with the performance and a point, but more chances need to be created as a result of execution of a well-planned system. In that, the midfield needs to become the engine of this team at both ends of the pitch. It can’t deform so much defensively.
Feilhaber needs to get fully fit. Acosta and/or Mezquida need to improve on creating chances from the middle of the field. The defense needs to get healthy so Hudson can play with one holding midfielder. The ideas need to be tested, refined, and executed.
At the micro-scale, each of the midfielders needs a clearer understanding of their role and needs to execute it better. For a team expecting to make the MLS Cup playoffs, this is the minimum requirement.