FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If Colorado coach Oscar Pareja looks at the tape closely enough, he can find glimpses of the team he wants to see in every match.
Sometimes, those moments occur as fleetingly as one would suspect they would 10 games into a regime vastly different than its predecessor. At other times, the Rapids knock the ball around deftly, possess it without a care in the world and slice open opposing sides.
It is in those promising periods on the ball when Pareja can point out how his directives are taking hold.
“We're getting some sequences during the games that can show to everyone that the Rapids are more technical,” Pareja said after the Rapids went through their paces on Tuesday afternoon. “That's what we're aiming for. We would like those sequences to be more frequent. We would like more consistency in the games during the season, but the idea is there.”
Pareja's lofty concepts landed him the altogether uncomfortable job of replacing the departed Gary Smith in January. Smith masterminded the Rapids' unexpected MLS Cup triumph in 2010 with a pragmatic outlook that has served many MLS managers well, but he found himself persona non grata just a year later as a bitter feud and a philosophical divide with certain segments of the front office paved his way to English League One promotion chaser Stevenage this winter.
Smith's path to success – a traditionally rugged 4-4-2 formation with defiant defenders, overlapping fullbacks, pacy wingers looking for a cross and a speedy striker playing off a target man – won few admirers among neutrals despite the underlying skill practiced within it. Former Dallas midfielder Pareja earned his first crack at a MLS job in part due to his desire to implement a possession-oriented 4-3-3 setup that basically scrapped everything the Rapids previously practiced and set down new operating principles designed to inject more flair into their performances.
“They're two completely different coaches,” Rapids striker Omar Cummings said after Wednesday's 2-1 defeat at New England. “With players coming in and a new kind of system and formation that Oscar wanted us to play, we just started to grasp it as quickly as possible. At times, it's been great. At times, it's like, what are we doing? I think we have to dig deep into ourselves as players and as a team and find a way.”
The internal struggle between old and new appeared inevitable at the time of Pareja's appointment. The new era dawned with an influx of new players championed by Pareja and no small smattering of holdovers accustomed and suited to a more direct style of play. The two groups have meshed fitfully due in large part to the fact that the combined force still lacks some of the pieces required to implement Pareja's vision in its totality.
Cummings' extended and injury-prompted foray as the number nine in Pareja's 4-3-3 setup functions as the most illustrative of those continued concerns, but other issues also exist. Drew Moor's one-match assignment in central midfield highlighted the need for suitable reinforcements with Pablo Mastroeni (post-concussion symptoms) ruled out for the foreseeable future at best. Hunter Freeman and Kosuke Kimura swapped between the starting XI and the substitutes' bench this week as Pareja continues his search for a right back capable of equaling Luis Zapata's ample contributions on the left. Marvell Wynne's hamstring injury this week exposed the limited range of reserve options available in central defense.
Those personnel issues and the ongoing acclimation process manifested in the performances. Many of the technical demands Pareja made took hold in possession, but those new traits also caused some cracks in previously solid areas (defending set pieces) and led to chemistry concerns in the attacking third (241 minutes without a goal between April 7 and April 21, the sixth longest streak in the league this season). The paucity of production in front of goal prompted Pareja to shift to a 4-4-2 diamond setup during the second half of a 2-1 defeat against Los Angeles on April 21 and he has persisted with it for the past two matches against New England and FC Dallas (though two first-half red cards for FCD prompted a halftime shift to a more adventurous outlook in the 2-0 victory at FC Dallas Stadium).
“It is a transition,” Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “At first, it was a 4-3-3. Now it's a 4-4-2. Everyone's sort of finding their way, but I think it's coming together. We showed [against Chivas USA] that we know how to put the ball in the goal. Now it's just doing it and getting ahead of teams from the start.”
The reversion to a somewhat familiar formation has not cured the Rapids' inability to find their rhythm from the outset. For all of the energy they expend on the ball, the Rapids rank last in the league with two first half goals (and one of those strikes came in midweek). Even when the desired tempo finally arrives, it often slips away again without warning and returns all too belatedly. The problem stems as much from the continued assimilation to the new principles as it does from the usual consistency concerns that harangue any team with a bunch of fresh faces in the lineup.
“It's tough,” Moor said about his side's penchant for inconsistency within a match. “It's definitely better to find these things out nine games into the season than it would be find out in September or October, but it's concentration, it's leadership, it's just being aware that, sometimes, the pace of the game slows down and, sometimes, the pace of the game speeds up. Whatever it is, we need to put our fingers on it and we, as a group, need to recognize it. In this league these days, every team has good enough players where if you have a dip in form for 10 or 15 minutes, you're going to get punished for it, especially if you're not concentrated. It certainly needs to be better.”
Fortunately for the Rapids, the pieces are starting to fall into place even with Cummings (left ankle sprain suffered against FCD) and Wynne now hobbling. Casey played the final 45 minutes of Sunday night's 2-0 victory over FC Dallas as he works his way back to fitness after rupturing his Achilles last July. Former Real Betis forward Edu will provide further cover in that center forward spot once he receives the necessary paperwork. Colombian midfielder Harrison Henao could eventually slot into midfield alongside Larentowicz after joining on loan from Once Caldas and should provide actual depth in the department even if he does not.
Combine those additions to the previous arrivals of rookie forward Tony Cascio, box-to-box midfielder Jaime Castrillón and natural schemer Martín Rivero and an encouraging picture of the Rapids' future starts to emerge. A few critical links to the identity and the resolve of the past remain, but those figures have started to merge with the recent arrivals to create a revamped squad with loftier aesthetic ambitions than its precursor. The transformation isn't complete yet, but Pareja can see the continued progress with each passing game and project the results his team might garner in the future.
“We are all on the same page here,” Pareja said. “We're trying to be patient with the transition. Everybody understands that it takes time. At the same time, we have seen it in different games. For me, patience is a key, for sure.”
Five Points – Week 9
1. Historic streak hits Toronto FC where it hurts: D.C. United condemned the Reds to an unprecedented eighth straight defeat to start the campaign by notching a 2-0 result at BMO Field on Saturday afternoon. The same old problems – and the Breakdown discussed them in detail a couple of weeks ago – still present the fundamental issues here, but the inevitable fraying at the seams in this defeat (Torsten Frings chucking the arm band to the ground as he departed the scene due to injury and several players expressing their displeasure in the media after the match) sparks a new host of problems for Aron Winter to address over the coming weeks. If, that is, he remains in charge long enough to deal with them.
2. Kind breaks of fortune only matter if you take them: Seattle probably should played the final 60 minutes of Saturday's 1-0 win over Philadelphia down to 10 men after Andy Rose betrayed his nerves with a pair of ill-advised challenges inside the first half an hour. Ricardo Salazar surprisingly decided to give Rose a pass on his second offense and Sounders FC took full advantage of the situation. The visitors enjoyed a couple of decent spells (oddly enough, one of them came around the time of Rose's second challenge) without looking particularly threatening, but the home side found the only goal it would need in the second half through Mauro Rosales and ultimately provided good value for the three points.
(Note: Compare and contrast the treatment: Rose avoiding a second booking for his lunging challenge from behind on Freddy Adu in the 28th minute versus Daniel Hernandez procuring two yellow cards – including one for dissent – inside the first 35 minutes in FC Dallas' 2-0 home defeat to Colorado on Sunday night. Hernandez, by the bye, deservedly received his second booking for a late barge that paled in comparison to Rose's tackle on Adu.)
3. Hassli reinforces his potential worth to the Whitecaps: The active and dynamic display offered by Vancouver in its 2-1 victory over Western Conference leader San Jose buttressed suggestions that the new world order at B.C. Place might not include a regular spot for the more stationary Eric Hassli. Camilo's work as the lone frontrunner – supported ably by the quickly developing Omar Salgado on the left and the tireless Sébastien Le Toux on the right – creates a template that simply doesn't fit Hassli's more robust qualities. The French striker's seemingly interminable drought in front of goal merely compounded the significance of the potential issues ahead of him.
The last problem appears to have resolved itself as Hassli has now scored twice in the span of four days, though the final verdict still remains uncertain. The first goal (the opener in Wednesday's straightforward 2-0 first leg victory at FC Edmonton in the Amway Canadian Championship) ended an 18-game drought stretching back to last year, but the second tally (a late finish to snatch all three points against the Earthquakes) could prove even more useful for his side in the long term. Hassli may or may not merit a place in the side over the long haul, but his recent output eases the nerves a bit as the Whitecaps continue their push toward the top of the Western Conference.
4. Resolute Red Bulls procure deserved victory at the Home Depot Center: New York coach Hans Backe concocted the perfect game plan for his side's 1-0 victory at Los Angeles: an energetic and tight 4-1-4-1 shape designed to blunt the Galaxy's strengths and shield the makeshift back four. Credit the players on the field for ensuring those tactical flourishes paid off with the points. Every player in blue submitted the type of gritty performance required to secure points on the day. Joel Lindpere's goal separated the teams on the scoreboard, but the disparate levels of application and discipline ultimately supplied the difference between the sides.
5. Bye week catches out Sporting Kansas City: Montréal entered LIVESTRONG Sporting Park with the right approach (apply pressure and limit the influence in the wide areas) and started its travels home with an unexpected 2-0 victory. The previously impressive home side lacked the cutting thrust it had displayed before taking a weekend off from MLS play and struggled to devise alternative routes to goal when it found its usual paths obstructed. On the whole, this match provided a textbook example of the type of game and the type of performance every front-running MLS team suffers through at some stage during the lengthy journey toward the playoffs.
“Coming off the games before the break, the guys had a very good week of training, the guys were good,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes told reporters after the match. “I just think they probably forgot how to enter the field and come with the same passion you need to win is this game. Every team in this league has to compete to win.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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