Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 11-19-4 (37 points); 44 GF / 50 GA (-6 GD)
There is zero question about it: Converting from a 4-4-2 or even a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3 takes time. And it's often a process as painful as it is long.
Year One of that process went into the books for the Colorado Rapids in 2012. And by the end of the season, it looked like there might not be a Year Two.
Yes, Oscar Pareja is coming back, and yes, there are a number of pieces in place to make the 4-3-3 seem feasible, at the very least, going forward. But the Rapids struggled so mightily throughout much of the season that, by the time autumn rolled around, Pareja had his team in the old “empty bucket” as often as not.
It doesn’t help that the Rapids were not a particularly good possession team, and that Jeff Larentowicz fell well short of expectations in his first year as a true solo d-mid. He’s always had Shalrie Joseph or Pablo Mastroeni with him in the past, so when Mastroeni went down early with a concussion, Larentowicz suddenly had a lot more ground to cover. His lack of wheels made that a bridge too far.
That’s been pretty well addressed now with the late-season addition of Hendry Thomas, who freed up Larentowicz for his half-gangster, half-playmaker role. With Thomas in the lineup, Colorado went 3-2-2 down the stretch – so yeah, there were bumps, but there were a bunch of wins to smooth them out.
While that part of the pitch is spoken for, and goalkeeper isn’t a concern with team MVP Matt Pickens still around, the rest of it is up in the air. Marvel Wynne and Drew Moor barely got to play together in central defense, and when they did, they were light years from the form they showed for the 2010 MLS Cup-winning squad. At this point, it’s not even clear if Wynne will be back, and it’s safe to say that the defense is “under construction.”
In the attack, it’s hazy. Martín Rivero drifted between a true enganche and the left wing, and was mostly productive and hard working. He’s not wildly dynamic or anything, and likely won’t ever score enough to play in the middle of a 4-2-3-1, but in a three-man midfield with Larentowicz and Thomas he makes a lot of sense.
WATCH: Cascio hits the post... of course
Then there’s rookie winger Tony Cascio, who probably led the league in “oh man, that was almost an amazing play!” moments (seriously, watch that video at right ... he had like a dozen of those). He would routinely torch one defender then shoot into the side-netting, or leave a pass just short, or put it on a platter only to see his teammate’s shot wind up in row Z.
The remarkable thing, though, is that it all came in the natural flow of the attack. He didn’t force anything, and has all the gifts (and smarts) to bet on a breakout second season. The left wing should be his regardless of what formation Pareja picks.
The right wing seems to call for a combination of Jaime Castrillón – who quietly led the team with eight goals and added four assists – and veteran Brian Mullan, who still runs himself into the ground every night out.
But every 4-3-3 (except Spain and Barcelona) needs a pure center forward to do the dirty work both on and off the ball, and that remains the attack’s biggest concern. Conor Casey’s gone, Omar Cummings was miscast in that role, and if there’s no big offseason acquisition on the way, it looks like he’ll have to play it again. Unless Andre Akpan can beat him out, which isn’t out of the question.
So there’s a lot of reason to predict more pain in Year Two of the Pareja era. This time, though, there should be a bit more progress to go with it.