Well that’s not how it was supposed to be …
As Colorado’s other leading football team was handed a heavy loss in their meeting with the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl, so the Rapids were a distant second best behind the Seattle Sounders in game seven of MLS's regular season.
A defense that has appeared so at ease and organized looked anything but on Saturday, as the Sounders’ stars sparkled, twinkled and shone brightly on what was a gloomy afternoon for the Rapids.
Sprightly and supportive, the Sounders served up a lesson in speed of feet, speed of thought and speed of movement. More often than not, they ventured over halfway with real purpose, exploding with forward momentum, moving the ball quickly. The man in possession had options, and options which took the ball further forward and into more dangerous areas.
By contrast, the Rapids' build-up was slow and precise. Unfortunately, this only allowed the opposition to get bodies behind the ball and make it all the more difficult for the visitors to find a way through. As a consequence, the Rapids got so far, and were then forced to turn back and seek an opening elsewhere. They lacked the rapid-fire passes required to stretch the play to truly test what was, admittedly, an impressive Sounders side.
The understanding between Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins has clearly kicked on from last season. Add Lamar Neagle to that triumvirate of talent, and any wonder that the Rapids defense were given their sternest test of 2014. Dempsey’s trickery for the Sounders’ second goal will be played over and over in the coming days. It was a touch of class. The defense-splitting pass from Martins for the first was weighted to perfection. No doubt this pairing is among the strongest in MLS at the moment, and they combined well to torment the Rapids back line.
Only some fine work from goalkeeper Clint Irwin kept the score tied, before Neagle broke the deadlock in stoppage time at the end of the first half. Within seven minutes of the restart, Dempsey had bagged his brace and the match was over as a contest. As with the 3-2 home loss to Sporting Kansas City, it was the ‘hot-spots’ in the game where the Rapids were exposed, on this occasion the moments either side of the interval, where concentration levels can be tested.
But, for all the plaudits that the defensive work has received in recent weeks – and rightly so – it’s the struggle in the attacking third which cannot be ignored. Seattle has played one game more than the Rapids, and yet they’ve scored twice as many goals (18-9).
I’m pretty sure I mentioned something along these lines last season when scoring was a struggle: if you don’t concede, you’ll not lose games – that’s true. But if you don’t score goals and don’t offer a consistent threat going forward, not only does that place a greater pressure on your defense to stand strong, but it also hands the offensive initiative to the opposition. The Sounders showed they needed little encouragement in that department.
As touched upon already. when they broke forward, the Sounders did so at pace, in numbers and with movement off the ball. The man in possession knew the runs being made and was therefore able to maintain the tempo of the attack. There was fluidity with their moves, not something which one could confidently label the Rapids forays into Sounders territory.
The link-up play from the Sounders inside the Rapids’ final third was the difference. There was an understanding and togetherness. The players were close enough to recognize subtly in play, whether that be a turn, or sudden acceleration, a drop of the shoulder or a flash of the eyes, all of which could be picked up and interpreted by the man calculating his next move.
Dillon Serna’s goal, after 62 minutes (the Rapids earliest goal so far this season came in the 60th minute, in the loss to Sporting KC), was the only real bright moment to emerge from what was an otherwise forgettable performance.
It was also interesting to note the line of questioning from Seattle reporters addressing Sounders’ head coach Sigi Schmid on the eve of the game. The focus appeared to be on Colorado’s defensive strength, and their ability to contain teams. Schmid seemed to be well-versed on the Rapids, and their approach will not have caught him off guard. On Saturday, though, the Rapids could neither contain the Sounders at one end, nor could they surprise them at the other.
Early days, and an early wake-up call. As I'm often reminded, the chase for the playoffs springs to life in late summer. Plenty of time to make amends.