Every MLS season is a grind, with 34 games played from spring to fall where each team will travel thousands of miles and could plausibly play in snow, rain, wind and heat. With a long season like this, each match presents a new challenge. The Rapids have a new test of their own this weekend when Houston Dynamo FC comes to town for a Western Conference showdown. Based on the things we’ve seen from the Rapids after a month of play, these are my keys to Saturday’s game against Houston:
The Rapids began the season with a draw and a loss, and one goal over 180 minutes. In the next two matches, the Rapids scored four goals and won both games. Per Opta, the Rapids are tied for fifth in MLS with 23 chances created. When it comes to passes, dribbles or earned fouls that lead to a shot, the Rapids are averaging 23.5 per match and winger Michael Barrios leads the team with 15 total. On top of that, the squad is third in MLS in live passes that lead to a shot, with 71.
From this, we know two things are true: goals change games, and the Rapids are doing all the right things that create goals. All that’s missing on a consistent level is the hardest moment in soccer: finishing the chance. The optimist in me says Saturday night’s match, when the team rallied from behind and tallied three second-half goals, is when the Rapids shook off the offseason rust, found their game speed groove and will now go on a run of pummeling nylon and adding points. The proverbial dam is broken, and the squad that’s finished top-five in goals scored since 2019 will pick up where they left off.
Set Piece Excellence
Since 2019, Rapids captain Jack Price is the best in MLS at generating goals off set pieces. He leads the league with 16 assists in that category, and, already in 2021, 80 percent of the Rapids goals have come off set pieces. Back in 2019, when Price and the Rapids were breaking set piece records, there was chatter that it was unsustainable and quality would drop when teams figured out how to mark and defend what the Rapids were doing. Well, here we are another year later, and here are the Rapids having success and winning games off set pieces.
While 80 percent of a team’s goals coming from restarts is probably a smidge too high to be replicable for an entire season, it’s indicative of the fact that the Rapids have the talent to continue scoring goals this way and, perhaps more importantly, the rest of the league is still scrambling for a defensive answer. It’s clear that set pieces will continue to be a well the Rapids will draw from when it comes to scoring. And given the myriad ways the Rapids have already scored off set pieces this year – Diego Rubio going direct to goal, Kellyn Acosta firing a volley off a failed clearance and Danny Wilson and Andre Shinyashiki scoring headers of Price deliveries - I would expect them to continue having this success.
Welcome the New Guys
The Houston Dynamo missed the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs in manager Tab Ramos’ first season in charge. Regardless, they made big moves in the offseason. Playmakers and goal scorers Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Tomas Martinez are all gone. Brought in to replace them are Fafa Picault, Maxi Urruti, Joe Corona and Tyler Pasher. On the defensive side of things, the Dynamo added one of the best American defenders in MLS in Tim Parker.
The key here will be to identify early on in the match what the Dynamo are trying to do. What are the runs Urruti and Picault are making, what passes is Corona picking out and where’s the weakness in the back line with Parker as the defensive leader. Unlike the Rapids, who chose continuity and chemistry after making the postseason, the Dynamo chose to shake things up. Figuring out the roles and responsibilities of the new guys will be the quickest way to figuring out to defend them and also break them down.