371 days. That’s how long it’s been since the Rapids last suffered defeat in the MLS regular season at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park on April 24th, 2021 in the home opener to Austin FC. Since then, the Rapids have rattled off 20 consecutive matches in Commerce City without suffering a loss in the MLS regular season.
The only recent defeat at home? A cagey MLS Cup playoff match between the Rapids and Timbers on Thanksgiving Day 2021 where Portland found a late goal that defined heartbreak.
For the first time since that game, the Rapids and Timbers are going up against each other. Conventional wisdom about a match like this –- when Team A gets another shot at Team B after Team B previously beat Team A –– crafts a simple narrative: revenge. But it’s almost too simple, isn’t it?
Should the Rapids win Saturday, it won’t be a flag planted on new soil, and it won’t show the panoramic view of a new mountain climbed. After all, under Robin Fraser, the Rapids are 2-0-2 in the regular season against Portland. A victory won’t erase the playoff defeat.
The Timbers enter the match with one more match played and two more points accumulated. They sit just above the Rapids in the Western Conference, at ninth. Gio Savarese is still the manager but there have been some changes from Thanksgiving to today.
The biggest change was the off-season departure of Diego Valeri. The heartbeat of the Timbers from 2013-2021, he was the 2017 MLS MVP, played in three MLS Cups, winning one. Three-time MLS Best XI and four-time MLS All-Star. His production, influence and character can’t be replicated.
Despite his absence, the Timbers do still have Diego Chara, the all-time MLS career leader in fouls committed, his brother Yimmi Chara and Sebastian Blanco. The side that hosted the 2021 MLS Cup Final still has talent, experience and chemistry. Some of what makes the Timbers great can be bought at your local MLS transfer market, but most of it can only be built organically.
The Rapids have a stiff test coming to town Saturday, but three points are there for the taking. Here’s how they can snag them.
Get Gyasi Going
The newest Rapid made his debut this past weekend after being acquired from the Columbus Crew the day prior. A second half substitute, he was unable to unlock the Charlotte backline, but that’s all right. Integrating into a new team takes time. The second-half minutes he got Saturday are part of that. Now he’ll have a full week of training with his new teammates under his belt. It’s my opinion that Zardes can work in tandem with forward Diego Rubio, and the two of them will complement each other’s skillsets to become one of the more dynamic attacking duos in MLS. Should Zardes start or come off the bench once more, the Rapids can utilize his finishing skills, air superiority and clever runs if they get him good service, something that hasn’t been an issue for the Rapids. Get him the ball, and let him do his thing.
For the Charlotte match, the Rapids turned to a new backline after giving up six goals in the previous two matches. Center back Gustavo Vallecilla anchored a backline that kept the clean sheet in his first start for the Rapids. On the outside, Steven Beitashour started in place of Lucas Esteves. With an upcoming stretch of games that features back-to-back double game weeks, Robin Fraser and his staff are taking the prudent approach of getting everybody some minutes so the load of so many games in such a short window can be spread across as many bodies as possible. After the clean sheet, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fraser goes back to the same backline to let them gel even more. Regardless of what options he goes with, the Rapids manager is finding himself with a lot of proven defensive players.
Per fbref.com, the Rapids are averaging 49.3% of the ball, and the Timbers are averaging 49.9%. I’d expect a similar split in this match with a slight edge to the Rapids as the home team. But both sides are currently below the playoff line, and will be gunning for all three points. With that in mind, the game will come down to who can do more with the ball when it’s at their feet. It’s nice to have the ball, but not all possession is created equal. If the Timbers are stuck passing along their backline a few minutes at a time before attempting long balls over the top, the Rapids defense will be in good shape. If the Rapids are pulling apart the Timbers’ defense with quick passes, diagonal switches and working from the outside in, they’ll be in good shape. As always, set pieces are the great equalizer, or difference maker, in matches like this.