With Brian Crookham
This Week's Edition: "All I Want for the Holidays"
All I want for the holidays this season? It's an attacking midfielder. Oh yeah and a right back.
Although I was not really asked I would like to put forward those items for the official Colorado Rapids Christmas List. Follow me here as I walk you through the obvious and not so obvious reasons for my suggestions. As a colleague says it is just like pulling a hair out of your nose and having your eyes water. It is all connected somehow.
First let’s take a look at the real measuring stick for this team the Rapids' Western Conference Championship match vs. LA. The Rapids were never a real threat to the eventual MLS Champions that night. The Rapids' two forwards Jeff Cunningham and Pedro Peguero who are similar in style attacked a back four that can stay intact therefore giving said forwards no space to run.
How do you become more effective while using the same front players? The answer: cause the other team's back line problems with either an attacking midfielder that can break them down on the dribble effective wide play that will pull them apart or both.
In that game effective wide play would also have forced the opponents' flank players to put in an honest day's work defensively and start in poor positions when they received the ball. Having said that the game-winning assist started with Cobi Jones receiving a ball at midfield with his back to the goal. But that is for another column.
The attacking midfield position showed so much promise with Alain Nkong as the season evolved. Early versions of the 2005 Rapids featured combinations of Kyle Beckerman Pablo Mastroeni Leo Cullen and Guy Melamed often forcing holding players to take on more creative roles that did not suit them.
Then came Nkong. He was dangerous on the dribble and gave them the ability to combine through the middle and front lines of players. He was brave in the box and found the end of crosses. The mobility and creativity that came with Nkong forced teams into more individual defending situations and gave the Rapids another method of breaking down normally-organized defenses. Nkong also allowed Beckerman to settle into a true holding role where he was able to play within his abilities. Kyle took full advantage of that situation and had a very good season.
Unfortunately however Nkong also brought with him another all-too-common quality of creative players. His volatile actions meant he unnecessarily missed several games due to suspension. Like it or not his reputation earned him an ejection and suspension from the Western Conference Final. His absence against L.A. magnified the importance of someone stepping into this role.
Nkong’s release means the Rapids now have to fill that hole on a permanent basis. Jovan Kirovski can be an effective attacking midfielder but not with the types of forwards he played with on that night vs. LA. He can be an effective front player but not without players that can play him out of midfield. The Rapids' starting front line were all of quality in that fateful match but were not able to complement each other’s abilities.
When the Rapids kicked it into high gear in July they were dangerous from wide positions. Terry Cooke is a very good passer and crosser of the ball. The Rapids' opponents had problems shutting Cooke down especially when playing with a back three. If they attacked down the left side Cooke became an early option in transition and hit some pinpoint balls into the box.
This was not always the case when opponents came out of the right side. Teams that played with 5 in midfield or 3 up top often forced Cooke to tuck into central positions defensively. It was then difficult to quickly get him wide and into the attack in these situations.
Enter the right back either to create width themselves or for possession until Cooke could get wide. The combinations of players on the left side were effective at going forward most of the time but the right side became very limited.
Although there are several potential right backs on the roster Fernando Clavijo chose to go with Leo Cullen throughout the playoffs for his composure on the defensive side not for his offensive contributions. This is not a long term solution so the question becomes whether or not Hunter Freeman Ricky Lewis or others can quickly develop into a steady option. Freeman has shown promise as someone who can jump into the attack but he has not proven to be a consistent performer on the defensive end to this point. The team needs to add depth in this position as a priority.
On the surface the upcoming MLS SuperDraft appears to be a non-event for the Rapids. They do not pick until late in the second round making it unlikely that any immediate help will be available. That said the team will not be sitting on their hands. MLS General Managers overall have to be creative to stay within league rules as they move players. The Rapids organization will have to make some bold moves over the next couple of months if they want to compete with the LA’s of the world at playoff time which is when it counts. You can bet the wheels are turning down at Rapids HQ down at the Pepsi Center right now in the off-season.
So here's hoping that Santa Claus or even a Don Garber announcement at the draft will fill the stockings of Rapids fans with joy this Holiday Season!"
Brian Crookham's "Stoppage Time" column runs exclusively on ColoradoRapids.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and not necessarily those of the Colorado Rapids or ColoradoRapids.com. Send any questions or comments to Brian at StoppageTime@att.net