Often times at the highest levels of the game, the perception about the style of soccer a team plays can be as important as the results themselves. The hope is that coaches and players embody a philosophy that drives a team forward in wins and losses. Fans want to connect with a playing style and an identity that sticks with their club (or country) across seasons.
Of course, this doesn't happen overnight. The famous Tiki-taka style in Spain and the machine-like direct play of the Germans were cultivated over generations. For better or worse, Dutch soccer is intrinsically linked with Total Football, the Brazilians tied to Joga Bonito.
It's been no secret then that one of the major tasks for the Colorado Rapids was to begin the process of developing this identity. Enter head coach Anthony Hudson who was tasked with executing a style and vision laid out in the Rapids Way. Certainly, there were ups and downs as far as results during the 2018 campaign, but the midseason shift to the 4-4-2 diamond (more on that in a minute) and evolution to one of the best passing teams in MLS was as important as any development in the coach's first year.
Hudson was clear from his first day on the job - he wanted his teams to play a pressing and attack-minded brand of football that utilized the altitude advantage at DICK'S Sporting Goods Park. But with so many new faces (14 players, three coaches in total) and an acclimatization period to a new league it meant there were always going to periods of trial and error.
So it came on July 21 during a rain delay in Sandy, Utah. The Rapids trailed rival Real Salt Lake 2-0 early in the contest and Hudson and his staff decided to change the Rapids 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-2. The result? A thoroughly dominant performance for the rest of the game that resulted in an epic 2-2 comeback on the road against an eventual playoff team. It was clear after the game - the Rapids had something to build on. Not only did the new formation and style fit with Hudson and the Rapids' vision, it also catered to the abilities of the two most technically gifted field players in the side - USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta and Shropshire Pirlo himself, Jack Price.
Plenty was written about the resurgence of Acosta after he joined the Rapids in July, but not enough was made of the immense impact Price had over the course of his first MLS season. The Shrewsbury, England native signed with the Rapids from Wolverhampton Wanderers FC in January and proceeded to put forth one of the best statistical passing seasons in franchise history en route to winning the club's 2018 MVP Award. Price was instrumental all season long but after the midseason switch his role in the possession-heavy formation meant he was far more engaged in the game. This allowed the midfielder's best skills - quick clean touches, long and short-pass accuracy and vision - to make a greater impact on every match.
“Everyone comments on my vision and passing, but I don’t think too much about it,” Price said in October. “When I was growing up in the Wolves’ Academy it was all about retaining the ball and having good possession, so it just comes natural to me. Playing in that six-role (for the Rapids) really brought out the best in me. In that position I got to see the ball as much as possible, which is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to play in a game for 90 minutes and only touch the ball 12 times. I wanted to be on it as much as I could."
In 31 MLS appearances, the 25-year-old midfielder made an average of 64.23 passes per game during the regular season. Historically, the only Rapids player to come close to that average was Jeff Larentowicz in 2012, with 60.71.
Typically, defenders dominate the pass completion percentage board, but Price changed the narrative by putting up massive numbers against high-pressing teams such as the Portland Timbers and the New York Red Bulls. He even recorded three 100+ pass performances in games against the San Jose Earthquakes (108), LAFC (107) and the LA Galaxy (112). Michael Bradley was the only other player accomplish this three or more times in 2018.
Price made a total of 1,708 passes with a completion percentage of 85.79%, creating 42 chances and adding one goal and four assists. After the formation switch, Price's average passes per game jumped from 64 to 77 and the Rapids began to increase their possession dominance as the season continued.
“I think we’re going to stay in this direction of being a possession-based team. The more ball you have the more chances you’re going to create and the more dominant in the game you’ll be. We want to be dominant in every game we play.”
Price admitted that possession is only half of the battle, and that the team still has work to do in capitalizing when they have the ball in their control for long spells.
“At times this season people probably said, ‘They’ve had more possession but haven’t really created anything.’ So, we know we need to work on that. We need to not have the ball for the ball’s sake, and start challenging so we can score more goals.”
Price is keen on the Rapids creating more quality chances that will eventually lead to more goals next year. And as fans turn their eyes to the beginning of the 2019 season, it's a safe bet that players with a similar skillset to Price will be added to compliment the foundation that's already in place.
“It’s been a disappointing year. We expected that with the players we’ve got to be challenging a bit higher up, so we’ve let ourselves down, as well as the fans and the staff. Every player and staff member understands that. We’re all looking forward to a nice offseason, so we can come back fresh for next year. The club knows what we need to do in certain areas of the squad, so I think next year is going to be a really good season for us."