Throughout preseason, we'll be breaking down the 2020 roster position by position. In this installment, we're previewing the midfield.
The midfield is the backbone of any professional soccer team. The group is responsible for supporting the defense, transitioning from defense to attack and giving the forwards what they need to find the back of the net.
The Rapids are in a great place when it comes to personnel at the position. The squad boasts a strong core group of midfielders, four of whom were on the team last season, plus a new Designated Player, someone who has the potential to be an explosive playmaker, Younes Namli.
“When you look at our midfielders, they all have slightly different characteristics, but the key thing about all of them is that they’re unselfish, and they’re willing to do the work that needs to be done," head coach Robin Fraser said. "It’s not just about what’s going to get them recognition or glory, it’s about what needs to be done for the team, and I think that’ll be a big part of our success.”
The team has spent a large portion of preseason working on establishing the basis for a successful attack and developing team chemistry, and the midfield is the backbone to this being executed effectively. That transition game starts with Jack Price.
Price has spent the last two seasons with the club, becoming a vital leader on and off the field. The key to Price's success as a leader and a midfielder, in Fraser's eyes, is his consistency.
"He’s not an overly outspoken person, but the thing about Jack is that he’s always on," Fraser explained. "He’s always switched on. That’s one of the things that makes him a great player and a reliable leader is that he’s really dependable."
In 2020, Fraser is looking for Price to take the next step. As a defensive midfielder, he's crucial to the first step of the Rapids attack. His mindset will need to be simultaneously on his offensive implications while he supports the defense.
“I think the next step for him, based on the way we play and the way we want to play, is to get himself into certain positions to make the next play happen. Jack, more times than not, is going to be the guy that delivers the pass before the final pass.... What we’ll see is that a lot of attacks are sparked off his movement, and his ability to either open us spaces for others or to get the ball and get attacks going for us.”
Alongside Price last season and another crucial piece to the team's transition is Kellyn Acosta.
Acosta, 24, is, at this point, an MLS veteran. He enters his ninth season, third with the Rapids, and has featured in over 150 matches over the course of his time. What Acosta brings to the table is versatility and consistency. Fraser practically runs out of breath listing the magnitude of his skill set.
“Kellyn is a player that can hit any pass. He’s powerful. He can run by guys. He’s an engine, he can do a lot of work. He’s a physically strong player, good tackler. He’s the type of player that if he gets caught in attacking spots, he can deliver the type of passes that need to be delivered. And he can hit any shot with both feet. So anywhere around the goal, he’s dangerous."
A key partnership this year will be that between Namli and Acosta. Acosta's ability to provide support will be vital for Namli, who is the pure number creative attacking midfielder the team has been in search of.
Namli offers up a unique talent and lethal left foot that will be a welcome addition to the Rapids midfield. His confidence and creativity on the ball is something all Rapids fans should be excited for going into this season.
“He’s an interesting player because he’s a good dribbler, and when I say he’s a good dribbler I mean he can run by guys and beat guys, or he can unbalance defenders to give himself room to make passes," Fraser said. "He’s the type of person that’s going to eliminate his player, which is going to force other players to come to him which is going to open other things up. He’s definitely a different type of midfielder for us, and one that I think is really going to help us in the attack.”
A partnership to watch as the season progresses will likely be that of Namli and Acosta, specifically how they occupy space together, and their chemistry in transition.
"For them to know where the other one is, is important. And then, defensively, they have slightly different roles as well, most of the time. Though it’s pretty fluid. But in terms of the attacking end, it’s being able to balance each other off to make sure the appropriate spots are being taken up.”
Namli looks to be the type of player that other teams will need to focus game plans around. Namli's arrival should help the players around him raise their level, in training and on matchday. This may be most true about Cole Bassett.
Bassett continues to be on the up and up. He signed a Homegrown contract in 2018 and has since appeared in 26 games with the team over the last two seasons. Most recently, the 18-year-old received a call-up to the U.S. U20 national team and netted two goals in a 2-0 win over Mexico.
Bassett is a great young spark for the Rapids midfield and continues to develop every week. He’s shown off his stellar work ethic and confidence thus far through preseason as well as a knack for his potential on set pieces. He dropped in a well-placed corner that allowed Diego Rubio to find the back of the net on a header in the team's sole goal against the Galaxy on February 19.
When watching Bassett, it's evident that his mind is always working and that there's no shortage of energy. Whether it's in warmups or matches, Bassett is always eyeing openings and on the move.
"What he’s starting to do is play really fast, for one thing," Fraser said. "He’s not the biggest of kids yet, so it’s not great for him to be caught on the ball in physical traffic, so what he’s done is really improve his awareness so he knows what’s around him. He doesn’t dawdle on the ball, if he gets, he gets it off his feet. What he does really well is he’s very aware of what’s going on around him. So as soon as spaces open up, he’s willing to run through them. And that’ll cause problems for other teams."
Fraser will look for Bassett's ongoing maturity to come in the form of decision making.
"His maturity shows up with his decision making becoming better and more consistent. That’s the difference between a young talented midfielder, and a more experienced midfielder. You get the decisions right more than you get them wrong. For him, he’s in that process, and it’s definitely happening more.”
The final member of the Rapids midfield is Nicolás Mezquida, who, in contrast, comes in as a MLS veteran, still at only 28-years-old.
Mezquida is a reliable and versatile workhorse for the Rapids. While his ability to fill different roles in the center of the pitch is clutch, Fraser is quick to ensure that's far from his most important feature for the team.
"He’s a very unselfish player, in that he’s willing to do work for other people, he’s going to fill spaces that are available, all of that makes him a really important team asset. On top of that, he’s got great pace, he’s very good at closing people down defensively," Fraser said. "He does everything at a really high tempo, which makes him a threat on the attacking end, and it also helps on the defensive side."
These are all the exact characteristics that Fraser is looking for in his midfield this season, and how he describes they will operate when they're firing on all cylinders.
“As we start to apply pressure and players start to step, and it becomes evident what balls are going to come out, there will be pressure being put on by the group ahead of them, and they’ll intercept and win a lot of balls in midfield positions. Offensively, they’ll make good decisions as to the right place to attack and the right tempo to attack... As I watch the group, they’re getting better at set up play, and incisive play, and recognizing the difference between the two, and how they go from one to the other.”