Match previews

Preview: Union vs Colorado Rapids

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Colorado Rapids
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 7 pm, Saturday, July 12
Watch: 6abc, MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live, DirecTV
Whistle: Sorin Stoica; Linesmen: CJ Morgante, Matthew Nelson; Fourth Official: Younes Marrakchi

The Colorado Rapids are a somewhat surprising contender in the Western Conference. With all the tactical praise heaped on Real Salt Lake, all the love for Caleb Porter in Portland, and all the spotlights on LA and Seattle, the Rapids can easily get lost in the shuffle. But Colorado is built for a playoff run.

Clint Irwin: So hot right now

The Rapids are built to survive the regular season and frustrate their opponents in the postseason. Their offense is average (and probably looks better right now than it really is) but their defense is smart and organized. And their goalie has been on a tear.

Clint Irwin’s solid play includes improved aerial play and better control of his box, but the most noticeable improvement from last season is organizational. The Rapids defense is more structured and works better with the midfield in part because Irwin has been much more vocal about pushing his team out of the back. Colorado defenders play compact near the top of the box, inviting the more impatient strikers to pop shots from distance at an unworried Irwin.

The truth is that Irwin’s good play is a microcosm of the Rapids’ season. While the team continues to grind out results in a tough Western Conference, a lot of their peripheral statistics and context clues suggest this is a team playing above its pay grade so far in 2014. To earn three points on Saturday, the Union need to do one (not so) simple thing: Protect the central third of the field.

Open play

Colorado struggles mightily to create opportunities through open play. Though they take just about the league average number of shots (13.2) and shots on goal (4.6) per match, the Rapids have scored only 10 times from open play in 17 matches. To put that in perspective, it’s two less than the Union — hardly the paragon of offensive creativity — have scored from open play. The big issue for Colorado has not so much been creating opportunities, it has been creating them in good locations.

Colorado takes the lowest percentage of shots (55%) from the middle third of the pitch in MLS. They also take the second highest percentage of shots (47%) from outside the box. Put those numbers together and you have a team that has indulged in some low percentage shooting this season.

Set pieces and scoring first

How do you end up third in the challenging Western Conference when you can’t create goals? You manufacture. The Rapids have 7 set pieces goals in 2014, good for third most in the league. And when they get ahead, the Rapids are loathe to drop points.

A 6-1-0 record after scoring the first goal speaks to the tight style played by Pablo Mastroeni’s charges. Conversely, when they give up the first goal, the Rapids have only garnered 4 points from six games. The essential point to know going into a match with Colorado is that they are going to play the same way all the time. Which begs the obvious question: How do you break them down?

Columbus calling

The Union only have to look back seven days to find a team that repeatedly broke down the Rapids’ normally reliable defense. The Crew not only took 19 shots against Colorado, they took 9 of them from the central area of the eighteen yard box. That’s a lot of shots from good positions. For perspective, even Lionard Pajoy could grab a few goals with that many prime looks at goal.

The catch here, and it’s not a huge one, is that Columbus got few of those shots without pressure on the shooter. Whether it was Tony Tchani rising for a header or Ethan Finlay cutting through the box, the Crew got into good positions but still had to take shots with a Rapid on their hip.

Still: How did they get into those spots?

Ben Speas acted as decoy vs Colorado, pulling Jared Watts deep and creating space for Wil Trapp.

Ben Speas acted as decoy vs Colorado, pulling Jared Watts deep and creating space for Wil Trapp.

Tag team attack

Young Columbus attackers Ethan Finlay and Ben Speas were at the heart of everything the Crew did well against Colorado. Unlike the man he was replacing, Federico Higuain, Speas did not dominate the ball. Instead, he was essentially a decoy.

Speas was positionally brilliant, sitting far enough from the back line that Drew Moor and Shane O’Neill were unwilling to come out to close him down. Holding midfielder Jared Watts was forced to sit deep to close off lanes to Speas, leaving Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp more space to operate. Trapp took advantage, moving the ball quickly into wide zones where the narrow Colorado midfield had to stretch its shape. And that’s where Finlay came in.

Finlay played an exact, 100% replica of the game every Union fan wants to see Andrew Wenger play. From his central striker role alongside Jairo Arrieta, Finlay ducked out to the wings and overloaded Chris Klute on the right. These overloads not only allowed Columbus to hold possession in the final third, they twisted the Colorado defense even further from its preferred narrow shape. All of this created the time for even conservative midfielders like Tony Tchani to get into the box. The former top New York draft pick had four shots on the day after averaging less than one per game on the season.

Ethan Finlay overloaded the right side, disrupting Colorado's narrow midfield.

Ethan Finlay overloaded the right side, disrupting Colorado’s narrow midfield.

Take advantage of turnovers

Beyond asking their strikers to be active, the Union need to do to Colorado what other teams have been doing to Philly all season. Namely, punish turnovers in midfield. Columbus’ breakthrough came off a terrible Dillon Powers error and Dallas snagged two of their three goals off turnovers when they handed the Rapids their last defeat in early June.

During the Union’s recent run of improved play, they have found success by playing a flat-out, find-a-way-to-break-us-down counterattacking style. It fits the roster well, and it has simplified the game for the midfielders, which has in turn papered over the team’s defensive frailty. But Colorado offers a new challenge as a team that, unlike New England or Dallas, is content to sit on the ball and grind out a road point. The question confronting the Union, then, is whether they are also content to settle for a point, or if they feel the need to push forward to grab all three at home.

Oh, Eastern Conference

Take a look at the Eastern Conference standings. Now go find ten other guys, call yourselves a franchise and go get a playoff spot.

That may be overstating how mediocre the east is this season, but not by much. Only two teams in the east would be in the playoff picture in the Western Conference. And the Union, tied for the most goals scored in the east, would have the fifth most in the west. Essentially, the teams that don’t lose at home are on top, with the exception of Toronto who plays with the inconsistency of a bad team but has the stars to make up for mistakes.

So Philadelphia should look at this matchup with Colorado as a chance to dust off the old cliche and turn PPL Park into a fortress. That means solid defense first, and prioritizing a point against a Western Conference opponent over taking the kinds of chances that can lead to a sucker punch.

Expected lineup

Expected lineup

As PSP documented in the analysis of the Dallas match, the Union still have a tendency to chase defensively, leading to gaps that a team with, let’s say, a big, galloping striker with a first name like Deshorn can exploit. Against Colorado, Philly needs to continue to learn to trust their defensive shape to create turnovers. This is something other teams do to the Union all the time: Keep shape and frustrate. Particularly if Vincent Nogueira’s high movement style is missing from the side, a solid shape down the center and in wide areas is essential if the Union want to push for a playoff spot.

Prediction: Union 1-1 Rapids

Colorado will look to break behind the Union back line through Brown, and they will try to force the Union’s wingers to play defense by pushing Chris Klute and Marvell Wynne up the wings. If the Union respond with disciplined defense and by finding Amobi Okugo and Cristian Maidana quickly, they can disrupt the Rapids and create havoc by playing Le Toux in behind. Expect a cagey affair early, as Colorado has given up only four first half goals all season. Both teams tend to abandon their shells as they make substitutions, so the second half should open up and it will simply be the team that takes one of its few chances that walks away a winner.

If the Union keep Colorado from getting shots from the middle of the pitch and counterattack with speed, they can earn at least a point (and maybe more) from what will likely be a tight match.

Colorado Rapids. 7-5-5, 3rd in the Western Conference

Recent work
1-1-1: Loss to Dallas, win over Vancouver, tie with Columbus

By the numbers
Offense: 24 goals for
Defense: 19 goals against
On the road: 2-3-2 (last win April 12 at Toronto)

Keep an eye on…
The eighteen yard box. Colorado has scored 6 penalties and 1 goal off a penalty rebound.
Vicente Sanchez. The former Uruguay international is rounding into form after almost two months out.
Clint Irwin. The Rapids number one is having a spectacular year with 6 shutouts in 13 games. He was stellar against Columbus last week.

Say hi to…
Danny Mwanga. The Union’s first ever draft pick is wearing double fives on the Rapids now.

4-4-2, sometimes a 4-5-1 on the road. Often in a loose diamond with Nick LaBrocca at the point. Most dangerous moves go through Dillon Powers as a narrow right midfielder.


  1. Doesn’t Edu have a red card suspension?

    • I’d assume that he does. My guess is that either Amobi or Berry will fill in at CB. If it’s Amobi, hopefully Noguiera is healthy or else Carroll will probably take the vacant midfield spot.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Yup, fixed!

    • With Colorado drawing so many PKs, a center back pairing of rusty Berry and out of position Williams is a scary proposition. Unfortunately, I think Okugo has to move back to CB for this one. Not that he’s been great there this year, but much better option than the other 2.

  2. Deshorn Brown’s first game in PPL. Cue the “get the f*** up” chants.

  3. Danny Mwanga. Tough time catching on. Id take him back.

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