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Promising start now fading fast

July 18, 2010 | 11:01 am No comments
By Shaun Schafer

Come blow your vuvuzela! It's time to get on the horn as the Rapids stumble into midseason following a promising start. (Photo by Jonathan Ingraham/ColoradoSoccerNow.com)

I feel like the old announcer in “Bull Durham” when he proclaims that it is time to call it like it is.

While he rails on it being the worst Bulls team in a half-century, my concern is on a Colorado Rapids squad that is stumbling toward the All Star game after starting the season with such promise.

Something is wrong in Commerce City. The Rapids are mired in a five-game winless streak and foundering under Gary Smith’s tactical experiment.

Looking at recent results is not encouraging.

The Start: After 10 games, the Rapids were 6-3-1. They had just beaten the Columbus Crew 1-0, and the team had allowed just six goals. They weren’t scoring much, but 10 goals had been enough. They were looking up at the Los Angeles Galaxy, but in control of their destiny. It was June 5, and the team hasn’t won since then.

In the subsequent five games, the Rapids are 0-1-4. They have scored six and given up seven. They have slumped to fourth in the Western Conference. They have seen the best start in club history turn into a middling, muddling mess.

And they have looked bad doing it.

Now it’s time to see what the Rapids can piece together to make a run for the promised land of the playoffs in the season’s second half.

Junk the 4-5-1: Notice that Jeff Larentowicz has gone from crucial to ineffective. Watch Omar Cummings chafe as a sorta-midfielder. See the pressure put on Conor Casey to set up and finish attacks. Worry that a team supposedly trying to clog the midfield and then convert to a 4-3-3 on attack is having little success doing either.

I admired Smith for making this tactical change to take advantage of the team’s strength in midfield. However, it’s time to acknowledge that the experiment is not working. The team has become less creative in the attack, relying on airballs at midfield to Casey’s head to start scoring chances.

This team has to get the ball wide to score. Jamie Smith proves that every time he is on the field. Fettering Cummings with the defensive responsibilities of a midfielder is taking away his killer prowess at forward.

This seemed to be confirmed Saturday night when Claudio Lopez and Smith came on. The team reverted to a 4-4-2 in the second half, found the equalizer and nearly had the winner. The team knows the 4-4-2 and needs it.

Lumbering Backs: Big central defenders can be useful for breaking up anything in the air. They can be a liability when facing darting runners. Colorado seems to have an overreliance on big, slow men in the back, and the rest of the league is exposing that fact.

Scott Palguta faces nothing but frustration as an outside back. Experimenting with him there is a mistake. Danny Earls, Kosuke Kimura and Marvell Wynne have the speed and positioning to fill either wing spot. Palguta and Julien Buadet are interchangeable in the middle and should be left there.

Drew Moor has been the one revelation in the back. He has handled the center with aplomb, and made the trade for him with FC Dallas make sense.

Lopez-Ballouchy Conundrum: Mehdi Ballouchy and Caludio Lopez haven’t fit on the pitch at the same time. While the team could benefit from either one, I think it is time to sit Ballouchy and let Lopez pull the strings.

The Argentinian may not be able to go for 90 minutes over the second half of the season, but I would rather have him for 60-70 a night than on the bench for weeks. His touch and passing broke open KC. Sure, he knows his former teammates well, but he knows the game better. It’s time to get the most out of this veteran’s savvy.

Ballouchy has played well, but look at his passing choices against Houston, New York and KC. He has reverted to the back passes and square balls of old. He’s not looking to make the probing pass, in part because he has usually had only one option in front — Casey — and that option had two men marking him. Ballouchy’s old passivity is getting the worst of him and the 4-5-1 doesn’t help.

Forward Conor Casey rounds goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen before clanking a shot off the near post. (Photo by Jonathan Ingraham/ColoradoSoccerNow.com)

Forward Help?: Who comes on when Casey has a bad night? Who comes on if he gets a knock? There is no obvious answer.

The guy has been remarkably healthy and has scored seven of the team’s 16 goals. He’s crucial. He’s also not getting pushed by anyone on the bench.

The lack of SuperLiga, U.S. Open Cup or any other competition means the Rapids can’t complain about wearing out over the season. It also means that there is little room for experimenting. However, why not get Quincy Amarikwa some playing time? I can’t fathom an opposing coach who would look forward to seeing Amarikwa and Cummings on the same front line.

Beat Bad Teams: Kansas City has 16 points on the season and four of them have come against the Rapids. They are a mediocre squad that has gotten the best of Colorado. This can’t continue.

Colorado faces a bad D.C. United team at home and gets two games against the expansion Philadelphia Union in the second half of the season. There’s nine points. Next up is a fading Seattle Sounders squad and a Sept. 4 home date against an adrift Chivas USA. There’s six more points.

Bag all 15, and you’re going to the playoffs. Whatever you don’t get will have to come in matches against Los Angeles, Dallas and archrivals Real Salt Lake. Make the job easier and beat bad teams.

Mid-Term Grade: After Saturday night, this looks like a C+ team. The strength of the first 10 games, and the promise of getting to play the Union twice, gives me hope. For that, I’m putting a B- on the page and a “needs improvement” for this report card.

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