For the second consecutive year, it looks like the matchup between the New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids will be a snow game. It also will be an intriguing tactical matchup.
And we’re going to (probably) get a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, because that’s how the Rapids do it. Their M.O. since the beginning of 2016 has been to sit really deep and narrow and wait out 1-0 wins at home and 0-0 draws on the road. Their defense was historically good as a result, allowing just 32 goals in 34 regular season games last season.
While watching the Rapids against the Revolution last week, I started to notice more about their defensive organization and how they were able to suffocate New England into a 1-0 loss.
What the Rapids did against the Revs last Saturday was very tactically complex, and based around intricate situational marking, pressing, and counter-pressing systems. I won’t go into that, because I am not Pep Guardiola. I will, however, look at what they generally were able to do in shutting their visitors out.
Let’s start by looking at this screenshot:
The Revs controlled possession and were progressing up the field, playing in their 4-4-2 diamond with Kei Kamara, Lee Nguyen, and Juan Agudelo rotating up top. In this attack, they had pushed three players to the top of the formation — all three in central channels — and they had Scott Caldwell and Diego Fagundez circulating the ball deeper, eventually looking to hit a channel.
The strategy that New England were using is one that was probably roughly drawn out during the week to try and break down Colorado’s shape. They pushed Fagundez deep, Nguyen wide, and Kelyn Rowe up top with Agudelo and Kamara, and they looked to use movement and positioning to find gaps in Colorado’s shape.
It didn’t work.
The goal was to have Fagundez draw out a defensive midfielder by getting a couple of forward touches in the attacking half, and then to fire a ground pass into the half-space. Once they’re able to get it to an attacker, they would force Colorado to condense, and thus they could find Nguyen or Chris Tierney on an open flank. This would create a good matchup down the sideline and eventually lead to either a higher-percentage cross or a good spell of possession in the final third.
But the Rapids shut it right off. Marlon Hairston pinched in from the wing to press Fagundez, and Sjoberg saw it from the beginning and cut out the pass, leading to a (slow) Rapids counterattack. New England continued to try various attacking build-up alignments, and sometimes they would come up with a loose chance here and there. But for the most part they ended up frustrated. The magic of the Rapids.
This week, against the Red Bulls, it will be a newer test for Colorado. Jesse Marsch has his team win the ball in higher places, and they will be even more tactically savvy. RBNY’s 4-2-2-2 uses a variety of attackers who will rotate across the front four; Daniel Royer, for example, is a slimy inverted winger used to draw defenders away from Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright Phillips.
Likely, the Rapids will be able to deal with the front four, because their defensive organization is built to handle teams like that. But watch for the Red Bulls’ high and hard press to catch Colorado without numbers behind the ball, which could be a death knell for a team so reliant on structure and organization.
[Photo: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports]