Which Rapids should start against Sporting Kansas City (and why)

In the past couple of weeks, Pablo Mastroeni has shuffled his lineup more than a magician shuffles cards. The problem is, the Rapids only have three points to show for it.

Mastroeni’s not in an enviable position this season. On one hand, his team is four points behind the second-worst team in the MLS. With this kind of performance, if he didn’t make lineup adjustments, he wouldn’t be doing his job. It would have looked like he had given up. On the other hand, when he does make lineup changes but still gets no results, he bears the brunt of the blame.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Mastroeni made seven adjustments to the starting lineup in the game against the Philadelphia Union last Saturday. That’s a lot of changes. One thing that should be kept in mind is the fact that that game was the Rapids’ third in eight days, so energy was a major issue. The fact remains, however, that aside from the lopsided loss against the Chicago Fire, the Rapids had played some of their best soccer all season leading up to that 3-0 defeat. The Fire are a very good team. Ever since signing Bastian Schweinsteiger, who’s making the MLS look like a U-18 league, the Fire have dominated their competition. A loss to the Fire doesn’t mean you throw away what’s been working. You tip your hat to the opponent and stick to your identity.

Now, it’s time to delve into lineups. With the Rapids next four games coming at home, we’ll look specifically at the quality of play from the players at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this season and create the lineup that we think will give the Rapids their best chance for a win Saturday against Sporting KC.

Attackers

The season started with Kevin Doyle and Dominique Badji up top against the New England Revolution at home. Since then, we’ve seen Caleb Calvert and Alan Gordon both get their opportunities to start.

The numbers support Badji, and most of the time, so does the eye test. He’s the fastest and quickest attacker of the lot, and he’s one of the most aggressive attackers that the Rapids have. He leads the team with three goals this season, and all three have come at home. What’s more? Badji has scored in all three of the team’s results this season. He did have a very poor showing against the Fire where he let his frustrations get the best of him, but he can hardly be blamed after the lack of opportunities in that game.

Despite the loss, Doyle played a pretty solid game against the Union. His ball control was good, he had one phenomenal cross into the box early that almost produced a goal and he recognized runs from teammates very well. It was a good return after having not started for two straight games. Doyle also has two goals this season, tied for second-most on the team. Lastly, he is great with his head, which is a great skill to pair with someone like Badji.

Gordon’s best used as a super-sub. While his aggression and size are tempting to insert into the starting lineup, especially with the Rapids’ penchant for hitting the long ball, he doesn’t have the pace or ball skills to provide a lethal option at the top. When he’s started this season, he’s been just a step behind most of the other players on the field. He also has zero goals on the season. When he can enter the game against a tired defense and pester them until he finds the back of the net, he’s one of the best players in the league, but he starting isn’t what’s best for him right now.

Calvert scored his first MLS goal against the Union, and he deserves hearty applause for that. But it wasn’t the most magnificent goal in the world. Union goalkeeper Andre Blake seemed to think that the shot was going wide and didn’t even attempt to save it. Still Calvert brings a pace and exuberance that only young players have. Still, he needs some refinement and is probably best utilized off of the bench.

Verdict: Badji and Doyle

Attacking Midfielders

When you have a player capable of scoring goals from distance like Shkëlzen Gashi, you have to start him. We all remember his Goal of the Year last season and his strike against L.A. in the playoffs. We all remember his other seemingly impossible goals that defied the laws of physics. The Rapids’ 2016 leading scorer is also one of the smartest players on the field. He rarely turns the ball over, consistently makes the right pass to start or continue an attack, and he can beat players off the dribble and take a quick shot better than anyone on the team. He may not be the fastest attacking midfielder, but his skill set is something that the Rapids can’t afford to leave on the bench. He puts the ball in the back of the net. Oh, and he has two goals in the last two games he’s played.

Ever since Mohammed Saeid began to click with his Rapids teammates, he’s been a force to be reckoned with. He’s one of the few players on the team that can beat a defender with his quickness and ball skills, and he is quite possibly the fastest player with the ball on the team. He picked up his first assist of the season a couple of weeks ago against the San Jose Earthquakes with a beautifully placed cross to Gashi, and he’s been the team’s main creator for the past few weeks.

Josh Gatt played surprisingly well against the Union. He was aggressive in his attack, fearless and he wasn’t afraid to take his shot. He seems to have the skills to be a decent distance striker, but like Calvert, he needs some time to develop into a consistent MLS player.

We haven’t seen much of Dillon Serna since he returned from his injury, so there’s not much to analyze here. I think he does deserve more minutes, simply because he hasn’t been given a proper chance during a game to show what he can do. With that being said, I wouldn’t just inject him into the starting lineup because I want to see what he can do. With such a need to collect points right now, he’ll likely have to make his impression off of the bench.

Verdict: Gashi and Saeid

Defensive Midfielders

Michael Azira has played very well this season. He very well may be the Rapids’ most-consistent player. He doesn’t turn the ball over, prefers to make short passes to start attacks and isn’t afraid to mark the opposition’s best attacker. Barring something drastic, he’s got a pretty firm hold on his starting position.

Dillon Powers has seen a lot of action this season, but he hasn’t performed extremely well. His first touch leaves something to be desired and he turns the ball over a little bit too much. He’s one of the team’s best long passers (an approach I’m not a fan of, to be completely transparent) and can provide some offense from the back of the lineup.

Sam Hamilton hasn’t seen much game action, but he’s got the drive of a young player trying to prove himself. He provides a spark of energy that the Rapids desperately need, and pairing him up with a seasoned vet like Azira could provide the defensive mids enough balance to have a solid line in front of the defense.

Verdict: Azira and Hamilton

Defenders

It’s good to have the big Swede back. Axel Sjöberg returned to the team last week for the first time since he was injured in the second game of the season. He understandably had to shake off a little rust, but we saw flashes of the 2016 MLS Defender of the Year nominee against the Union. No one’s going to take away his starting spot.

Jared Watts hasn’t had his best year, but he’s always played better with Sjöberg.  Since his partner-in-crime has returned, we’ll likely see Watts’ play elevate in the coming games, if he starts, that is.

Bobby Burling has made the most of the chances he’s recevied this season. He hasn’t made any egregious errors, he’s shown a willingness to take risks in order to stomp out a dangerous attack, and he hasn’t turned the ball over. Even with his good performances, it’s hard to put him in for Watts after the Watts-Sjöberg combination performed so well in 2016.

Kortne Ford has had an impressive start for a rookie. However, there are improvements to be made. First of all, his lack of muscle makes it harder for him to body attackers in the box, something that Watts, Sjöberg and Burling have no issue doing. His positioning is good, and he’ll only improve by working with the talent around him, but Watts is still the better option at this point.

After a forgettable start to the season, Eric Miller has returned to his starting left fullback form. His wing defending is the best on the team and he has one of the best crosses on the team. No one is anywhere near knocking him out of the starting left fullback position.

Mekeil Williams hasn’t played since May 5 against the Vancouver Whitecaps when he was sent off in the 88th minute. He didn’t have a particularly bad game that evening, but the combination of the red card and Marlon Hairston’s solid play at the right fullback position in the next game sealed his fate for at least a few games. This position is his if Hairston moves back to his normal position, but it’s not yet clear whether that will happen.

There’s a reason that I didn’t include Hairston as a midfielder. It’s because I like him in the right fullback position more. He played extremely well against the Earthquakes, and then had a setback against the Fire. I’ll repeat myself: Don’t overanalyze the performances in the Fire game. Throw that one out. I think Hairston should get another opportunity at right fullback to see which game was the fluke.

Mike da Fonte look a little out of his element when he got his first MLS start against the Union. He was consistently on the verge of yellow cards and couldn’t seem to stop fouling. He may have an MLS future, but it’s not right now.

Verdict: Miller, Sjöberg, Watts and Hairston

Keeper

You can’t move away from the best goalkeeper in the history of the U.S. Even though Zac MacMath would be and has been a phenomenal MLS starter in his own right, you just can’t go away from Timmy.

Verdict: Tim Howard

The Rapids are in dire need of points on Saturday against Sporting Kansas City. The next four games will go a long way in deciding what kind of season the Rapids have, so lineup selection is at its utmost importance.

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