Welcome to Week 25 of our staff column collecting news, insights, and highlights from around Major League Soccer.
Although the New England Revolution may be MLS’ most embattled franchise these days, on Saturday there was a fan protest against their opponents. In the 20th minute, Centennial 38, the official supporters’ group of the Colorado Rapids, staged a walkout. In their place were four simple banners, which read “The badge, the players, the fans deserve better.” It was a fair summary of a far longer statement that the group released on Thursday.
“This is without question the worst year we have experienced as supporters in our Colorado Rapids history,” the statement began. “While there have been too many seasons in the past that have been disappointing, 2023 has surpassed these in numerous ways.”
In a year in which literally every other team in the Western Conference still has a legitimate shot at the playoffs, Colorado lingers far behind. Even after a 2-1 win over New England, the gap between the Rapids and the second-bottom LA Galaxy is eight points; that’s equal to the gap between 12th-place Austin and fourth-place Vancouver.
On September 5, Colorado fired head coach Robin Fraser after roughly four calendar years in the role, with the clear highlight being his team’s 2021 season, when they won the Western Conference in the regular season.
Since then, the team has fallen precipitously. Addressing Fraser’s dismissal, club president Pádraig Smith stated that he felt the Rapids had “deviat(ed) from the club identity over the last 18 months,” seemingly about the Rapids Way op-ed he co-authored in The Denver Post upon becoming general manager (then on an interim basis) midway through 2017. After setting goals to go from a defense-first outfit to one with attacking verve and bold creativity, Smith added that the Rapids must “be held accountable when things are not going the way they should.”
It’s unclear what criteria Smith and the organization are using to define what “should” be happening, but no matter the specific elements, just about any rubric would not give the side a passing grade.
On the field, the team is a shell of the table-toppers from two years ago. They aren’t getting the close results that buoyed them throughout 2021. They’re creating less while being more wasteful with that diminished number of chances. They’re enjoying less of the ball in the final third, and are less likely to catch teams in transition.
And yet, it’s unclear how much of that has to do with the factors that Fraser could impact as coach. With seven games remaining, Colorado has underperformed its expected scoring output at a remarkable rate. Opta’s expected goal model puts them at 30.4, second-lowest in the West (Dallas, 28.6). Removing a pair of converted penalties, the Rapids’ actual goal total has been just 16 from 27 matches. That -11.21 goal underperformance compared to their xG is the eighth-worst return of any MLS team dating back to 2019.
Does this make the Rapids unlucky or bad at finishing? While xG is a good gauge of chances created, post-shot xG (also known as psxG, or xGOT) only looks at shots on target to consider factors after the ball leaves a shooter’s boot or head. If a player’s psxG exceeds their xG (with that simple psxG-xG result referred to as “shooting goals added,” or SGA), it implies that they regularly produce higher quality or more accurate shots than the average player.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest SGA underperformers over the last five years is the Rapids… just not this year’s version. That misfortune belongs to the 2021 iteration, which still managed to win the West. This year’s Rapids are nowhere near that tier of SGA wastefulness, sitting 44th out of 134 with a perfectly level 0.00 clip. It isn’t like Colorado is failing to convert a bounty of chances. They just aren’t creating enough to expect more.
Their fate may have been cast in the season’s early goings, as captain Jack Price suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture in late March. He was expected to partner in midfield with a fellow ex-Wolverhampton signing, Connor Ronan.
Instead, his lost season added him to a long list of important players from that 2021 roster who have either left the team or failed to return to that level in 2023. Gone are Auston Trusty, Michael Barrios, Kellyn Acosta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Sam Vines and Andre Shinyashiki, while goalkeeper William Yarbrough is alongside Price on the injury report. In their place have come few like-for-like replacements, with Ronan being arguably the best new addition over the past four windows.
The team is often derided for perceived low spending, especially when comparing their status in MLS to that of owner Stan Kroenke’s “other” club, Arsenal. That doesn’t quite carry water — the Rapids’ wage bills over the last decade are similar to fellow MLS legacy clubs like FC Dallas, the New York Red Bulls, the Columbus Crew, and the San Jose Earthquakes. Their academy doesn’t match the prolific output of Philadelphia or Real Salt Lake, but they’ve gotten legitimate contributions from homegrown Cole Bassett (who scored the winner on Saturday) and are awaiting U.S. U-20 striker Darren Yapi’s breakout.
Where they lag behind the rest of the league, however, is in terms of maximizing their designated player spots and signing top-end earners to lead the roster. 2023 is the first time the Rapids have filled all three designated player slots since 2016 when the team made a run to the Western Conference final while fielding Kevin Doyle, Shk?lzen Gashi and Tim Howard. Since Gashi departed in 2018, Colorado rostered just one DP in each of the next four seasons: Howard in 2019, Younes Namli in 2020 and 2021, and Gyasi Zardes in 2022. Per available data, Gashi remains the club’s record signing on a transfer fee just below $2.9 million.
And yet, the current trio has done little to inspire confidence among the Rapids fan base. Kévin Cabral arrived after two underwhelming seasons with the LA Galaxy in exchange for up to $1 million of allocation money. Andreas Maxs? arrived this winter from Brondby in his native Denmark, with the 28-year-old center back having two international caps to his name at the time of signing. Brazilian striker Rafael Navarro arrived on a loan-with-purchase agreement, although he managed just 20 career league goals across 103 games with Botafogo and Palmeiras.
Centennial 38 addressed this at the heart of their statement, as well.
“The organization’s record on the field speaks for itself,” the statement said. “Without going into extensive detail, it is abundantly clear that too many mistakes have occurred under Padraig Smith even while considering the limited resources provided. However, we should not pretend the problems begin and end with the team president. The common denominator of the Rapids’ many problems is Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. Winning seasons are infrequent, and the few good years are followed by multiple consecutive years of poor results.”
It’s hard to see what the endgame is for the Kroenkes and their MLS franchise. The league has evolved multiple times since they bought the club in 2004, with expansion clubs and longtime franchises alike pushing the league more into the global landscape. And yet, as C38 pointed out, “It is very telling that the most recent Forbes valuation estimates the Rapids at $350 million, yet the expansion fee for new MLS owners is reported to be $500 million.
“The Rapids are valued less than clubs that don’t even exist, or just exist in name only.”
— Jeff Rueter
Revs’ woes reach a Rocky Mountain high
It was a wild week in New England. From Bruce Arena’s official resignation following an investigation into inappropriate remarks, to former interim coach Richie Williams no-commenting his way through Monday and Tuesday, culminating with Williams being removed as interim head coach in favor of Clint Peay.
Revs president Brian Bilello and technical director Curt Onalfo didn’t want to spend much time looking back when speaking with the media on Wednesday. They offered little illumination into why decisions were made over the last few days and the future of Williams, instead wanting to shift focus to the field.
Or, in Onalfo’s words: “It’s time to get out there and play. Stop talking about all the baloney.”
To move on from that baloney, the Revs’ first official post-Bruce game did not go well. New England lost to the league’s worst team, the Colorado Rapids, 2-1. It was also the Rapids’ first game under a new coach, with interim boss Chris Little picking up the club’s first win following the dismissal of Fraser.
New England slipped to third in the Eastern Conference after the loss. They are only two points ahead of sixth place now. Every point is vital and the Revs are fighting to keep their once-promising season on track amid all the… baloney.
– Tom Bogert
LAFC uses El Trafico to ‘change the momentum’
For the fourth time this season in all competitions, the LA Galaxy faced Los Angeles FC. For the fourth time this season, it delivered.
The Galaxy arrived into the fixture in their best form of the season, collecting four wins from the previous seven league matches – including the July 4th El Trafico, which broke the single-game MLS attendance record with 82,110 fans packed into the Rose Bowl. Still, Greg Vanney’s side sat second-from-bottom in the Western Conference, needing a strong end of the season to remain in reach of the playoff places.
Across town, LAFC, arguably the league’s most attractive club before the arrival of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba in Miami, have struggled since falling to Club Leon in the CONCACAF Champions League final. Heading into this fixture, they had won once in their last five MLS matches, collecting four points — only the Rapids had picked up fewer points during this period in the Western Conference. If happiness comes when reality surpasses expectations, the 21st iteration of El Trafico had the potential to be among the most exciting.
The game burst into action on the 23rd minute when LAFC captain Carlos Vela received the ball on the half-turn inside the Galaxy’s half and set Ecuador international Diego Palacios free down the left wing. With Denis Bouanga unmarked inside the box, Palacios curled a pinpoint cross onto the forward’s head, and the Gabon international made no mistake, powering a header beyond Jonathan Bond for the game’s opening goal.
But, amid the sold-out BMO Stadium’s celebrations, the Galaxy caught LAFC taking their eye off the ball and were back on level terms through striker Billy Sharp. The 37-year-old, who was making his first start in MLS since arriving in Los Angeles after a long career in England, finished smartly on the turn past Maxime Crepeau, who was making his first MLS start since suffering a fractured leg in last year’s MLS Cup final.
It would be LAFC that entered the halftime break in front, owing to below-par goalkeeping from Bond, who could not stop Ryan Hollingshead’s long-range effort in the 33rd minute from nestling into the back of the net. But this is El Trafico, and despite the Galaxy’s league position and LAFC’s poor recent form, both sides have match-winning quality – proven when centre-back Maya Yoshida, another summer recruit, out-jumped his marker and powered in a header for Galaxy shortly after the interval to make it 2-2.
In response, both sides occupied dangerous positions without making decisive inroads until Galaxy defender Chris Mavinga offered Bouanga a gift, sending a weak backpass in Bond’s direction that was intercepted by the Gabon international, who rounded the goalkeeper and passed the ball into an empty net on the 75th minute. Timothy Tillman added the proverbial “cherry on the cake” eight minutes later after Giorgio Chiellini robbed the ball from Diego Fagundez and set LAFC on the counter before the German-born midfielder fired in the fourth and final goal of the evening.
“We got to talk about this a little this week, this being a great chance for us to just change the momentum,” Hollingshead said. “Get a big-time rivalry win, three points on the board and get us in a good mode going into a really tough stretch for the next three weeks, with a midweek game for each of the three weeks. So it’s going to be, our athletic trainer knows the exact amount of games in how many days, but it’s a lot. So, this is good for us. We showed a lot of resiliency, giving up what I felt like was two soft goals, I didn’t feel like they had a ton of chances. If we can sure that up, obviously our offense and our attack scoring is huge for us. A lot of positives, for sure, to take from this game. Still, things to clean up, but a lot of positives.”
As Hollingshead alludes, LAFC is right back into action against Western Conference leaders St. Louis City on Wednesday — an opportunity to pull within three points of the top. For the Galaxy, a tough defeat to their cross-city rivals leaves them six points from Portland in the final wildcard position, with two games in hand. They face Minnesota United at home on Wednesday, with playoffs still a possibility.
— Elias Burke
Orlando wins slugfest against Columbus as future of club leadership remains uncertain
Quietly, Orlando City has risen up the crowded Eastern Conference standings over the last few weeks. Their season hit a new apex this weekend, with a thrilling comeback 4-3 win over the Columbus Crew. The win lifts Orlando into second place in the East.
Orlando did so without starting center forward Duncan McGuire, who missed the game with an injury, and only got 45 minutes from star attacker Facundo Torres after international duty with Uruguay last week. They trailed 3-1 in the 70th minute and came back to win 4-3 in front of a raucous crowd.
Orlando won the U.S. Open Cup last year and has made the playoffs in three straight seasons, their first three postseason berths since entering MLS in 2015. New leadership has ushered in a period of success, but that future is not yet secured.
Head coach Oscar Pareja is out of contract after this season. He took over in 2020, immediately kicking off that playoff qualification streak. Executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi and technical director Ricardo Moreira also aren’t guaranteed for the future. Both have contract options for next year that ownership has yet to pick up.
All three will be sought after if they get to the open market. Along the way, Orlando’s season has kept getting better.
Two good reads
- Felipe Cardenas’ interview with Tata Martino yielded a number of great insights, including one that proved prescient given Inter Miami’s loss to Atlanta. “Leo was visibly frustrated after our scoreless draw against Nashville,” Martino said. “I had to tell him ‘relax, we’re not going to win every game. We can’t allow draws but we have to continue to find ways to grow.’ He was very bitter. It was as if we had lost the game. We’re still trying to find ourselves (as a team), but he’s on a permanent quest to win and it’s very difficult to change that mentality. I would never want to change that mentality either. That’s what makes him better.”
- Noel Buck came off the bench in the Revs’ loss to Colorado, but given all that’s going there, he may have been wishing he was still with England’s U-19 team, getting mocked for his accent.
One weird thing
We have to admit we never thought we’d see Francis Ford Coppola, the 84-year-old director of The Godfather, wearing an Atlanta United jersey at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
— Ghost of Chucklestein ???? (@WookieeChuckles) September 16, 2023
(Top photo: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)