Analysis

This might already be a lost season for the Rapids...and that's part of the plan

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It's only April, but Colorado is really thinking about 2018. That's why some tough trades had to be made.

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The Colorado Rapids know where they want to be, what they want to be, and if it requires them to sacrifice this season to pave a path toward that future, then that's how it has to be.

They made that clear on March 31.

That's when the Rapids sent holding midfielder Sam Cronin, their captain and their most important figure on the field, and veteran left back Marc Burch to Minnesota United. It was a stunning move in which they picked up midfielders Mohammed Saeid and Josh Gatt, plus -- this was the vital part -- an international roster spot while clearing a good deal of salary-cap space to utilize that international spot.

It was, head coach Pablo Mastroeni says, “the most difficult decision I've had to make as a coach,” but Colorado brass contend it was a necessary move, even if it left the team in difficult straits. The Rapids believe they must evolve into a team that can do more than grind out 1-0 victories.

Everyone is thinking, 'Why the hell would you do something like that?' ... There's a lot of things that happen from a human perspective, losing Sam, that couldn't be realized until it happened. And once it did, you start to realize the impact that he had on our group.

- Pablo Mastroeni

They've taken the initial steps, implementing an attacking scheme that commits more numbers forward and emphasizes dynamic flank play, but the process is going to take some time. They're OK with that. It’s a matter of trading the present for the future.

“It is, in a lot of ways, and I think that trade with Marc Burch and Sam Cronin accentuates that,” Mastroeni told FourFourTwo. “It's calculated from a roster perspective, as far as building for the future.

“Obviously, if we want to continue on the same path [as last year], we keep two experienced guys who have more than 20 years of MLS experience on board. But the direction we want to move in as a club, we felt like if we couldn't do this now, we'd be kind of in a precarious situation moving forward.”

Dominique Badji said the trade “blindsided a lot of people.”

“Sam was the heart of the team,” the Senegalese attacker said, “so when he left, it kind of left a void that needed to be filled on the team. ... That's not something that's going to happen overnight. It's going to take time.”

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing Cronin will be tough. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

The trade made sense, in that Cronin is 30 and Burch is 32. They'll never be worth more in trade, and the Rapids get younger with the 26-year-old Saeid, who played the past two seasons in Columbus, and Gatt, 25, who has been limited by injury to 20 competitive matches since 2012 and is yet to make his MLS debut. Neither is a proven starter in this league.

Mastroeni understands the skeptics.

“Everyone is thinking, 'Why the hell would you do something like that?'” he said. “Losing [Cronin], we knew as a club, was going to be very difficult, not only in not having his experience, but the way the players around him would feel when their captain has left. ... There's a lot of things that happen from a human perspective, losing Sam, that couldn't be realized until it happened. And once it did, you start to realize the impact that he had on our group.”

It has left the Rapids, already reeling from injuries that have limited Designated Player Shkelzen Gashi and sidelined Best XI center back Axel Sjoberg, with something of a leadership vacuum while weakening them in the middle and trimming their backline depth. Five months after coming after falling one step short of the MLS Cup final, they sit last in the West, already a dozen points off the lead, at just 1-4-1 heading to Orlando City this weekend.

You have to start sowing the seeds of 2018 today ... everything is done with the mindset of putting ourselves into position to really be able to utilize all the cap space, all the different transactions we're making today, in the future.

- Pablo Mastroeni

Things wouldn't seem so bad if Colorado was finishing its chances, but putting the ball in the net was a struggle last year, too. Only San Jose scored fewer goals in 2016, and so it is again this season, with the Rapids posting a league-low five goals.

The new scheme is asking more of Badji and Marlon Hairston, who enjoyed breakout seasons last year, and Mastroeni has been forced to use four different players in the No. 10 slot. Losing Cronin, whose partnership with Micheal Azira was the foundation of Colorado's success last year, exacerbates everything, especially now that 22-year-old Ghanaian newcomer Nana Boateng is sidelined with fractured vertebrae.

“I think in the first couple of weeks there has been an adjustment where we are committing quite a few numbers forward, and it's a little bit uncomfortable ...,” Mastroeni said. “And the issue with that is when you're implementing something new and you're not getting the results that you would like, there's a little bit of doubt. That's what takes time.”

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Mastroeni acknowledges that a lot of what they're doing won't reach fruition this year. “We're definitely looking at 2018; there's a lot of great opportunities in 2018,” he says,  and that much will depend on whom the Rapids acquire in the summer transfer window. They are targeting someone who can bring a “bit of culture in the attacking third.” That could be a playmaker, a steady goal-scorer or something in between.

The Rapids had a clear identity last year as they set the standard for MLS defense, leading the league with 13 shutouts and a 0.94 goals-against average. They grinded out results, going 13-4 in one-goal games, including eight 1-0 decisions. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and it fit Mastroeni, who was one of the best defensive midfielders this country has produced.

The desire to be more attack-minded is natural, especially as the more vibrant MLS teams find success, and it comes from the top. Attacking soccer is attractive soccer, and that kind of identity is better for marketing purposes, to be sure.

“I think that's the identity that everybody wants us to have,” Badji said, “but knowing Pablo and the way he wants it to be, our identity is just defensive.”

Not for long, alas.

“I think it's not so much about playing sexy football,” Mastroeni said. “It's about evolving and expanding the way we think about the game and the way we want to play the game, and all that takes time.”

The Rapids were happy with how they played in last week’s 1-0 loss to Minnesota and in a late loss to RSL the previous week, which ended Colorado's 18-month unbeaten streak at DSG Park.

That loss stung deeply, but it made a deep impression. Badji called it a “kick in the face” and says it was the “point where we realized things aren't going to be the same as they were last year.”

No, they aren't. That's the plan.

“You have to start sowing the seeds of 2018 today, so that way you can reap the fruit of all the planning, all the foresight in 2018,” Mastroeni said. “So 2018 is critical for us. We're going to continue doing what we do, but everything is done with the mindset of putting ourselves into position to really be able to utilize all the cap space, all the different transactions we're making today, in the future.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.