Chemistry a work in progress as Colorado draws at Montreal
We didn't see the Colorado Rapids at their best Saturday afternoon in Quebec, but it says much about the quality of Pablo Mastroeni's work that his team nonetheless claimed another point on the road, rallying twice for a 2-2 draw with the Montreal Impact.
The Rapids (5-2-2) weren't particularly sharp with the ball and relied on set pieces to dismiss two Montreal advantages -- Shkelzen Gashi tallied from a cross off a throw-in, Bobby Burling finished a free kick -- but there can be no complaints about their work at the back. The Impact (4-3-2) didn't get a whole lot from superior possession, linking nicely between the boxes and around the perimeter but finding penetration difficult, at best.
Didier Drogba curled home a free kick and Maxim Tissot buried a bending goal-of-the-week candidate to provide leads early in each half, but lax defending prevented Montreal -- winless in its last three, two of them at home -- from gathering all three points. The team remains atop the Eastern Conference, a point ahead of Philadelphia (the Union conceded late in a 1-1 tie with visiting San Jose), and Toronto FC can pull even on points with a victory Sunday at Portland.
The Rapids extended their unbeaten streak to four games, claimed points for the third time in five away games, and climbed to 17 points, even with sliding FC Dallas. Colorado does have a game in hand, and, of course, it's still early - too much so to be concerned with the table.
Some compelling storylines from the clash:
Drogba can sure hit a free kick
Drogba brings so much class to the Impact attack, you wonder where the team would be if it hadn't played four of its first five on artificial turf; or, if Drogba was cool with playing on the fake stuff.
The 38-year-old Ivorian’s ability on set pieces is legend, and his ninth-minute free kick was a real beauty, beating a leaping Zac MacMath to the left post. That's twice this week, over the span of nine or 10 minutes or so, that he's delivered brilliantly. And Wednesday's might have been better: a tight-angled blast to the near post, where Dominic Oduro got low to nod past little-supported NYC goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
Drogba was making just his third start this season, all in the last eight days, and you figured he would wear out as the game went on. His effectiveness ebbed and flowed -- he was fighting through a cold, too -- and there wasn't enough of a connection up front to string together many chances, but he did come close to a winner in the 79th minute, when his blast from 25 yards sailed a little above the upper-right corner.
Reacting to the Jones factor
What a start Jermaine Jones has had for the Rapids. He had a goal and an assist and was great defensively in his debut two weeks ago, then scored another goal in a fine follow-up last week. Maybe he is better suited, as Mastroeni suggests, as an attacking midfielder than in his usual role a few yards farther back.
It wasn't going to take long for opponents to start focusing on Jones, and Montreal, primarily through Patrice Bernier, somewhat quieted the German-born U.S. national team star. Jones wasn't very effective going forward, and he had to seek space with long balls that usually were off the mark. He connected on 23 of 35 attempts but had virtually no penetration.
But, to Jones' credit, the first Rapids goal, two minutes into the second half, started with him. He took a throw-in on the left from Mekeil Williams, and sent a ball through traffic to lead Williams toward the left corner. Gashi got in front of Tissot to knock the low cross home.
The Impact were better in the middle, and Bernier was superb, both defensively and with the ball at his feet -- he completed 44 of 45 passes.
New chemistry for Colorado
Colorado wasn't very sharp in attack, and perhaps it was just one of those days -- Montreal isn't the easiest place to play -- but there seem to be some chemistry issues dogging the team.
The Rapids' fine start is all the more impressive given how many injuries they've dealt with, and players returning from absences are going to need a little time to find the connections their replacements built over the past weeks.
Irishman Kevin Doyle was making his first start at forward since March 20, and it altered the mix. Luis Solignac was so good as the front man in April – he’s had a goal or assist in four of his first five starts this year, contributing to victories every time -- but he didn't seem comfortable attacking from the right. Doyle, who scored off the bench in his return last week against Seattle, wasn't much of a factor, either.
Marlon Hairston, too, made his return, starting at right back in his first action since exiting the opener eight weeks ago, and he was tentative going forward. The opportunity was there -- Piatti wasn't going to track back much -- and a mobile Hairston causing havoc up the flank is going to make the Rapids that much better. It's something to work on.
Tight at the back … or not
Where Colorado was really good, again, was at the back. The Rapids came into the game as the league's second-best defensive team, with six goals against -- Toronto FC has conceded just five in seven games, all on the road -- and looked much better defensively than a 2-2 scoreline suggests.
Montreal knocked the ball around a lot, but it didn't go forward with fervor and found little success when it tried to. Both of its goals came from or following dead-ball situations, and they were both terrific -- Tissot's low, 28-yard blast curled around a few players in the box en route to a spot just inside the right post, just wonderful -- but that was pretty much all they had.
The Rapids blocked seven shots, repeatedly won tackles or picked off balls in their defensive third, and when something needed to be done, it was. There were three big stops:
- Jones rushing into the box and knocking the ball from a sprinting Oduro, who should have fired first time from Ambroise Oyongo's ball into space, as he was about to take an open shot in the 41st minute.
- Burling cutting down Piatti to the left of the net as the Impact attacker ran onto a fine through ball that Tissot, threaded into the box between Hairston and Micheal Azira in the 85th.
- Hairston getting position on Oduro, who with one quick turn beat two Rapids and was sprinting up the left flank in the 87th, and drawing a foul to halt the quick counterattack.
The Rapids sat back a little bit too much at times, and Harry Shipp started finding space in front of their box in the final half-hour, but they survived. The 2-2 draw was a fair result. Colorado, more so than Montreal, can be pleased with its point.
Scott French is a Los Angeles-based reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.