The Colorado Rapids are crashing down the table. The Anthony Hudson revolution is toiling and there is unrest in the dressing room. Breaking point is here.
After the disappointment of last season, the Colorado Rapids had to rethink their approach. The executives cleaned house, bringing in new GM Padraig Smith and manager Anthony Hudson. Those two brought in a starting line-up full of new players. The race for the playoffs is a quarter of the way through, and the Rapids look worse than ever. The new players and Hudson may still be adjusting, but if the past results are indicative of their progress, the Rapids should be worried.
The Rapids were starting to look like a solid midtable side after a few scrappy wins. A couple of new talented players were coming into the team, and a few expected starters were coming back from injury. Things were looking up. Then the TMZ strip club video started circulating. The Rapids beat a fourth choice Toronto FC team a couple days later in Colorado but have not earned a point since. That’s not the only cause for turmoil.
The Colorado Rapids were a top-five team and contending for the conference finals two years ago. Last year, the Rapids regressed so badly that ownership felt Pablo Mastroeni had to be fired. Anthony Hudson was brought in after the New Zealand World Cup campaign, but he has struggled to achieve consistent results. The MLS Players Union just released the first salary figures of the year. The Rapids are tenth in the salary standings but most of the big wages have yet to really play. That does not help Hudson’s case.
Once Hudson was hired, he announced his intentions to rebuild the team. He brought in a few players that were familiar with his system and most have performed up to expectations, although a couple have not. Adjusting to MLS was always going to require some flexibility from Hudson while the Rapids suffered the pains of a growth period. But the Rapids can no longer afford for the adjustment period to affect results.
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The players remaining from Pablo’s glory days needed to learn a drastically different system than what most MLS players are used to. Hudson had to teach this system to an incomplete team that was waiting for Yannick Boli and others to arrive and several players to get fit. The Rapids also traded for a winger, Sam Nicolson, once Marlon Hairston was injured, which showed little faith in Dillon Serna.
Hudson admitted the first couple of games, including the CCL series against Toronto FC, would be treated more like preseason. The team had some late signings but the CCL series meant Colorado got an early start on season preparations.
But Injuries have stressed the roster even before it could be completely assembled. Kortne Ford has an inspiring story but suffered an unfortunate injury early in the season. Dominique Badji was hurt in warm-ups last week before playing NYRB, so Yannick Boli finally got his first start in MLS, and Hairston was doing well as the creative hub on the right wing, until he was hurt; the team hopes he will be back in weeks. Shkelzen Gashi was a splashy DP signing out of the Swiss league a couple years ago, but last year was plagued by nagging injuries and this season he has made just the sole start.
That said, that does not mean that this team that is seemingly in disarray is without hope. There is plenty to be excited about for Rapids fans. The core of this team could thrive in MLS. Johan Blomberg and Jack Price have organized the midfield and been the conduits for any sustained possession. Edgar Castillo has shown he still has life in his legs, patrolling his wing and controlling games, and if the likes of Stefan Aigner, Hairston, Serna, Gashi, and Boli can contribute as expected, this could be a playoff team.
However, Last Word on Soccer confirms that Aigner is available and not injured, it’s just that Hudson refuses to consider him. Apparently, Aigner and Hudson had some hot-tempered words at practice weeks ago, and the bright attacker has since practiced away from the team for a good portion of his sessions.
Hudson is setting a standard. Several of the higher-paid starters on past teams are seeing less playing time. However, starting players who are seen as projects or coach’s pets will not win over a locker room if the team is losing.
The better players know who should be starting if the team is truly going out to win. Players with experience in this league know the best players need to play. Coaches who sacrifice points in the table for points in the team risk a mutiny.
Hudson has switched formations and player positions several times this season with no discernible plan. He could be accused of trying to fit squares pegs into round holes just to keep certain players off the field. Once it is confirmed everyone is healthy, if that ever happens, how will Hudson field his best players? Will he even attempt to do so?
This Rapids team is playing a more appealing brand of soccer than they were last season. The spine of the team seems more competent. Edgar Castillo has been solid, and should see his loan extended. Jack Price is a capable MLS midfielder. Johan Blomberg has a wider variance in his performances, but has been adequate. Tim Howard will suffice for one more season, but anything past that is questionable at best.
But has Hudson been too loyal to his New Zealand imports? Deklan Wynne has played the full 90 minutes in every game. While he is not inspiring any confidence, he has not made many galling errors. Kip Colvey did okay in his appearances, but was played out of position and better options were available.
The Rapids have had moments where fans can see the shape of a plan, but only against the weakest of teams. Hudson wants soldiers with fitness and discipline but must find a way to garner more trust and confidence from his whole team, not just those who came in loyal to the program. Just as the Rapids have been a mostly disappointing mixed bag, so has Hudson’s decisions so far. The risk of burnout in this system with these team dynamics is high for players, coaches and fans.
Several of his known players who make up in effort what they lack in talent are starting games the Rapids lose while more supposedly more talented players are criticized and left on the bench, or at home. Are the players loafing and soft or is the coach stubborn and dense? One could argue both sides.
A breaking point is coming. If Hudson just cannot find a place for Aigner and Gashi on merit, the Rapids should look to move them out in the transfer window. If Hudson refuses to bench his loyal but underperforming players for the Designated Players fans want to see, will the front office force his hand?
The Rapids have the 10th highest payroll in MLS, but they are wasting talent while sporting little depth. And what little depth they do have is seemingly ignored. Dillon Serna shines every substitute appearance yet cannot win a string of starts. Axel Sjoberg and Michael Azira have been serviceable MLS players, yet have barely played. Hudson might just be mismanaging his resources.
Could it be that integrating the top-end talent into the line-up would make Hudson change some of his team’s philosophies? Coaches need to play to the strengths of their players until the right players for the coaches system can be brought in. That cannot happen all in the same offseason a coach is hired. Hudson needs to give some time to the players he has left out in the cold. The players might respond positively.
Anthony Hudson told Matt Pollard of Last Week On Soccer, when asked about the role of Aigner, that “now it’s down to performance and him having to make the 18. It’s as simple as that. The detail of that is between me and him.”
The rest of the roster wants Hudson to heed that advice and play the line-up that gives them the best chances to win. There is talent in this team. You may have to strain to see it, but it is there. If only Hudson could thrust it into the limelight just that little bit more. Otherwise, he and the Colorado Rapids are steaming towards a rather ugly breaking point.