Anthony Hudson was not happy. The Colorado Rapids head coach didn’t believe in his players and, as a result, the players didn’t believe in the system.
Despite loading up on proven talent in the offseason, the Rapids went winless through the early portion of the year. Hudson was adios’d; Conor Casey took over.
Now the Rapids have done a semi-rebuild midseason to tighten up the defense, swapped out Benny Feilhaber for more stability in the center, and are on a two game winning streak with nothing but late goals leading the way. Both LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew have fallen to Casey’s sword, and now the former Union striker is coming for his old team.
Colorado’s success has been driven by a stronger back line. Without a true destroyer in midfield, the Rapids’ slow back line had trouble controlling the space in front of them without sacrificing space in behind. A rotating cast of defenders offered little promise, with seven of the first 11 matches resulting in Tim Howard’s net bulging at least three times.
Former Union right back Keegan Rosenberry has been unable to utilize his unique abilities in the offensive third because he has been pinned deep, and both central midfielders — who are more No. 8s than No. 6s — haven’t released to joins attacks as often as they should.
Under Casey, the decision-making is simplified. Rosenberry can move the ball from back to front and occasionally join attacks (though his team has rarely held the ball this season). Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price now have the services of winger Jonathan Lewis to provide an extra body in attack, and they can simplify their movements and don’t get caught forward together.
The final piece of the puzzle for Casey is figuring out his front line. Kei Kamara remains an excellent fast break attacker who can outmuscle and overpower central defenders, but underneath him… how does Diego Rubio fit in? The spritely attacker, acquired from Kansas City, isn’t ideal to play under Kamara. But that leaves big questions about how to link midfield to attack. Thus far, the main solution has been Jonathan Lewis on the left, but that leaves that second striker position as something of a black hole.
For the Union, this is a big match. Grabbing three points before two tough matchups will put them in a strong position to enter a busy July and August near the top of the east.
Philly will likely need to lean on their depth to get through this week, and both Olivier Mbaizo and Warren Creavalle seem ready to earn minutes in the next two matches. Aurelien Collin could also be called on and Jim Curtin will need to figure out how to rotate his front line against two teams that could be dangerous if the Union don’t throttle them early.
Big matchups include a showdown on the wing where both Rosenberry and Kai Wagner will seek to pin the other deep by getting forward early, and a battle in the Union back line. Kamara can change a game in a moment, and even though Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie controlled him well a year ago, that’s no guarantee for the future.
The Union and Rapids face off at 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday evening at Talen Energy Stadium as Philly looks to regain first place in the Eastern Conference.