After a shockingly successful campaign in 2016, the Colorado Rapids had a truly miserable 2017. Finishing with 33 points from 34 games, tied with DC United for the least proficient offense with only 31 goals, a -20 goal differential and only finishing one point above the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference table. Injuries and fitness issues with designated player Shkëlzen Gashi limited him to just 17 games and two goals and although Kevin Doyle worked extremely hard he just could never consistently find the back of the net for the Burgundy Boys.
Off-Season Grade: B-
Gone are the 2016 wins, head coach Pablo Mastroeni (does this mean no more "human spirit"?) and the 4-2-3-1. In are new head coach Anthony Hudson, the 5-3-2 and a rebuilt team that will need to gel quickly if Colorado hopes to make any noise in a difficult Western Conference.
It is difficult to know what to expect from Anthony Hudson. This is his first real club opportunity. His last stop with the New Zealand National Team saw his a very defensive 5-3-2 style, content to smash and grab points whenever possible. So far in this rebuild it seems that the Rapids may be following suit.
While most of MLS turns its attention toward South American talent, the Rapids have looked to mine Europe to bolster their squad. They have tried to address some of their offensive issues toward the end of last year by signing attacking midfielder Stefan Aigner (formerly of 1860 Munich and the Bundesliga), and they've added newcomers Johan Blomberg (from AIK in Sweden), Joe Mason (from Wolves in the English Championship) and Enzo Martinez (from the Charlotte Independence, the USL affiliate of the Rapids). There is reason to expect a bit more offensively, and just maybe even dare to hope for a 2016-esque season.
Key Player: The Rebuilt Defense
This is kind of a cop out but, but hey, I'm going with it. The entire defense is the key to the Rapids season. With Edgar Castillo (signed on loan from Monterrey), Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, Deklan Wynne, Kip Colvey and new #6 Jack Price (also from Wolves), the Rapids defense looks to be much improved, at least on paper. There are questions about who the three centerbacks in Hudson's preferred 5-3-2 will be and how returning centerback Axel Sjöberg fits into what seems to be a crowded backline. If everyone is healthy you could expect to see plenty of second year stand out Kortne Ford, Wilson and Smith, which would allow wingbacks Marlon Hairston and Castillo to push up high and provide width and support in the attack. Given the Rapids strength at home even during a miserable 2017 (eight of their nine wins were at home), the bolstered defense and ever-present altitude challenges should continue to give opponents fits at Dicks Sporting Goods Park in 2018.
Best Case Scenario: Competing for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference
2018 is clearly a rebuilding year in Colorado. Much has been made about the "Rapids Way" and playing an attractive brand of soccer, but if you look at their priorities and how they have rebuilt the team it seems clear that defense is a high priority. If the defense can lock it down and Tim Howard can rebound from a mediocre 2017, the Rapids could be in play for the final spot in the west. Admittedly even that would be a tall order given the addition of LAFC and the overall strength of the Western Conference.
Bold Prediction: The better keeper sits on the bench... and it's not Tim Howard
Look, Tim Howard is one of the best keepers our country has produced, but time is undefeated and last season (and against Toronto in the opening game of the CONCACAF Champions League) it looked as though age had finally caught up to the Secretary of Defense. Yes, Howard still brings intangibles, organization, communication and the ability to quickly restart the offense, but the shot stopping and athleticism are just not what they used to be. Zac MacMath is more athletic and more than a decade younger than Howard. Despite that, it is highly likely that the better, more capable MacMath sits on the bench this season.