There are two important things to know about the Colorado Rapids and their reach for that final playoff spot.
(And let's face it, the Rapids toil rather anonymously out on the edge of the American high plains, with less probably known about this side and these players than any other club in MLS.)
First, don't call coach Gary Smith a Plain Jane 4-4-2 guy, as so many of his fellow British managers tend to be. He's got some tactical wanderlust in him, unafraid to vary the arrangements and the personnel—a fact that will make them a bugger to deal with when they finally punch their ticket to the postseason, as they almost certainly will.
For example, Smith had his team in a 4-3-3 in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Dallas. As always, the formation hinged on the rugged central midfield tandem of Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz.
(Indeed, Larentowicz's offseason pickup from New England looks like one of the masterstrokes of the MLS winter swaps. With another strong holding man working alongside him, Mastroeni has burgeoned going forward this year.)
But instead of being a two-pronged midfield, Smith this time went with a three-man arrangement that saw Jamie Smith moving inside from his usual patrol areas out wide, working as the point of a three-man midfield triangle. This provided the foundation Colorado’s trio of attackers.
Big brute Conor Casey caused trouble, as always, in the advanced central areas. Omar Cummings, who can still make a league MVP case for himself with a loud couple of closing weeks, played wide along the right. And Macoumba Kandji, recently picked up from the Red Bulls, set up as a left wing.
Dallas initially had trouble adjusting to Smith's formation surprises. The home team's defenders had issues locating where the Colorado speedy runners were coming from and where the supply was being initiated. Cummings ran in behind the defense on a couple of instances from wide spots along the right, taking in long, diagonal balls.
And the ability for Colorado to deliver those long, cross-field passes always seemed to be in play. That's because Dallas’ five-man midfield likes pressure in high spots.
But the FCD setup is better suited to deal with two opposing men centrally rather than three. When the Rapids arranged themselves in a three-man central triangle, Dallas seemed to be overly concerned with Jamie Smith and less able to press the two holding men behind him.
Just because they had two holding midfielders, that didn’t mean Larentowicz and Mastroeni had to sit back defensively in a purely screening role. That's clear enough from the two goals Larentowicz knocked in – two goals on the road, no less.
So, clearly, Big Red was getting himself into advanced spots. (One goal did come on a set piece, but Larentowicz had other opportunities in the run of play.)
Gary Smith is a manager who likes to adjust according to the opposition. Larentowicz talked to me about this during the MLS All-Star break in Houston. He spent five years under another MLS manager with British lineage, the Revolution’s Steve Nicol.
According to Larentowicz, the managerial MOs were similar in many ways. The big difference, he explained, was in the presiding tactical approach as it relates to the opponent. Nicol’s teams do what they do. Smith’s teams tweak and tinker according to the situation.
That’s what happened last Saturday. By lining up with three true forwards, whose starting positions were always so advanced on the field, Colorado limited Dallas’ ability to get fullbacks Heath Pearce and Jair Benitez forward, something FCD thrive on. Less comfortable with getting the fullbacks forward, Dallas weren’t able to press as efficiently and therefore failed to control possession as Schellas Hyndman’s side has done so often this year.
Smith has used this 4-3-3 before in 2010. He hasn’t rolled out the 3-5-2 yet this season, although he did so a year ago down the stretch of the 2009 campaign.
Even within the 4-4-2, Colorado can attack teams with variety. Recently acquired veteran midfielder Brian Mullan is going to present different problems than Cummings as a right-sided midfielder, for instance. Everyone knows Cummings as a forward, but he has played in the midfield occasionally for Smith
Of course, there are issues with making these changes midstream. For instance, defensive responsibilities need adjustment according to the formation. Tracking runners could then become problematic when the roles change on the fly. As it stands, Colorado would face the New York Red Bulls in the opening playoff round.
Just a second's hesitation from someone in a Rapids' kit could provide the time and space for an attacker to decide the series. Facing New York would clearly be an “indecision not allowed” zone; Dane Richards or Joel Lindpere will exploit space down the wings with a brutal efficiency if the Rapids can't account for their runs out of the midfield.
Cummings and Kandji usually worked themselves back efficiently into good defensive spots Saturday. But again, it just takes once.