Anthony Hudson, Rapids vs. Red Bulls, 5.12.18
Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Know Your Opponent | The new Colorado Rapids are a lot like the old Colorado Rapids, and that's a problem for Portland

Soccer analyst Ross Smith took the words right out of my mouth, not that a number of other people haven’t thought the same. To paraphrase the former Portland Timbers player, somebody who still features prominently on Timbers’ broadcasts and Talk Timbers, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear that Pablo Mastroeni never left the Colorado Rapids.

During his three-plus years in charge of the MLS original, Mastroeni almost stubbornly stuck to a style that reflected his playing approach, one that reached international levels because of its intelligence, toughness and, well, stubbornness. Perpetually difficult to play against, Mastroeni’s Rapids weren’t perpetually good, going 46-58-41 during this 145 games in charge. The team made a run to the Western Conference finals in 2016, but beyond that outlying season, the team’s calling card was its industrious, physical, workmanlike approach.

Things were supposed to be different when the team brought in its current head coach, former New Zealand national team boss Anthony Hudson, but to this point, the new approach sporting director Pádriag Smith has tried to usher in has yet to take hold. Eight points in 10 games played, bottom of the Western Conference, only 11 goals scored; whatever new direction Colorado eventually goes in, the first chapter’s offered an uncertain start.

Some of that uncertainty comes down to Hudson’s learning curve. Like Portland’s new head coach, Giovanni Savarese, Hudson is in his first year in Major League Soccer; unlike Savarese, though, he doesn’t have decades of experience in North American soccer. Born in Seattle but raised in England, Hudson does have some managerial experience in the United States, having coached in the USL eight years ago. That time, however, pales in comparison to what Savarese brought to his job.

“One thing that you have to understand, but I knew from the beginning, is every game is tough in Major League Soccer,” Savarese, a former player and youth technical director in the league, explained. “Everybody brings you something different.

“One thing that is very, very important is to be prepared for anything that you might think you are going to encounter, because things happen very quickly and fast in this league, and you have to be prepared and anticipate things.

Hudson’s learning curve adds to the uncertainties around Colorado, but if any fanbase should be wary of trusting uncertainties, it’s the Portland Timbers. Nobody needs to be reminded that the team started its season 0-3-2, just as nobody needs to be reminded that the team, after five-straight wins, now sits third in the Western Conference. And, as loyal Timbers fans know, trips to Colorado have rarely been successful, regardless of the Rapids’ ups and downs.

Portland Timbers' MLS history, at Colorado
Date Result Scoreline
June 17, 2017 Loss 1-2
October 16, 2016 Loss 0-1
July 4, 2016 Draw 0-0
May 30, 2015 Win 2-1
September 13, 2014 Draw 2-2
March 22, 2014 Loss 0-2
March 20, 2013 Draw 2-2
September 5, 2012 Loss 0-3
June 30, 2012 Loss 0-3
March 29, 2011 Loss 1-3

Over the nearly eight years Portland’s been in Major League Soccer, the Timbers are 1-3-6 all-time at Colorado. They’ve scored only seven goals while conceding 20 in that time, while the one game the Timbers did take (on May 30, 2015) required a 90th winner from Jack Jewsbury to secure the 2-1 result. Just once during that span have the Rapids finished higher than fifth in the West, yet more times than not, when the Timbers have left Commerce City empty handed.

A quick look at the team Smith and Hudson have assembled shows you how this year’s Rapids could cause similar problems. Goalkeeper Tim Howard’s resume of Premier League soccer and high-level international experience speaks for itself, while a new, three-man central defense of Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson and Declan Wynne provides solid, experienced rearguards to shield the Rapids’ goal. Hudson’s midfield trio ensures a pure numbers game could give teams problems in the middle, and although the team depends on wingbacks to win their inevitable one-on-one battles, the two forwards the team leaves up top ensure any change of possession deeper could turn into a quick advantage higher up.

(Colorado's starting XI, May 19, 2018 at New York City FC.)

“They’ve been playing with five in the back, and they have a different way of playing than the other teams we’ve played with a similar formation,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, alluding to the approaches Seattle Sounders FC and Los Angeles FC recently employed at Providence Park. “[Colorado’s] idea is completely different … this team will have us a different challenge that we have to be smart to deal with. [It’s] something different that we haven’t faced in some way before.”

Whatever vision Colorado’s decision makers have of their future, the current approach is, stylistically, almost the same that Mastroeni used – the same that has always given the Timbers so much trouble; the same that sent the Rapids on a conference-final run less than two years ago. It’s the type of simple, rugged style opponents never want to face. They know that, rather than making their name on flashy highlights and gaudy goal numbers, teams that keep it simple are guaranteed to play hard. And there’s rarely anything more annoying than an adversary intent on out-working you.

It’s not a battle Portland’s destined to lose, but it’s one they have to see coming. The clever games teams like New York City and LAFC have tried to play against them, of late? Forget about it. This is going to be a battle Saturday (6pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)), and if Portland’s to going extend their winning streak to six, they’ll have to grind it out.