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Colorado Rapids: Biggest surprises so far through MLS season

Colorado Rapids forward Dominique Badji (14) celebrates his goal with midfielder Marlon Hairston (94) in the first half of the match Sporting Kansas City at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been pretty for the Colorado Rapids during Anthony Hudson’s debut campaign as head coach. After 15 games, the Rapids have a tough hill to climb with just 12 points, 11 points back of the sixth playoff spot in the Western Conference.

On the back of Saturday’s 3-2 comeback win over Minnesota United — which gave Colorado its first win in 11 games played across all competitions— Pro Soccer USA takes a look at the biggest surprises of the Colorado Rapids’ season so far.

New coach, new players, new system. Same poor results.

It’s been better over the past two weeks as Colorado has earned four points in its past two matches, but with just 12 points amassed in 15 games played thus far, playoffs are still a tall order for the 2018 version of the Rapids. Just a point out of last place in the Western Conference and two points from being the worst team in MLS, the focus for Colorado has shifted to incremental improvement and avoiding league and franchise marks for futility.

Bottom of the table isn’t an unfamiliar feeling in Commerce City, give the Rapids track record since winning the MLS Cup in 2010. But with a new head coach, a rebuild of more than half of its roster and a publicly stated goal to “do better”, these results have been equally disappointing as they are surprising.

Colorado has only recently snapped a 10-game winless streak which included a franchise-record eight-losses in a row and nine losses across all competitions including an early exit from the U.S. Open Cup tournament where Colorado was defeated 2-0 by first year USL side Nashville SC

As one Rapids fan on Reddit put it, “I came in just wanting to be better than last year and got the worst in Rapids history.”

The Stefan Aigner situation

Entering the 2018 season, Colorado Rapids fans were rife with enthusiasm on what German playmaker Stefan Aigner could do for the club with a full preseason. Why wouldn’t they be?

It was a signing that the front office promoted as a coup. Aigner was a player with Bundesliga experience obtained for what at the time seemed like a great value. Once he took the field in 2017, he provided an offensive spark the team was lacking with two goals and an assist in nine starts.

He was continually praised in the offseason and preseason, training with Bundesliga club Hoffenheim for preseason fitness and obtaining his green card to relieve the Rapids from having to apply another international roster spot. In a vacuum, it looked like a player committed to the cause.

But a preseason injury and green card travel led to Aigner being left off the team sheet early in the campaign, according to Rapids head coach Anthony Hudson. Aigner’s absence continued and frustrations boiled over with a heated exchange between the midfielder and head coach at an open practice in April.

Eventually, Hudson addressed the Aigner situation publicly, but the other side of the story from Aigner’s point of view wouldn’t come to light. Eventually, Aigner and the Rapids agreed to part ways and the player returned home to sign with another German club.

No one could have foreseen that less than a year after his highly touted signing, that Stefan Aigner would no longer be a part of the Colorado Rapids organization.

The continued rise of Dominique Badji

Plenty of Rapids fans will claim this isn’t a “surprise”, citing the fact that Colorado’s Senegalese striker led the team in scoring last season. But that mindset isn’t necessarily appreciative of what Badji is accomplishing and how rare it is.

For one, Badji has improved each season since joining the club as a fourth-round draft pick in 2015. This kind of consistency is rare, particularly for young MLS players with potential. Young players can show flashes of brilliance, but continued improvement over the course of four seasons is commendable. One needn’t look further than Colorado draft picks Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers to see how promising careers can often take turns to different directions.

It should also be considered surprising because, on paper, even the front office didn’t expect this kind of production from Badji, who has six goals in 13 games played this season. In the offseason, Colorado made very public moves to sign strikers Jack McBean and Joe Mason in addition to drafting Niki Jackson. The Rapids search for a striker continued with the signing of PSG academy product Yannick Boli.

Despite the increased competition, Badji has risen to the task, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the team’s offensive production thus far – and he’s doing it with a new coach in a new system against defenses that are now keen on his scoring ability.

If it’s not surprising, it’s at the very least, impressive.

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