Foothills Sports Arena — With three inches of snow outside, the Colorado Rapids worked inside the Foothills Sports Arena on Friday to prepare for their east-coast trip against D.C. United on Sunday (3:00 kickoff, MT). The Burgundy Boys loaded up on hemoglobin, more oxygen carry-on baggage to sneak into RFK.
Colorado’s players might gain an edge when they drop in altitude, and everyone has a theory about playing up here. Opposing players and coaches quickly call altitude the MVP of Colorado soccer. Not all theories stack up, but some do. Last year, Switchbacks FC demonstrated a winning formula punishing visitors at the foot of Pikes Peak. Direct comparisons between MLS and USL don’t make sense because killer tactics for head coach Steve Trittschuh in Colorado Springs don’t help Pablo Mastroeni in Commerce City. For one, coaches can swap out three MLS apples or five USL oranges. Secondly, the pace of the games can get wild in both leagues, enough to introduce different challenges for the officiating crews. Like the players, the officials fall within the first and third tiers of North American soccer. If they can’t control the game, the pace screams along like a runaway trucker descending I-70 with no brakes.
But the Venn diagram for finding success at altitude in USL and MLS overlaps on a simple point. Don’t foul.
Trittschuh formed his inaugural team last year by combining wily veterans with spirited rookies, so it looked ugly early in the year. Overzealous tackles and cagey “professional fouls” combined to kill the tempo for the first games of the season. But as the group got to know each other and improved defensive positioning in May and June, the foul count dropped significantly. Opponents started turning blue because the games never stopped. While they secured the top spot in the USL Western Conference, Tritt’s troops contained the visitors, won the ball, worked it around without losing it, and then only let them rest for kickoffs between goals.
Switchbacks Stadium stands 6,035 feet above sea level, the highest in USL and well above Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. To make matters worse for his guests, Trittschuh fully leverages the five-man substitution rule. A carry-over from the USL-Pro days, the five-man rule allowed for two games in a weekend (to reduce overall travel costs for teams). Before redefining the pyramid next year, 2016 will be the final season for the USL’s five-man exception. Why not milk it?
Unless someone gets hurt during the first 45 minutes, Trittschuh starts introducing subs in the second half. As opponents wilt, he brings in fresh legs, followed by fresher legs, and eventually a fifth and final pair. His Oxygen Debt Collectors extract everything from the visitors as the games come to a close.
Of course, teams at all levels can’t be naive. If the center backs chat in the center circle while their teammates victimize the visitors (backing up occasionally for repeated kickoffs), they can play foul-free and basically drown the other team. But if the center backs are covered in blood and sweat while staggering on their own penalty spots, they can’t be angels. They need to pull out the shillelagh occasionally.