February 1, 2016. I woke up that day to a notification on my phone. The notification came from my MLS app: “Rapids acquire attacker Shkelzen Gashi.” Shkelzen Gashi? Who? What? From where? The leading goalscorer in the Swiss Super League two years in a row? Designated Player? Any Rapids fan would be lying if they said they knew who he was prior to joining the Rapids (maybe some of those Albanian or Swiss fans did but definitely not your average fan- including me). Everyone would go on to search highlights of the dude, and find more stats and try to fit him into the system that we had here. “He should play left wing!” “He should play attacking mid!” “Shadow striker!” “Lone forward!” On and on people going about what position this guy should play. Even today, in 2018, he’s still trying to find a place in the starting XI. So, where should he play?
To fully understand where to play Gashi, we have to compare the system he was in prior to joining the Rapids to the system that we have now, the 4-4-2 diamond. FC Basel played a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 where Gashi was used as a left winger in both systems. Basel manager, Paulo Sousa, at the time played a counter-attacking type of soccer that didn’t rely on possession but beating the opponent with speed and a quick transition into the attacking play. Basel used their defense and goalie to spur attacks and they went to the wings for their attack. However, the reason that Gashi was able to score so many goals was all due to him playing more centrally than a left winger does. If the ball was being played on the right wing, Gashi would have the responsibility to come into the box and be an outlet to score. Judging by his highlights from Basel, he was used more as a shadow striker. Someone who is right behind the main striker ready to capitalize on their mistakes. For the Rapids, however, he wasn’t used as effectively. Gashi was played as a left midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. Since Gashi is not the best of dribblers, Basel would attack with their right wing more than the left. For the Rapids, he was tasked with creating the plays and opening up space for Kevin Doyle. Since Dillon Powers was a two-way midfielder, Hairston and Gashi were the ones making the plays- which is not how you use Gashi effectively. Gashi and Powers both ended up with 0.8 dribbles per game while Marlon Hairston came in at 1.1 dribbles per game. This would put our attacking midfield 3 at a combined 0.9 dribbles per game. (Marco Pappa would lead the team with 2 dribbles per game but was rarely played due to his lack in defensive play.) The MLS champs that year played the same 4-2-3-1 the Rapids played but with an attacking midfield of Ivanschitz, Dempsey, and Lodeiro. They averaged out 0.9, 1.9, and 2.6 dribbles per game, respectively, putting them at a combined 1.8 dribbles per game between the three of them. Gashi was still able to find the back of the net 10 times that year. He was underutilized but still scoring. In 2017, that was not the case. He was still underutilized but did not do much after an injury kept him out for most of the season. This year, he scored a penalty and…that’s about it. A lot of people would have loved to see Gashi become the great player we want him to be…but how? Can a player that has fallen so far from grace make a comeback?
I can’t really sit here and tell you that Gashi is going to come back healthy and make his return to the team and make the impact we want him to have. I can tell you, however, what I would be doing if I were in coach Hudson’s shoes and how to actually utilize Gashi. There are essentially two options you have with Gashi next season. Sell him or keep playing him. If you do intend to sell him, sell/trade him to the Eastern Conference or out of the league for at least his market value which is estimated to be 900 thousand dollars. If they don’t sell him, what I would like to see them try to do is buy down his contract and get that DP status off of him. Any Rapids fan can tell you that he is not worthy of being a DP, he just hasn’t been producing. Buying him down seems like the best course of action if the club intends on keeping him. Once they bring him down below DP level: voila. You’ve just received the TAM level striker that many Rapids fans have wanted. For me, it is no question where Gashi should be playing; up top, with a preferably pacy DP striker. In this diamond, there is going to be little to no width at all, which for Gashi, it’s something he’s used to playing with his time with Sousa. You also don’t have to worry about Gashi coming back on defense. There’s no need when you have Price, Boateng, and Acosta all there to provide a good solid midfield core. Having Gashi playing as a shadow striker also takes away the responsibility of him having to dribble and create chances. He’s a finisher, not a creator. Playing him in the attacking midfield position is just asking, no, begging for another static attack that Dillon Powers provided in his time with the Rapids. The difference between Gashi and Powers, however, is Powers does not have the nose for goal that Gashi does. If you play Gashi there for half the season and he doesn’t produce then it’s fine. He’s nearing the end of his contract and you can go after new players who actually will produce. If you play Gashi in a position he won’t succeed in, don’t blame him for the Rapids lack of attacking soccer.