The play that ended Conor Casey's season was rather innocuous. One of the league's most physical forwards attempted to chest down a virtually uncontested pass, planted his foot in the newly laid CenturyLink Field sod and immediately went to ground. As he lay there, grabbing at his left Achilles' tendon, it seemed as if the Colorado Rapids' hopes of repeating as MLS Cup champions were heavily dependent on the severity of that injury.
Soon enough, it was learned that Casey had torn his Achilles' tendon and would almost certainly be out for the year. With the Rapids' having lost that game 4-3 to the Seattle Sounders, their season record sat at a rather unimpressive 6-6-9. Missing the playoffs entirely seemed a far more likely result than making another championship run.
A funny thing happened in the following month and a half, though. Rather than watching their season further fall apart, the Rapids have put together a solid run of form that has seen them all but secure a spot in the playoffs and leave them in prime position to advance out of the CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage. In the nine games the Rapids have played across all competitions since Casey's injury, they have gone 5-1-3 and outscored their opponents 18-12. Put another way, the Rapids have claimed, on average .7 points more per match, while scoring .8 goals more per match and allowing goals at an identical rate as they were before.
How they've managed to do this is not entirely clear, but the most obvious change has been the moving of Sanna Nyassi from midfielder to forward.
Prior to Casey's season-ending injury, Rapids coach Gary Smith had been forced to try a variety to ways to deal with his various forwards' absences. Even before that game against the Sounders, Casey had missed seven previous games this season. His lack of availability had been compounded by Omar Cummings missing eight games through a combination of injury and international duty. For the most part, Smith had opted to use Caleb Folan in Casey's role and either Quincy Amarikwa or Andre Akpan spelling Cummings.
While those decisions made some logical sense, as they were essentially like-for-like, they weren't especially effective. Folan's production was essentially confined to his two-goal game against DC United back on April 3. Aside from that game, Folan had registered a grand total of two assists prior to the moment of Casey's injury. Amarikwa and Akpan, meanwhile, had combined for two goals and one assist in their combined 10 appearances.
Maybe losing Casey for the season gave Smith the freedom to try something bold. Maybe he was just fed up with the performances of his backup forwards and figured Nyassi could do no worse. Whatever the reason, it has worked.
Since moving to forward, a position he had never played with any regularity during his first two MLS seasons, Nyassi has been a revelation. In his first game at forward, he scored a hat trick against the New York Red Bulls. He followed that up with another goal two games later and has since added two assists.
A big part of that is the understanding he seems to have formed with Cummings, who was at his best when he was playing yin to Casey's yang. Cummings has assisted on all four of Nyassi's goals and Nyassi has assisted on Cummings' only goal during this stretch. It's also worth noting that Folan's game has also come alive since Casey's injury, as he has scored three goals while mostly filling in for Cummings when he's been called away to the Jamaican national team.
Unsurprisingly, Nyassi is getting results in a very different way than Casey was. While Casey was the classic target forward, Nyassi is something entirely different. Since moving to forward, he's averaged about 100 touches per game, while Casey was rarely over 70. Just look at an example of the two players' heat maps:
As these show, Nyassi is the far more active player, turning virtually the entire offensive half into a sea of red. He's also the far more active, and accurate, passer, attempting more than twice as many passes and completing about 83 percent of them in this game. This activity seems to have helped the Rapids' attack, as they've generated about two shots more per game, even as they've held just 51 percent of the possession.
It's probably unfair to say that the Rapids have gotten better without Casey. After all, Casey was a huge part of their MLS Cup winning season of a year ago. But Casey had never seemed to find his form this year, and maybe losing him for an extended period was a blessing in disguise.