The Real Salt Lake athletic training staff had to set up portable tables to accommodate the constant flow of injured players into the training room.
“It’s about as messy as it is to have the whole family over for thanksgiving dinner, said forward Chad Barrett, who has been a training room regular since his March 31 knee surgery. “You’re just putting up tables everywhere, taking up space that’s normally used for other things. And that’s a pleasant time, whereas being on the injury table and being in the treatment room definitely isn’t.”
The strain on the training room has finally eased up in the past month, and RSL hasn’t lost anyone to international duty since June. That’s coincided with a five-match unbeaten streak for Real Salt Lake.
“It’s refreshing because we talked a lot about the potential of this roster early in the year,” RSL general manager Craig Waibel said. “We talked a lot about the potential of this roster when we had five players at the U-20 World Cup and Albert [Rusnák ] at the Euros. We talked about the potential of this roster when we had all the injuries. And it’s really nice and rewarding for this group and for the fans to get to see this group we put together, the roster we built.”
When RSL headed to L.A. just before the Gold Cup break, it had over 16 field players available for one of the first times all season. Through 19 prior league matches, RSL had lost a staggering total 160 games to injury.
RSL head trainer Tyson Pace had to get creative with scheduling players’ rehab sessions and arranging the space to accommodate the influx.
“The training room has looked like a triage unit since day one,” he said.
Pace had seen worse in his career, including 2013 when he said RSL had 19 in-season surgeries.
“But I think that this year the fact that we’ve had so many that are season-ending is rough,” he said, “just because you get an ACL every once in a while and we’ve found a lot of preventative strategies to help avoid those.”
Jordan Allen and Omar Holness underwent season-ending knee surgeries in June and July, respectively. Ricardo Velazco will miss at least the rest of regular season following his ankle surgery last month. Barrett’s rehab was expected to take four to six months, which could allow him to return late this year.
Aside from those four, backup goalkeeper Matt VanOekel (ankle sprain) and left back Demar Phillips (hamstring contusion) are the only other players on RSL’s injury list.
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“When you’re healthy,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said, “not only is your starting 11 going to be stronger, but your guys on the bench. It gives you bigger depth. So that’s definitely helped. I think guys are fighting in positions and guys are trying to beat out each other, and then ultimately the competition makes the players play better.”
RSL coach Mike Petke has had a comparative wealth of players available for selection, and the battle for playing time has made his job harder, he said. That’s how he prefers it.
“I don’t want the easy way out to say, ‘I have to start this guy, I have to start this guy because I have no other option,’” Petke said. “I want to have choices in every position and multiple choices. It makes it tough on me, and then I have the players coming in to my office every day, which they do, asking why they’re not playing. And it’s tiring, but it’s necessary, and I love it.”
In a testament to RSL’s depth, Petke has had to work hard to get homegrown forward Brooks Lennon, a rising star in the league, playing time.
A regular starter in March and April, Lennon has come in off the bench for roughly 20 to 25 minutes in each of RSL’s past three matches.
“How do you look at someone like Brooks and say, ‘Sorry dude, you’re not playing’?” Petke said. “But again, that wouldn’t happen if there weren’t guys in front that were really firing on all cylinders.”