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Kragthorpe: RSL thrives in the snow, breaking four-game losing streak

First Published      Last Updated May 18 2017 09:46 am

Sandy

The celebrations were subdued. Real Salt Lake's Albert Rusnák clenched his fist and hugged a few teammates after his tying goal, then Aaron Maund flexed briefly and absorbed some friendly shoves to commemorate his winning header.

Maund good-naturedly blamed his lack of goal-scoring experience for not having any choreographed material ready Wednesday night. That's forgivable. All of this stuff was new to RSL lately.

Real's 2-1 victory over New York City FC at chilly Rio Tinto Stadium evoked more relief than joy, even if the rap music had be turned down in the locker room so anyone could hear Maund confirm, "We're pumped."




The breakthrough came after a slump that coach Mike Petke tried to quantify vaguely, referencing "how ever many losses we had." But he knew the number: four.

The losing streak ended after RSL allowed an early goal, as always, but the team responded this time with "a different mentality," Petke said.

The coach's pregame approach focused far less than usual on strategy and more about effort. Petke recounted the highlights of his address with catchphrases such as "being men on the field" and "owning your job," which sounded more authoritative in his accent that seemingly comes from Central Casting for a New York cop.

His message got through in a game that marked the returns from injury of Rusnák, goalkeeper Nick Rimando and captain Kyle Beckerman and the first start of the newly acquired Jefferson Savarino. He's a speedy playmaker who will blend in nicely, judging by his first appearance in Sandy. "He's a different player than we've got," Rusnák said.

RSL looked like a different team Wednesday. Coaching inspiration helped; so did personnel upgrades.

Petke won his first two games after taking over when Jeff Cassar was fired in March, but then lost four in a row by some disturbing margins — including 3-0, 3-0 and 4-0 in the last three contests.

If my job description was to get a gauge of just how miserable RSL's season was becoming, the home team and the weather converged with a helpful snapshot early in the game.

Real defender Chris Schuler's sloppy play led to a goal by NYCFC's Sean Okoli in the fourth minute, as Rimando was beaten before he could make his first save of the night — the Major League Soccer-record 1,476th stop of his career. And then the snow started falling, although that probably was a good sign, considering how Petke's first victory came in a genuine snowstorm in early April.

The stuff didn't stick this time, but RSL's scoring drought finally ended. Rusnák's left-footed rocket in the 38th minute via Savarino's assist provided Real's first goal in 329 minutes since Rusnák scored in the second half of a 3-1 loss to Atlanta.

In the process, RSL's 2-7-2 record had become the league's worst, factoring in the number of games played. So the franchise's 13th season was not unfolding with any signs of promise, amid injuries and international duty that disrupted Petke's lineup. Everybody in MLS endures a long season, from early March to late October. That information was either consoling or foreboding to RSL followers, trying to absorb what was happening to a team once known for its consistency.

But the outlook improved Wednesday, when Maund's header of Rusnák's corner kick sent RSL ahead in the 51st minute and Rimando's tough save of David Villa's close-in shot preserved the lead.

RSL faces a big climb to get anywhere near the playoff cut in the Western Conference, but beating NYCFC was a start. If it snows again in June, this team might be getting somewhere.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

 

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