Sandy • Minute by minute at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night, as Real Salt Lake faced the Columbus Crew, the primary question that came to mind was this: Who are these RSL guys, really?
Are they the dominant, aggressive, passionate team that had outscored its opponents over the past three MLS games by the count of 11-4, or are they the milquetoast group that had stumbled and sputtered, lunged and clunked for most of the season before the recent revival?
Are they the timid, off-kilter, energy-lacking bunch that started slow against the Crew, possessing the ball, but mostly patting it harmlessly around the perimeter while Columbus was content to sit back and allow RSL to do so? And, then, after 15 minutes, the team that looked bewildered while the visitors punished them with a goal by Ola Kamara, popping a shot from close range to take the lead?
Or are they the guys who fought back hard at the start of the second half, scoring two goals, the first on a penalty kick by Joao Plata, after a Columbus handball, and the second a breakaway score by Jefferson Savarino, who measured and measured and then fired a ball into the net for a 2-1 lead?
Or are they the team that could not hold that favorable margin, instead letting Kamara score again, leveling the matter and leaving it where it ended — as a 2-2 draw?
The answer to all of the above is … yes.
Yes, they are.
Freddy Juarez, the Real assistant who subbed in for Mike Petke, as the head coach served his suspension for his ejection against Sporting KC last week, said it straight afterward here, bemoaning the team's failings late: "When we have a lead, we have to keep that lead, especially at home. … You always want to win. The plan was to win."
It didn't pan out that way, and RSL couldn't continue the mostly positive mojo it had gained over those previous three games, counting the draw against Kansas City and the wipeouts of the Galaxy and Portland.
They did start sluggishly before stirring late in the first half, getting chance after chance — Luis Silva squibbed a shot wide left, Savarino rocketed a ball toward the left top shelf before Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen batted it away, Plata went wide right, and another Silva attempt in deep was blocked — through the end of the initial stanza.
As that action unfolded, the colorful and creative combinations of profanities flowing from the mouth of Petke, banished as he was to a stadium box during Saturday's match, was entertaining, but also telling.
He saw the same absence of fire everybody else saw, the fire he had worked so hard to build in recent weeks. Columbus was playing its third game in eight days, but that's not what Petke saw. "We looked like the team that had played three games," he said.
Petke paused and added: "You drown your sorrows in your beer tonight and then we're on to Houston."
It isn't quite that simple for the lead man and everyone knew it.
He was ticked and worried.
The attractive form RSL had found of late happened on account of a number of things, but Petke was at the center of all of them. When he took over the club, after the start of the season, half his team had been called up for duty here, there, and everywhere. The other half had been injured, suspended or overwhelmed. They struggled for a while, but he lit that bonfire under them to give them new confidence, new hope. And then, he blasted away at referees, league officials, whoever he thought was necessary to blast in order to let his players know that he would fight for them, that they had to fight for themselves, too.
He wanted his players to think of themselves as badasses, as bad men who would do whatever was needed to win soccer games. That's what he was, and he was just the coach.
They responded … until Saturday night, when their badness too often transformed from the modern positive slang connotation to a more traditional meaning. RSL couldn't quite piece it all together, as their boss sat up in his box and swore like a mother or a trucker or a mother-trucker.
The problem is that their better play of late has boosted them into playoff contention, yes, but they need as many points as possible to take advantage of the final couple of months of the regular season. They have to win nearly every home game from here on out, and get some points on the road, as well.
Whether they do that or not, Petke has changed RSL from the team that opponents laughed at when they came out of the tunnel to a team now, that on better nights at least, nobody wants to play. He's reminded them who the hell they are supposed to be.
From here on out, when they have a lead like they did on Saturday night, they had best remember.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.