When the final whistle sounded, Real Salt Lake forward Luis Silva buried his face in the black long-sleeved shirt he held in his hands, sitting on the bench with his head bowed.
Despite a 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City, RSL missed the Major League Soccer playoffs by one point. The team’s midseason turnaround was little consolation for the players, which in and of itself said as much about Real Salt Lake’s new identity.
“If we can keep that team together and improve it, we’ve got a great chance,” RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen said. “So we’re excited for next year. Just cut us loose.”
This season RSL endured a coaching change, an injury plague and a long stretch of bad form, and still almost punched its ticket to the playoffs. The rebuild seems to be over, and barring any self-sabotaging offseason moves, RSL has positioned itself to be a re-appear as contender in the Western Conference.
“I don’t think it has to be a lot different,” RSL coach Mike Petke said of next season. “I think they have embraced my philosophy, style of play, expectations … I know I’ve seen a bit more than I thought I would throughout these last five, six months.”
RSL will likely be able to keep much of its core group intact, and general manager Craig Waibel hinted as much on Thursday at the announcement of Petke’s new three-year contract extension.
“We have some fun decisions to make,” he said. “This time of year for a general manager can be full of fun decisions or full of tough decisions. And we have a healthy balance this year, but we have quite a few fun ones to make.”
Winger Jefferson Savarino, who was on loan this year from Venezuelan club FC Zulia, and RSL mainstays Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando are among key players who aren’t locked in for next season.
Savarino’s may be the most straightforward of those conversations. The loan deal with FC Zulia included a purchase price, Waibel told the Tribune in May. Waibel said Thursday he was “extremely optimistic” that Savarino and the club will “be able to get something done in the next couple weeks.”
Beckerman also took an optimistic tone about a future with RSL, saying after Sunday’s win “I’m hopeful that everything is going to come together and we’ll sort it out pretty quickly, and then for sure start looking forward to next year.”
The 35-year-old brings huge sentimental value to RSL, and Petke’s system also highlights Beckerman’s strengths — leadership, positioning and possession — while hiding any decline from aging.
Rimando, another potential free agent, could be an equally valuable asset for a team like expansion club LAFC, which starts play next season. He acknowledged ongoing talks with RSL and said he “would love to” return. As the second-highest-paid goalkeeper in the league, Rimando will likely have to take a pay cut to remain.
Roster moves are a given in the offseason, but everyone connected with the club has expressed excitement about the existing foundation.
“[Petke’s] philosophy and his identity, we really took on his personality the second half of the season,” Beckerman said. “I think it took us a little bit, of course [as] with any new coach, so we should be flying next year. We’ll get the full preseason with Mike and then hopefully come out of the gates flying.”
Petke was hired early in the season, and used July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup break as an in-season camp instead of having a preseason. Following the July break, RSL was 7-3-4 (22 points), almost half of its overall total.
Petke seemed particularly impressed with the adaptability his team demonstrated. The week before the season’s final match, the coaches changed RSL’s approach out of respect for Kansas City’s playing style. The team executed almost exactly how the coaching staff wanted it to, scoring in the opening three minutes and taking a 2-0 lead at the intermission.
“I think the groundwork has been laid, from when I took over to now, for the most part, [for] the way I like to play,” Petke said after that match. “Now it is about perfecting it a little bit, and tweaking it a little bit.”