Herriman • On Real Salt Lake’s website, he’s still listed as a forward.
Things change quickly, and for Brooks Lennon, they did in a flash — and in a blowout — this March.
RSL was in the midst of a pummeling at home to expansion franchise LAFC in its home opener. In an attempt to wiggle their way back in somehow, coach Mike Petke called on his 20-year-old winger to put a jersey on and get in the game.
On the back line.
RSL was throwing numbers forward in the eventual 5-1 loss, and it was on that sunny spring afternoon in Sandy that the landscape of Lennon’s hyped, promising career might’ve taken a slight detour. Because growing up, Lennon was a goal-scorer.
“Always a forward,” he said.
At the old RSL academy in Casa Grande, Ariz., he was a forward. When he moved to soccer giant Liverpool at 17, he was the one pestering defenders, using his blinding straight-line speed to get behind the opposition. With the U.S. youth national teams, Lennon was either a central striker or playing out wide as he did for RSL in 2017.
Petke’s gamble on a day no one at RSL wants to remember is paying dividends.
Lennon is RSL’s right back. He has been for the last 17 consecutive matches, starting every one since entering in the loss to LAFC in March. A portion of RSL’s young homegrown core is learning a brand new position on the fly as RSL looks to maintain its playoff position in the crowded Western Conference.
So, how’s he done it?
They’re calling it “trial by error” at RSL.
“I’ve never played the position before in my life,” Lennon said, “so you build on your performances and build on what you’ve learned.”
It’s taken time, obviously. The first few weeks, Lennon was in foreign territory, one-on-one with some of the league’s top scorers in or around the box, trying to anticipate what might come next. His whole soccer life, it’s been the opposite. He’s been the one in control with
the ball at his feet, ready to make the move no one expects.
Petke chuckles looking back on the first month of the experiment. It was, as RSL’s coach explains, like a sink-or-swim moment for 90 minutes around the country every week.
“It was, ‘Hey kid, get out there and let’s see you defend,’” Petke said. “He takes pride in shutting down players and he’s gotten a lot better at it.”
RSL found itself in this position when most other avenues were no longer viable.
Right back Tony Beltran is still recovering from a severe knee injury suffered last October. Newcomer Shawn Berry was out for nearly four months himself with a knee injury suffered early in the season. So the staff looked down the line and figured they’d give a guy who is familiar with playing on the right side of the field a chance of doing a similar job, just a little different.
At right back, you’re still zipping up and down the field, RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall said, but your responsibilities are different. You’re to help out in the attack and never forget when it’s time to backpedal and retreat. It’s taken Lennon some time, admittedly, to shake loose all that he’s known. It’s always been get at the goal by any means necessary.
Now, it’s about protecting it, too.
“He brings a lot of talent to the back line where he has the potential of playing and moving and combining and not panicking under pressure,” Marshall said. “It’s just reinforcing a lot of things that he already has in his ability.”
It helps, too, that Lennon does not get gassed. He might be learning how to properly position himself on a counter-attack or make sure a lunge in the box doesn’t result in a penalty, but one of the fastest players at RSL rarely sees the tank run low. Which makes the transition to right back more seamless than previously thought.
“I’m more and more looking at it now that this very well could be a reinvention of Brooks Lennon from the academy over to Liverpool to now,” Petke said. “But he has to keep buying into the concept that this is a good opportunity for him and this is a good position.”
Called into his first-ever U.S. men’s national team senior camp in January, Lennon is believing what his coaches are preaching: That this move might not be forever, but it opens up more doors for him on a consistent basis, both at RSL, and maybe, on the international level.
“I think this huge for me in my development going forward and trying to get called into national team camps,” Lennon said. “I can play five different positions on the field: I can play both outside backs, both wingers and I can also play striker, which I played a lot at Liverpool, so the versatility makes me a different player.”
REAL SALT LAKE AT MINNESOTA UNITED
At TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Kickoff • Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 9–8–2, Minnesota 6–11–1
Last meeting • RSL 1–0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium (June 17, 2017)
About Minnesota • Coming off an entertaining 4–3 home win over defending MLS Cup champs Toronto FC last weekend. … Colombian winger Darwin Quintero leads the team in goals scored in 2018 with six. … Midfielder Miguel Ibarra leads the team in assists with five. … Minnesota has a conference-worst minus−13 goal differential. … Minnesota is 5–3−1 at home this season.
About RSL • RSL is coming off back-to-back home wins against the top two teams in the Western Conference last week. … RSL has been dreadful on the road in 2018 at 1–7−1. … Albert Rusnák, Corey Baird and Luis Silva are tied for the team’s lead in goals scored this year each with five. … Midfielder Damir Kreilach has a team-best six assists in 2018. … RSL’s previous lone visit to Minnesota was a 4–2 loss last April.