Is Real Salt Lake on the verge of a breakthrough season? Mike Petke has a team filled with plentiful options, difficult choices, and still big question marks

After making a postseason run a year ago, RSL is deeper and more experienced, but must be more consistent to one-up what it did in 2018

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake returns not only its entire attacking corps in 2019, but added to it, too. A surprise playoff team in 2018, RSL now has plenty of options to replicate what it accomplished a year ago, but must be more consistent away from Rio Tinto Stadum.

Sandy • A few weeks after he took over as head coach of Real Salt Lake back in the spring of 2017, Mike Petke felt like he kept repeating himself at every media availability because he was. In order to get RSL back to where it was so used to being for so many years, it was going to take time, take buy-in, and take, above all else, a willingness to embrace the drastically overused, clichéd phrase of “the process.”

Asked then to try and summarize where RSL stood in Petke’s process, of where the club could get, he said one day after training at America First Field, “We are at version .03 — out of 10.” Looking back now, he wasn’t wrong. It took time. It took beatdowns. It took waving goodbye to high-priced players. It took trying unproven teenagers starting in unproven spots. It took missing the postseason by one measly point.

It took, as seen in 2018, a stroke of luck, too.

RSL overcame another shoddy road record to sneak into the MLS Cup postseason a year ago and the club made a run of it, upset LAFC on the road, and also pushed top-seeded Sporting Kansas City to the limit in the two-leg Western Conference semifinal round. So on the same spot where he said less than two years prior they were at “.03” of this phase of evolution at RSL, Petke, as he tends to do at times, embraced nuance when asked where they stand now in 2019.

“Where are we?” he said. “We’re a team that, early in the season, we’re still going to be ironing things out as we did early last season and when I took over.”

Straightforward, sure. Vague? A little of that, too.

He was, however, a little more curt with his players from the outset of preseason camp.

“We need to exceed what we did last year,” said veteran right back Tony Beltran. “Mike said that on the first day.”

So as RSL kicks off its 2019 regular-season campaign Saturday in Houston, it does so as a team that once again could have a say out West. And, once again, it’s up to this coaching staff and this roster to see if they can further this climb and avoiding a backslide, which in the parity-driven MLS, is quite common year to year. They’re still young, still led by a dynamic, versatile attacking corps that is interchangeable as ever, as seen during the playoff run last season. But if RSL wants to take a step forward, they’ll need to balance out the numbers.

Last year, RSL conceded 58 regular-season goals, the most of any postseason team. Questions linger about which center backs will seize the opportunity to start the opener and further on into the season. RSL brought in defensive midfielder Everton Luiz, who had been playing with SPAL in the Italian Series A, on loan to feature next to captain Kyle Beckerman, now in his 20th MLS season. That partnership will be crucial in the longevity of RSL’s regular season and, one could argue, is the most crucial needed development this season.

The puzzle pieces up top have been sorted out a bit more clearly now, knowing that midfielder-turned-forward Damir Kreilach (15 goals, nine assists last year) must be further up the field, which complicates things for Petke and his staff. It’s a welcome issue, because RSL is deep up front at every spot. Between Kreilach, Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata, Corey Baird, Sebastian Saucedo and new Designated Player signing Sam Johnson, there is no limit of firepower. But who starts? And where? With that many possibilities, managing it over 34 games might include some tough conversations with high-profile players.

Stay tuned.

Petke said RSL general manager Craig Waibel uses a saying to the staff that he wants to give them tough decisions to make on a weekly basis.

“It’s true,” Petke said, “but it sucks sometimes. I’m not gonna lie, it does.”

Last year showed that when when clicking, RSL has some show-stopping moments that lead to highlight-reel goals, a free-flowing essence that can show up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. Petke said with the depth they have up front now, “literally with the snap of the finger” they’ll no longer be hesitant to make changes in a game if the situation calls for it.

“Everyone can replace everyone because of that,” added Kreilach in regard to RSL’s versatility.

Waibel said this year’s roster is the most-balanced RSL roster since he moved to the front office at the conclusion of the 2014 postseason.

“I think that expectations, at a minimum, have to be the hopes of replicating what we did last year,” Waibel said. “When you add experience onto the group that we had, a very young group that is still growing up professionally and learning that they deserve results and learning that they deserve to make the playoffs, learning they deserve to play in big moments, you can’t teach those moments until they happen.”

Those moments came in the memorable 3-2 knockout round win at LAFC, and more disappointingly in the 4-2 second-leg loss at Sporting KC. How this team manages to become more consistent each week will determine how far it can go. A year ago, you’d be hard-pressed to guess pregame if RSL was about to win 4-0 or be blown out in the other direction. Unpredictability paid off, in a sense, for RSL a year ago because it was able piece together some big-time performances when it mattered most.

“Experience is just a word, you know? It’s about time,” Petke said. “It doesn’t mean they’ve taken that experience [last year] and put it into this season. That’s going to come down to them.”

RSL’s coach isn’t buying into the hype of the team having one of the deepest rosters in club history. At least not publicly. This week he instead chose to point to glaring issues that plagued the team in preseason, among which, were once again, conceding too many soft goals. RSL, Petke said, still has a ways to go. Growth, he noted, comes over time.

So where is RSL amid this ongoing Petke process? No one knows, but RSL believes it is back in contention.


At BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, Texas

Kickoff » Saturday, 4 p.m. MST


Radio » 101.5 FM

Records » 2019 season opener for both clubs

Last meeting » RSL 2-1 win at Houston (Aug. 18, 2018)

About RSL » Highlighted by offseason acquisitions Everton Luiz and DP signing Sam Johnson, RSL believes it filled its two major areas of need this offseason. ... Johnson has been dealing with a minor ankle injury this week but has trained fully ... Midfielder Albert Rusnák re-signed a contract extension through 2022 that reportedly will pay him north of $2 million a year. ... This 2019 season is the 20th regular season for both Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.

About Houston » The Dynamo are coming off a CONCACAF Champions League series win over Guatemalan club CD Guastatoya. ... Houston advanced to take on Liga MX superpower Tigres UANL in the quarterfinal stage. ... Houston features one of the most dynamic attacking groups in MLS, headlined by Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Tomás Martinez. ... The Dynamo went 0-2 vs. RSL in 2018.