A deep group of RSL outside backs begin to battle for playing time

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Danilo Acosta (25) after the game at Rio Tinto Stadium Sunday, October 22, 2017.

Herriman • The Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs players jogged in packs around the perimeter of the two regulation-sized fields in the Zions Bank Real Academy indoor facility before wrapping up the most physically taxing session of the week Thursday.

The first week of preseason camp, which opened Monday, has been focused on fitness for the whole team, but the outside backs were in for an extra treat.

“I just had a meeting with our strength and conditioning coaches talking about preseason,” Petke said at a news conference two weeks ago, “and they noticed that an obscene amount of running in the first week has to do with the outside backs, and that’s what I want from them. I need outside backs not to be purely defenders. I need them to be a big part of the attack.”

The competition has begun between a deep group of outside backs, many of whom are new additions this year. Danilo Acosta and Demar Phillips are expected to yet again battle for playing time at left back, but Tony Beltran’s knee injury led to an onslaught of signings at right back.

Welsh defender Adam Henley is the favorite to start, but RSL Academy product Aaron Herrera is vying for minutes there as well. Versatile defender Shawn Barry also has experience at several positions along the back line, and former Real Monarchs center back Taylor Peay has the skill set to fill in at outside back.

“I think it’s what every team needs,” Henley said. “If you don’t have players fighting against each other for positions then complacency kicks in. And if a player knows he’s going to be starting every week then it’s not the right mentality for the club.”

Petke began pushing his outside backs to involve themselves in the attack as soon as he took over about a month into the regular season last year. With that continued emphasis, fitness is one of the main attributes Petke said he’s looking for when evaluating the competition at outside back. Others include ability to read the game and ball control.

Acosta won the starting spot at the end of the 2017 season with those attributes and improved consistently in his first year on the first team. The key for the 20-year-old left back, who is at U.S. national team January camp this week, will be continuing to mature in the position.

Phillips was the regular starter in the first third of the season. He returns to camp healthy after battling injury through much of last season.

“It’s never fun for any soccer player to be in, be out, so the offseason was pretty good,” he said.

Beltran, on the other hand, is expected to be out for the majority of the regular season after undergoing two knee surgeries in the fall. RSL signed Henley and Herrera in the offseason to give the team one option with experience and one with potential, respectively.

“The days of defenders just being defenders is long gone,” Petke said. “Now they’re a vital part of your attack, especially on the outside. And I think with someone like Adam coming from the English game, how it is very back and forth, especially in the wing backs, I think that won’t be a tough transition for him at all.”

Herrera also showed his ability to get up the line in his last season at the University of New Mexico. He played some right mid to improve his play in the final third, which resulted in him leading the team in scoring with five goals this past season. As a young player RSL hopes to develop, Herrera likely also will get minutes with the Monarchs this season.

“Guys like Aaron Herrera, Adam Henley, Shawn Barry, just to name those guys, they’ve adapted well,” Petke said. “They seem to be taking to the guys and taking to the system that we want to play, and every day I’ve seen little improvements and little ways that they’re listening and putting into play what we want them to accomplish.”

Alfredo Ortuño easing into training

Alfredo Ortuño reported to training Wednesday but has been slowly working up to full participation over the past two sessions. The Spanish striker arrived Tuesday night, he said, and the RSL coaching staff is giving him time to get over the jet lag and acclimate to the altitude.

“Alfredo, we haven’t really seen much of him yet,” Petke said, “but obviously we did our homework on him, so we know what he’s capable of and know where we want to get him to.”