Mike Petke squatted at the edge of the turf, a folded practice plan hanging out the back of his Adidas training pants.
The paper was the result of several 10- to 12-hour days with his coaching staff over the offseason. Now he made a mental note of everything from ball movement to where his players’ eyes went first — to the obvious pass, or up, scanning for another option.
“It was a day-by-day, minute-by-minute, session-by-session layout, and it took a long time,” Petke said of Real Salt Lake’s preseason plan. “Couple that with how we came up with the idea of how we want RSL to play, that took a long time.”
This time last year, Petke was the coach of the Real Monarchs, reclaiming his love for coaching after a two-year hiatus in the world of New Jersey Youth Soccer player development. So over the next month, Petke will, for the first time, have a preseason to implement his vision for Real Salt Lake. His approach is meticulous.
“I think we already have a little bit of [Petke’s system in place],” forward Luis Silva said. “I think you guys saw it in the second half of the season last year. I think we’re just preparing to come out stronger, to be more organized, and to go out there and play football.”
RSL’s second-half surge last season can be traced back to a well-timed international break that Petke used as a mini-camp. After a 6-2 win in Los Angeles on July 4, the CONCACAF Gold Cup gave RSL two weeks to prepare for its next match. Petke’s plan, much like the one this preseason, included a focus on fitness and tactics.
“Last year, I think that the little mini break that we had and the work that we put in, I think it paid dividends down the stretch of the season,” Petke said. “But to have this much time and to be able to sit back already planned out, and on a day-to-day basis go back over what we did and what we want to do, it’s massive.”
“After the game?” Petke said. “Oh.”
The sigh sounded almost painful. He sat in the greenroom of The Club at 50 West four days after the last match of the season, surrounded by walls bearing the signatures of artists who had anxiously waited there for their call to the stage. In minutes Petke, too, would walk in front of the gathered crowd, and RSL Owner Dell Loy Hansen would announce the coach’s three-year contract extension. But it wasn’t time for him to bask in that moment yet.
Petke had just been asked to relive the night of Oct. 22, when RSL beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 but learned, as the results began to come in from around the league, that the team’s efforts had been futile. They would not advance to the playoffs.
After a postgame speech and news conference that evening, Petke stole a moment alone in his office. With time to process at last, one thought ran laps around his mind: one point. Missed it by one point.
“I have no problem saying this, I’m not meaning offense to anybody, but we deserved to be in the playoffs in front of at least one, if not two, teams,” Petke told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And that to me is gutting because the players deserved it, earned it. And they just got so close and they were so committed.”
That point could have come from anywhere: one more draw instead of a loss, one more win instead of a draw. Petke wondered aloud in his postgame comments if his team would have won a playoff berth had he not managed every game, even those early on, with a disdain of parking the bus to force a tie.
Then again, if he hadn’t, would they have come so close?
Before Petke left the greenroom to make his contract extension official, hope for the next season had already taken over the conversation.
“What we have right now as a foundation, and even more than a foundation, a foundation with a lot of quality,” he told The Tribune, “I’m excited.”
“Six weeks might sound like a lot of time in a preseason,” Petke said after training Thursday, “but when I lay out in front of me the schedule, how many practices, days off, games — which means day before the game [and] day after the game is rather light — it’s not a lot of time. So for me it’s very important to get it in their mind right away how we’re going to play.”
Petke also stressed to his players that they needed to come back in shape this year. Every one of them passed the fitness test the first day, Petke was happy to announce, which had allowed them to focus on tactics without being distracted by fatigue.
In an odd way the end to last season may have been the best outcome for the start of this one. The promising comeback has left the players loose and confident, but the disappointment of missing the postseason motivates them.
“Last year we started bad and it cost us the playoff spot,” midfielder Albert Rusnák said Tuesday, the second day of camp, “so we have to think about the start of the season now.”
Mike Petke<br>Age • 41<br>Hometown • Bohemia, NY<br>As a player • New York MetroStars (1998-2002); D.C. United (2003-2005); Colorado Rapids (2005-2008); New York Red Bulls (2009-2010).<br>As a coach • Hired as RSL coach March 29, 2017; Real Monarchs coach (December 2016-March 2017); New York Red Bulls coach (2013-2014); Red Bulls assistant (2011-2012).