Herriman • Like all of you, Mike Petke went in search of answers, too.
And like all of you, the Real Salt Lake coach was waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. Petke was hoping to see the club’s physically-imposing, in-fear-of-nothing 20-year-old left back resurface. Not literally. Because he knew where Danilo Acosta was: On the bench.
Some nights, Acosta didn’t make RSL’s bench. Other nights, he found himself in Tulsa, Okla. for the Real Monarchs in the USL. That was a few months ago when Petke was dialing up those in soccer who helped Acosta get to where he’s at. The reports came back the same:
“Stay on top of him,” one said. “You have to push him,” another told Petke.
It was Acosta, who along with the rest of RSL’s academy-to-first team contingent a year ago, spurred a run from last place to within a point of the playoffs. But that was last year. Acosta even says so. Which is one of the reasons why Acosta was on the bench for 10 of RSL’s first 17 matches this year. Since given another shot on May 26, Acosta has started the past six-consecutive matches. RSL is 3-2-1 in that stretch.
The million dollar question is: What changed?
“I’d say my overall mentality,” Acosta said. “At the beginning, it wasn’t the best, and now they’ve given me the opportunity.”
And perhaps more pertinent: What needed to change for Acosta to get another shot at proving he’s not only the best left back on the roster, but one of the top youngsters in Major League Soccer?
Petke said something, finally, clicked in Acosta.
RSL’s coach was waiting for Acosta to shape up, to become the good kind of predictable, knowing no matter what, Acosta was going to battle like he does with some of the leagues top attacking players.
That “click” is where Petke snaps his fingers, because an in-form Acosta was needed on the left side.
“I’m talking about growing up, professionalism, accountability,” Petke said, “not just showing up.”
This season so far has been a wake-up call, Acosta said. Every athlete believes they’re the ideal option, but the defender said he’s needed to hear it from multiple people this year that while he might have all the physical tools, that doesn’t make you any less accountable as an every day professional.
“I’m more mature this year and I say that this year it has taught me a lot of things,” Acosta said. “Now it’s up to me if I want to keep being a starter.”
RSL general manager Craig Waibel said all young talents go through the maturation process differently. Some never encounter bumps in the road, others take some time to adjust accordingly. Acosta, Waibel said, has grown immensely in recent months because he had to look in the mirror.
“We knew there was potential,” Waibel said. “For our club, it’s always the balance between the potential and performance.”
The performances have been there as of late. That capability on the left side of the RSL defense has helped spur the team into the thick of the Western Conference playoff mix. There’s still plenty of matches left, but Acosta’s return is an undeniable plus. In 23 career starts, RSL is 12-7-4 with him in the lineup.
It’s clear that when he’s on and locked in, he’s a cornerstone for the future.
“Danny knows where he stands with me always,” Petke said. “Right now, he’s our starting left back. That could change like that if his form drops or his attitude drops again or someone else comes up and takes the position.”
After a lengthy travel day back home, the starters went through a light practice at RSL’s complex in Herriman on Monday morning. They wrapped up the morning by playing keep-away which featured two people in the middle. Petke was participating, too, and eventually, it was he and Acosta in the middle — for no longer than five seconds before teaming up to disrupt the ball from moving around.
They briefly celebrated. After that, they went to opposite ends of the circle as the ball pinged around.
Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » 8 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 7-8-2, Sporting KC 9-3-5
Last meeting » Sporting KC 2-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium in U.S. Open Cup (June 6)
About KC » Sitting on 32 points, Sporting KC is tied for the best record in the Western Conference. … KC is coming off its first home loss of 2018, a 2-0 loss, to the Montreal Impact over the weekend. … A trio of attackers are tied for goals this year in Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez. … KC is 3-2-3 on the road so far this season.
About RSL » RSL does enjoy a home-field advantage in 2018 as it sports a 6-1-1 home record through eight matches. … RSL is tied for the second-worst goal differential in MLS with a minus-11 differential. … Midfielder Albert Rusnák is tied for the club lead in goals this year with four. … Four out of RSL’s next six matches are at home.